Who Makes the Sun Rise?

Have you seen the gorgeous children’s book Who Makes the Sun Rise, by writer/painter Lois Main Templeton? The concept: A rooster takes credit for daybreak because his call precedes it.

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Photo by Kamweti Mutu, via Flickr Creative Commons

We saw the artist’s work last weekend at the Indiana State Museum. Her abstract paintings often incorporate handwritten verbiage into intriguing and beautiful images. (Her story is inspiring—she started creating at the age of 51 and hasn’t stopped, though that was nearly 40 years ago.)

But to that rooster, and his question. I’ve been thinking about how the thing I want to grasp is always just a little farther on. I’m not talking only situations or possessions. I mean: How I want to be is how I am not now. I’d like to be braver, physically hardier, more sure of myself, more centered, more incisive, more evolved. Better.

But: Who makes the day break onto this ideal future self? My present self, with her choice to turn toward everything that is in the present.

I always have the choice to come closer to acceptance, or to distance myself from what is and fixate on some ideal I can’t possibly match.

So who is that elusive future self? The one who will clear out enough mental and physical and schedule space to finish her feckin book. That’s who. The one who will always work to dismantle oppressive structures, who will be properly assertive without alienating, who will see all projects to stunning completion and never get the least bit snippy.

Who will always match inner and outer.

Who will let go of perfectionism once and for all.

See how this future self is so great (embodying all opposing ideals) that she keeps me from loving the flawed being that I am, and will surely remain?

But if I can remember to sink into compassion just for one short moment, I might find that I have just enough courage, and can let go of just enough perfectionism, to do one small thing. Like write for 15 minutes nonstop about something that scares me. Or lift a small free weight. Or say no to one thing I really don’t want to do, so I can turn back to the book. Or say the uncomfortable thing that needs to be said, awkwardly but willingly.

Who makes the sun rise? Into that new dawn, shining bright? My present flawed self, with her choice to act—even if the action is less than well executed, even if she doesn’t know for sure what the hell she’s doing.

Agency, isn’t that what we all need? A sense that we are somehow making life roll on, creating the future. Which we are. We make the day break anew every day. Through the smallest of choices.

So I’ll join that rooster and say without apology: I make the sun rise.

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Prairie Skies

I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.

My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.

Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.

My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.

If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.

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My beloved and battered 1972 copy of the first volume.

 

My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.

(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)

The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.

Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.

Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.

Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.

We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.

Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.

What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.

So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.

When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).

We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.

For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.

Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.

Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.

A Tale of Two Projects

A  few years ago I was working on a book that took me to the west coast and parts of the Midwest to talk to people in the community resilience movement. I wrote a book proposal and shopped it around and had some mild interest from literary agents. I received a grant for research travel, and I was selected a trio of writing residencies, and I wrote a bunch of words.

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A photo from one of my sojourns–a Bloomington homeschooling cooperative based around permaculture principles.

I still have those words. Some of them have turned up in posts here and other places. (People seem consistently most intrigued by the Mudgirls natural building collective.) But I have yet to use them in some final-final form of Thrivalists. Every agent who loved the topic ended up declining because of my “thin platform.” They didn’t believe that I would garner enough readership, in other words, to make me worth the risk.

I began to disbelieve it myself. I added that to a bone-deep doubt that anything I could do would ever be good enough or come together coherently enough to produce a book.

I shelved the project, and began to work on another, supposedly interim, nonfiction book. It was supposed to be a six-month jaunt into something different-but-related: I would write of my own healing journey, and how it connected to the buried ruins of a 19th century women’s mental institution (“Seven Steeples”) where I was volunteering at a modern-day farm.

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Last week I toured a Traverse City, MI asylum of roughly the same era as Seven Steeples.

Two and a half years later…

Yeah.

Still working on that one. And I received a grant this year to further the project, which feels great! but also kind of heavy and dubious, since the first grant did not (yet) result in publication.

Next month I will hand my manuscript to a professional for editing services, thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission’s generosity.

In the meantime (while still freelancing in the farm profile arena) I periodically send out pieces of each work-in-progress to see if anyone is interested in publishing them as essays. Nope nope nope. (Though I’ve had a few very nice rejection notes!)

Till this month. To meet a shorter word count and fit a theme of “Roots,” I reworked a segment of Thrivalists about the role of fungi in rootedness. I incorporated some newer, slightly woo-woo material (sort of a mashup of both projects), and sent it to Topology Magazine. They published The Gift of the Fungi, which is ostensibly about what I learned at the Radical Mycology Convergence, but is also about coming to embrace a wider sense of possibility.

I felt a curious lack of enthusiasm for the news that the site would publish it. The old “any club that would have me as a member” dilemma? A sense that I could have snagged a higher profile outlet, if I’d persisted? Some of each.

Plus a sense of : “I went to California, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Ohio and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”

The end product is supposed to be a book, not a little online article.

Well, then a writing buddy reminded me of something Charles Eisenstein asked in a podcast : Would you write even if you had only one reader, even if you knew that that reader might take your words and change the world… but you’d never get credit for it? He wrote a piece about how this type of loyalty test first arose for him. An excellent read if you have time.

Why do we do what we do? What is our ultimate goal? If it’s about fulfilling our purpose, taking our place in the Divine scheme of things, then words like “platform” and “readership” are less important than resonating our truth.

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Spiderweb photo by Barbara Jablonski, taken at Eagle Creek Park

In the world we live in, money and fame are gods. What we have to offer doesn’t count unless it brings in income or gains huge exposure. Charles and my writing buddy and I refute that story, and I suspect we’re not alone in that.

Oh and by the way, some ideas are percolating about that old project as I hit the home stretch (?) of the new one. I haven’t seen the last of the inspiring Thrivalists that shared with me. I can tell because of the way my blood hums when I think of putting their stories in a wider frame.

Maybe I just needed to expand (not my platform but my being) before I could put the work out there. We’ll see.

“What Would Gene Stratton-Porter Do?”

After years of saying, “We should tour the Gene Stratton-Porter homes,” we finally visited two historic sites in the northeast corner of our state last week. We went to Rome City and Geneva to tour homes inhabited by Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th century author/conservationist/nature photographer.

You can be forgiven for not knowing her name, though she was beloved by our grandparents’ generation for her romance novels set against the backdrop of a disappearing wilderness. Even most Indiana residents are unfamiliar with the work of our state’s most widely read female author of all time. But in her day, she was embraced by enthusiastic fans all over the world.

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Portrait of Gene Stratton-Porter, via Creative Commons

Stratton-Porter married a well-to-do businessman who must have been a brave man to wed such an independent-minded woman. She “shed social conventions like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” to quote a book I’m reading about something completely different.

Hubby didn’t want her to explore the vast Limberlost Swamp, though they lived right on the edge of this intriguing wilderness. At that time the marshland (later to be drained for farming and drilled for oil) was dangerous uncharted territory—teeming with Massasauga rattlesnakes, boggy muck, swarms of insects, and the occasional unsavory character.

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Limberlost Cabin in Geneva, where Gene Stratton-Porter began her writing and photography career. Her many-windowed conservatory is facing us.

But Stratton-Porter’s love of the natural world compelled her, and in the end her husband relented, accompanying her on expeditions to photograph wildlife and collect specimens.

Her best-known book A Girl of the Limberlost, among others both fiction and nonfiction, brought this place to life for people worldwide. One of our guides told us that she’d worked out a deal with her publisher: I will write you a crowd-pleasing story as you require (heavy on nature details), and then I will write a nature book of my own choosing. Rinse. Repeat.

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She helped build this low stone wall around Limberlost Cabin, with openings for wildlife.

We learned that she wore what was considered mannish clothing, that she served her husband dandelion and horseradish stew with hambone (he dubbed it “fodder”), that she organized a bucket brigade the night her husband’s businesses were threatened by fire while he was away. This woman was, in modern parlance, fierce.

I went on this trip mildly interested in her as a part of Indiana’s literary history, having read A Girl of the Limberlost sometime back. But I came away as full-on fangirl. I jokingly told a friend that my new philosophy should be “What would GSP do?” (except for the ironic not-driving thing—apparently she was afraid to drive, and in fact was killed in a car wreck at age 61).

So, what would she do?

  • She’d hyphenate her name as her nom de plume, well before the time when women commonly retained their family names.
  • She’d drop out of high school, but attend Chautauqua meetings for her own edification.
  • She’d monitor all the bird nests on her family’s farm as a child, honing her powers of observation and her connection to wild creatures.
  • She’d teach herself photography, developing early box-camera pictures in a bathroom that she converted into a darkroom.
  • She’d purchase a piece of land on a mile of lakefront, and design her own home, and supervise its construction, rowing across the lake every morning to check on the workmen. (Husband came on weekends.)
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Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake, the house that she designed and used as creative workshop.

  • She’d collect stones from her friends’ travels, from all then-48 states, and build a fireplace using them, creating images in the stonework’s artful placement.
  • She’d sleep with cocoons, so as to be ready when the butterfly emerged. She’d live in a houseful of winged creatures. (Later, she would write of her realization that the only ethical way to interact with these creatures was in their native habitat, so presumably she no longer kept them indoors.)
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Where she slept with cocoons. Note them hanging from the bedframe and gathered on her bedside table.

  • She’d be exacting in the execution of her creative vision. If a photograph didn’t come out right, she’d return as many times as it took to get the one she wanted. No matter how treacherous or buggy the territory might be.
  • She’d carry on with her work even as literary critics and scientists alike dismissed her; she’d see herself as a defender of the places and animals she loved.

From What I Have Done with Birds:

“This is the basis of all my field work—a mute contract between woman and bird. In spirit I say to the birds, ‘Trust me and I will do by you as I would be done by … I shall not tear down your home and break your eggs or take your naked little ones from the nest before they are ready to go … I shall come in colors to which you are accustomed, and move slowly and softly about, not approaching you too near until your confidence in me is established. I shall be most careful to feed your young what you feed them; drive away snakes and squirrels, and protect you in every way possible to me. Trust me, and go on with your daily life. For what small disturbance is unavoidable among you, forgive me, and through it I shall try to win thousands to love and shield you.’”

I found loads more information on this fascinating figure in an Indiana Historian article. And of course we bought several books that I’m looking forward to diving into.

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In the shadow of Wildflower Woods cabin, looking over Sylvan Lake.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I don’t very often blog about my personal writing project(s), but the terrific nature writer Katherine Hauswirth nominated me for a “blog hop” (writers sharing about their work). So, bear with me as I answer a few questions…

What is the working title of your book (or story)?
Thrivalists: Reimagining the World in an Age of Crisis is the working title of the nonfiction book I’m currently “shopping.” It’s in research/pitching phase, and in the meantime I’ve started work on another project, as yet untitled. Also, some of my articles and essays are linked here.

Where did the idea come from for these books?
Thrivalists came about when I realized how little media attention goes to the people who are pulling together to make a major shift on our planet. I’m so inspired by the community resilience movement and all its permutations. My goal with the book is to shine a light on folks working toward greater ecological/economic/social balance. (Secondary goal and total bonus: to get to rub elbows with fun people and learn all kinds of mad skillz.)

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

The second project is a work of creative nonfiction exploring my 15-year recovery from fibromyalgia, culminating in emergence of my own healing abilities. Part of my inspiration came from Seven Steeples Farm, where I’m helping to grow produce right where an 1880s-era women’s mental institution once stood.

What genre do your books fall under?
Creative nonfiction, tending toward memoir on the new project. Thrivalists is closer to immersion journalism, still with an element of memoir, and the book would be shelved under Green Living/Activism.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m thinking Julianne Moore could play this Mudgirl, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten on that question!

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oof. Can I buy a sentence?

During a season of tending crops at Seven Steeples Farm, where the tomatoes and peas grow from ground that once held a 19th century mental institution for women, Shawndra Miller explores the turn in her own life from a 15-year bout with a debilitating mind/body ailment. While working the land she reflects on a wider societal transformation embodied by Seven Steeples, where something new is growing on the shell of the old.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m open at this point. My book proposal for Thrivalists has been making the rounds of agents and small presses. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the process of discovery on the new project, while continuing to explore and highlight the community resilience movement.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The original Thrivalists book proposal, with a couple sample chapters, took about six months, but I keep adding to it as I travel and research, so it’s a moving target. The new one is still very young.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Thrivalists is a bit like Omnivore’s Dilemma in the way that the author’s process of research and discovery pulls the reader along. In subject matter, it’s close to Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

It’s hard to say on the new project since it needs more time to bake, but it might be compared to When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m inspired by Charles Eisenstein’s work, in particular The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Without a massive consciousness shift, no amount of environmental activism or social change work will alter the bottom line of a culture built on dominance, control, and fear. That’s part of what I want to explore in the new project.

Thanks to Katherine Hauswirth for tagging me with this assignment! I nominate Julie Stewart, writer-and-farmer-in-residence at Urban Plot, to do the next blog hop.

Love Where You Live

I asked for a magnifying glass in my Christmas stocking this year. I’d just read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent book Crow Planet, in which she advocates becoming a “citizen naturalist.” I aspire to that: to take the time to look closely at nature, right here in the urban habitat. (She takes up a similar theme in The Urban Bestiary, which I enjoyed just as much.)

I wish I’d had the magnifying glass with me the other day when I was walking my dog and spotted the first yellow crocuses popping up. I could have fallen on my knees in front of them. I love the beauty of winter, but after days on end of white/gray/black/brown, that splooch of color just about knocks me out.

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry has written of the importance of “backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong.” As we make this shift, he says, we also move our focus from an abstraction called “the environment” into the places where we actually live.

This makes sense. When I co-founded the Irvington Green Initiative some years back, we settled on the tagline “Love Where You Live.”

The notion was echoed by my friend Maggie Goeglein Hanna, executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center. In a recent conversation, she said:

“I feel like you can’t really expect people to care about the natural world if they have no investment in their own place … In my mind, environmental solutions aren’t going to come if we’re only concerned about the pandas in China or the rainforest in the Amazon. Those are important things, but so is our own place, and it won’t ever get better if we all don’t take care of our own place.”

She went on to say that organic gardening in a community setting, as at Fall Creek Gardens, is a way of “opening up the conversation.” Finding earthworms in ground that used to be compacted dirt, watching a family of mockingbirds, planting seeds—all of these root us in the soil that nurtures us.

So with spring officially just hours away (wahoo!) (at least in the northern hemisphere), I’m doing more than planning this year’s garden. I’m renewing my commitment to enjoying the place where I live, and to observing the creatures and plants that share it with me.

What about you: What does it mean to love where you live?