20 May 2012

Dolls & Other Ghosts: a photoessay

Once there was a girl...

Who found someone to love her...

and she knew happiness for a little while.

Until she realized that her hand was held by a shadow...

...and really she was all alone...

...and that made her feel...

...like she was behind a screen and heavy black bars...

...and getting further & further away...

...until her heart split down the middle...
And she left.

All photos by Heidi Utz, fall 2007

15 May 2012

A Remembrance of Bookstores Past

Nicholas Hoare, Toronto

A decade ago one of our semi-largish city's mega bookstores was crammed to the gills with not only the newest and most enticing, but a selection of back list so huge I could barely take it all in in one visit. I won’t name names here, but this well-respected independent store once felt like a very good reason to live in a city: because resources like this existed.

Tonight I decided to pay it a visit, eagerly anticipating a hit of "big-city culture." Here in the land where mediocrity can be neither spelled nor defined,  I should have known I was shooting the moon. But as I started browsing, I quickly realized that this place was a shadow of its former self. First of all, no one was in it. (OK, Tues. night, but still…) Second of all, it held a LOT fewer books--and a lot fewer shelves, sparsely filled. The few lonely books appeared to be huddling together for warmth, with big gaps around them. Around the square-footage strode a small pack of roving booksellers, loudly accosting customers, asking them what they were looking for, and practically begging for the opportunity to drag them to the book. It was unseemly, obnoxious, and made me long for those rat’s nest bookstores where the employees keep their heads bent down over Spinoza and don’t utter a single word unless you beseech them. As I walked in to Anonymous Bookstore One, the cashier/greeter even let loose a fist pump, expressing approval of my T-shirt. Sigh. I guess if I’m hoping for comportment, I should do my book shopping in Boston instead of Relentlessly Blue Collarquerque.

Gotham Book Mart, NYC
Tangentially, as I stood on line for our monthly library book sale last weekend, I overheard a dealer saying that most of the smaller bookstores in NYC, save The Strand, had closed. And The Strand’s stock is apparently now quite different, much less obscure, more oriented toward bestsellers than it used to be. I recalled all the cute little shops we used to browse—Mysteries and More, the Gotham Book Mart (“Wise men fish here”), Coliseum Books, the gay bookstore in the West Village—and began to ponder their fates. Then of course I needed to know…Googled, and gulped. I realized that if the axe had swung on all these venerable shops in the heart of the civilized world, the rest of the country is somewhere between life support and Last Rites.

Livraria Lello, Oporto, Portugal
I’m trying to believe that the booksellers' demise is NOT related to the “dumbing down of America.” I’m trying to believe that people are NOT reading fewer books because they’re doing their reading online. I’m trying to believe that it’s NOT about the fact that an increasing number of kids graduate high school barely knowing how to read. But as I walk around this airy square footage, it’s like hiking through a clear-cut forest. And then an ugly little voice whispers, “Enjoy it now. In the future, this will be a fond memory.” The memory of when you used to be able to go browse in a bookstore. To pick up titles of interest and scan them without necessarily buying them. To carry a book to a table and pore over it while sipping tea. To take it home the same night you bought it and read it right away.

I realized that what I was standing in was a dearly loved piece of my past 50 years—one that might not continue into the future. And it made me extremely sad.

I don’t want to live in an ├╝ber-digital world in which little is tangible. Specifically, I don’t want to live in a world in which media isn’t tangible. I like being able to pick up a volume I own and see the notes I made, or the coffee stains, or even just the bookmark at where I stopped reading. This taps directly into memory, evoking a whole time in my life—the week or month when I was reading this book, what was happening around me. Was I reading it in bed with my lover? Were we reading it over the phone to each other? Was I using it to comfort me during a time when I felt alone? Was it the volume that made me decide to enter my spiritual practice? Was it the book I carried in my backpack while hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Proust 1, Nook 0
These recollections simply don’t happen from seeing a book as a file on a Kindle. Even Marcel Proust could not wring a memory out of a Nook download. These memories emerge via seeing, touching, and smelling a book. Or a record album. Though my albums are currently in storage, I could pull them out tomorrow and each would bring back a part of my life and a deluge of memories. I might even be able to tell you why its cover had that stain, crease, or tear on it. Try that with your iPod.

It’s sad to realize that the almighty price point has killed yet another institution that many of us have held sacred throughout our lives. One that provided not only books, but community and the chance to see human eyeballs (even if their owners fist-pumped you at the register). And yet, it’s also tough to live in an economy so poor that it’s made people choose between buying a book or buying groceries. As much as it’s easy to rant, “Why don’t those idiots support their local bookstore instead of buying online?!” it’s also tough to justify paying $35. for a hardcover when you’ve seen it on Amazon for a penny—especially when you’re $100 short on the rent and that hardcover costs 5 hours of your pay.

My point is not to find something or someone to blame. (If that were my point, I’d quite certainly opt for George W. Bush.) My point is to express sadness for a part of the world that I’ll really miss when it’s gone. Sure, life goes on. We can all sit in our dark houses alone and scroll through the latest Danielle Steele on our Kindles. But if that’s what it comes to, please take my carcass out back and toss me to the wolves.

**Please note that the Canadian and Portuguese bookstores shown above have not gone out of business. I show them only as examples of how amazing bookstores can be.

09 May 2012

Cheryl Strayed's Walk on the Wild Side

  Disclaimer: It’s tough to dispassionately review a book when someone else seems to be writing your life. When you share so much geographical and emotional common ground that it becomes both compelling and a bit scary to read the evidence. You’ve been their shadow—or have they been yours? But shared experience is a tricky thing. What if they tell the tale all wrong? Arrive at distinctly different conclusions? Botch the job? Conversely… what if this stranger seems to shoulder the very thing you thought was yours alone to bear? What if they uncover something you’ve never realized? Shine a light on the most painful part of your past such that you recognize your own strength in having endured it? This may be the ultimate goal in reading: to find a kindred spirit who helps you better understand your own journey. And while not everyone has shared this particular junket, I’m sure that its major themes will resonate for many.

Wild. The very word connotes the primordial ooze, a place where ideas are born in the midst of the natural world, where there’s freedom to go places we wouldn’t in everyday life. Where we are released into something that frees us to explore parts of ourself we hadn’t known before, and in the process stand eye-to-eye with many things that scare us. Indeed, wilderness is the land of the real, not the land of the metaphorical challenge. And for most of us framed into the workaday world, it’s a place in which we spend little time, as life seems to demand riding the conveyor belt of familiarity.

From this world, author Cheryl really did stray, changing her name for a reason: a determination to depart from the life she was given and to shape hers in radically different ways than what seemed her fate. This passage began when she lost the mother she adored to cancer at the age of 22. My own mom died of breast cancer when I was about the same age, and it remains the single most painful event of my life. After 9 years of caring for her, I can well-relate to the psychic chaos that descends when Strayed realizes how very different life will look without her mother’s anchoring presence. As I did, the author spends several years feeling completely adrift, wandering. She attempts to assuage her grief through a marriage to which she can’t commit, affairs, heroin, and frequent “geographical cures.” Nothing seems to ease the anguish. But as she spirals downward, a book about thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) appears, and she reads it cover-to-cover.

While this might not sound odd to an REI geek, Strayed is no veteran hiker. At the age of 26, she’s young, passably fit, acquainted but not intimate with the outdoors—and motivated to believe that several months on the trail could give her perspective on her life and a literal path forward.

Strayed embraces her solo-hike the way any young adult might: heavy on enthusiasm, light on practicality. For starters, there’s her pack, “Monster,” which must have tipped the scales at 75-80 pounds when Strayed began straying. In fact, she spends many pages describing how exceedingly difficult it was just to carry the Monster on her back. While this scenario bleeds metaphor, and readers her parents’ age will find it annoyingly short-sighted, it becomes a significant part of her proving her mettle. What she lacks in executive function, she seems to make up for in raw tenacity. And her ability to endure misery reacquaints her with her own inner resources.

“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

In the summer of 2008, when I was working through my seemingly doomed relationship with a person I deeply loved, I bounded into the Pacific Northwest with the tempest of my confusion. And as echoes of our endless fights rang in my ears, I distinctly remember walking the PCT craving healing, wanting to give all the words I’d misspoken and things I’d done wrong to the redwoods that bathed me in their consoling, ancient presence. Like Strayed, I welcomed the uncomplicated clarity that walking in nature conferred on me, the simplicity of trees that had weathered so many storms and yet still stood upright, keening toward the summer sky.

As a writer, Strayed does many things well, and her technique is so subtle that readers might not realize just how skilled she is. She seamlessly weaves flashbacks to the specifics of her mom’s death with present-day narrative, which is hard to do well. It feels like the reverie a hiker enters when a tree, rock, or cloud evokes memory recalled to the rhythm of foot touching dirt.

Of the many evocative scenes in the book, one stands out as one of the saddest and most poignant I’ve ever read. In it, Strayed realizes her mother’s favorite horse must be put down, and her family must be the ones to do the deed. But when the aged horse refuses to succumb, Strayed’s fantasy of her mother’s riding Lady to the other side devolves into the harsh light of killing a beloved family pet. After I read it, I literally threw the book across the room. One of death's many aftershocks is realizing that you’re still earthbound, and need to deal with the things that were so precious to the person you loved.

But Wild is not emotionally overwrought or desperate, in the ways that Eat, Pray, Love can be every now and then. And while the female body count on the PCT may increase in the next few years, the book is not as overtly feminist, or urging, in its tone. God willing, there will be no commercial tours following in the author’s footsteps, as there have been with EPL. And though I adore EPL, I find Strayed’s comparative restraint a good thing. Though not as gooey and effusive as Gilbert’s can be, her insights are spot-on.

I like this passage:

“I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke. That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have and always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore. There were so many other amazing things in this world.”

Like Gilbert, Strayed ultimately derives a profound sense of self-acceptance from her long journey. In one revelatory paragraph, she begins to get that she can forgive herself for betraying her husband. “What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all of those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what had got me here?”

This was the graf that took the 500-pound backpack of guilt I’d also been shouldering and left it by the side of the road. Because, of course, it’s true. We only get to where we are by living through what we do, and making choices we believe at the time are right. And their rightness extends to an existential level, as they are the chips of the chisel that shape us into the people we are meant to become.

My own walkabout took me to a town Strayed also knows: Ashland, Oregon. In addition to being overtly quirky and magical, Ashland plays temporary host to many PCT thru-hikers, whom you’ll often see at the post office, retrieving their resupply boxes (the value of which can’t be underestimated).  I stayed in the same room Strayed did at the Ashland Hostel, and encountered plenty of thru-hikers, who dazzled me with their filthy roguishness and earthy charm. One morning I overheard a phone conversation between a skirt-clad hiker and her parent, and as she begged for another month’s subsidy to finish the trek. And when she hung up, after fighting for this like a mother bear defending her cubs, I apprehended her completely differently: I knew what a significant, all-encompassing journey she was enveloped in. How we both were undertaking a quest away from civilization that would shift our paradigms for the rest of our lives.

Though my own trip was not as strenuous as that of a PCT hiker, after it my life did indeed change, and I found some of the strength and context and meaning I’d been craving. Like Strayed, I understood how to ride out the many obstacles that come when traveling and camping. And how enduring them and finding solutions and making it to the other side gets you very familiar with how strong and tenacious a mofo you can be. When you’re left early without a mother, these are facts that it takes time to learn--and taking care of yourself goes from being a great mystery to a necessity to a point of pride.

Strayed is at her best when she shows us not only this painful part of her life, but the path that brought her insight into and transcendence over it.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A. Knopf; 315 pages; $25.95)
For a followup on this piece, about the 2012 thru-hiking season in OR and the influence of this book, please see my 7/13 entry.

02 May 2012

The Truest Short Film Ever Made: Henri, Paw de Deux

Will Braden (aka Henri) has indeed encapsulated life's many truths. I fear I'm now too exhausted to issue further comment...