Denver and Mr. Ron

In my lesson on charity this morning, I included a reference to a recent novel chosen by my book club, Same Kind of Different as Me, and I decided to review the book here. This is actually a revised version of a review I posted at Amazon.com a couple of weeks ago. Truthfully, it took two years and two attempts before I was hooked by this book. When my son-in-law Charlie gave it to me and described it as “wonderful,” I began reading it right away. I stuck it out for two nights, but I couldn’t get into it for some reason.

“Where did the author come up with such a character as Denver?” I wondered. Could anyone have such a poor and miserable life? I knew that poverty, homelessness, and prejudice were serious issues in our society, but I just didn’t want to be reminded of it right before falling asleep. Plus, the dialect annoyed me. Did the author really have to make people from the South sound so illiterate and backwards? Then Ron entered the picture, and while I thought the accounts of life in the 1960s were pretty interesting, I began to get irritated with this character too. Was the reader supposed to believe that someone would wear matching plaid shirts and shorts, black knee socks, and brogans to a college football game in the 1960’s?

When my book club chose it for our March selection, I picked it up again. “Surely there’s something redeeming about this book for so many people to love it,” I thought. I downloaded it on my Kindle and listened to it on the way to and from work. It wasn’t long before I got involved in the lives of these two men, Denver and Ron, wondering when their lives would intersect. Living parallel lives in different parts of the country, their experiences couldn’t have been more different. One was an illiterate black man who, tired of being poor in Louisiana, hopped on a train and ended up homeless in Fort Worth. The other was a white millionaire, a college grad who seemed to live a charmed existence. Married to Miss Debbie, he was a successful art dealer.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that the book was true…not based on truth, but absolutely true and told by the men who lived the stories. I’ll leave it up to you to read where and when and how their friendship began and grew. I’ll just say that the millionaire who set out to be a do-gooder philanthropist and the former sharecropper who later had a front row seat at a presidential inauguration were forever transformed by their shared experiences. Interestingly, the one who set out to give ended up being on the receiving end. He broadened my thinking too; because of Denver, I’m using Micah 6:8 as yet another guide for living my life.

As the book progresses, Denver and Ron take turns telling their life stories and their individual perceptions of the events described in the book. Each of them shares scenes so descriptive that the reader can see them and feel their essence. Whether Rocky Top, rural Louisiana, the “hood,” or the homeless shelter is being described, they all seem real. Denver’s visions of spirits, occasional scripture references, and pithy words of wisdom are as thought provoking and interesting as Ron’s big art deals and spiritual transformation.

The person who served as a catalyst for the book was Miss Debbie. Denver and Ron loved her, and so will you. Even as I type this, I’m wondering if I can persuade my husband to go to Fort Worth during Spring Break. There are some people I want to meet there…and an art gallery I want to visit.

Francie’s Genes

We had book club at my house last week, and the book under discussion was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It’s a semi-autographical book that gives a glimpse of what life was like in the early part of the 20th century in the bustling area of Brooklyn. The poverty that the Nolans endure permeates the book, but there are high points and memorable characters (like Aunt Sissy) as well. It’s a coming of age book about young Francie, but other themes such as hard work, gender issues, the American dream, love, class divisions, hope, and the importance of education are there too.

As is our usual practice, we each discussed our favorite or most memorable part of the book, and mine was about the unique “mix” that Francie was. Indeed, we’re all like her in that we’re all unique combinations of our heredity, environment, and that special X factor. In a rather lengthy paragraph that begins with, “And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans,” the author proceeds to pinpoint many of Francie’s traits and state where they came from. For instance, she got her tale-telling and compassion for the weak from her grandmother Rommely and the talent for mimicking from Aunt Evy.

 

Haven’t you ever wondered where you got your curly hair or your propensity for math? And what about your shyness? Is it hereditary? Look at the recent feats of Michael Phelps and consider his genetic endowment. Several commentators have mentioned his long torso, short (relatively speaking) legs, and wide arm span, all physical attributes that aid in his swimming prowess. Couple those traits with his strong drive to achieve and his hour after hour after hour practice, and you have the making of a champion. And yet, is there something else too? Something else about Michael Phelps, Francie Nolan, and you??

 

Further describing Francie, the author  states,  “She was all of these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.’

You’ve gotta love that!

Listen to your Broccoli

Titles are important. I probably wouldn’t have read a book entitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, but I was captivated by one titled Bird by Bird. What could such a book tell me about life and writing? Whatever it was, the title itself held the promise of something fun, a little offbeat, and yes, instructive too. I wasn’t wrong. This, to me, is one of the best books I’ve ever read about writing. Although I’m not a fiction writer, Lamott’s wit and wisdom applies to me and to anyone else who’s ever felt the desire to put pen to paper…or fingers to keyboard.Everyone who reads Bird by Bird will find something to appreciate. I like the way Lamott shares such wonderful advice while sharing experiences from her life. Her love for her father, Sam, and Pammy are there; so are her impressions from the nursing home, the Special Olympics, school lunches, and the death of a five-month-old child. Sad but funny is the experience with her agent who said, “I’m sorry.” Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

Are there secrets to writing? Yes and no. Lamott credits the “secret” to Natalie Goldberg who, when someone asked her for the best possible writing advice she had to offer, held up a yellow legal pad, pretended her fingers held a pen, and scribbled away. When Lamott’s students ask her that question, she picks up a piece of paper and pantomimes scribbling. In other words, just do it. Oh, and when you’re scribbling away, remember that “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

To give you an idea of Lamott’s sense of humor, she quotes a friend who says that the first draft is the down draft because you focus on getting it down. The second is the up draft, the one that you fix it up. “And the third draft is dental draft, where you check very tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” Gotta love that!

For anyone tired of reading about dangling modifiers and pronoun agreement, read something refreshing like Bird by Bird. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’re curious about the title of this post, then you’ll have to read the chapter called “Broccoli.”

 

 

Sea Shells by the Seashore

When summer comes, I find myself getting beach fever and can hardly muster the energy and will to go to work. For 28 years, even though I was working about 15 miles from the strand itself, I could “sense” the nearness of the ocean’s roar and the sandy beach with the sea birds standing as sentinels as they looked “as one” at some sight unseen by my human eyes. Now, 130 miles away, it’s not so easy. Sure, the warm wave pools are still there, as are the squealing children, the shell seekers, and the incoming waves. It’s just not the same, though. I need a vacation, a weekend trip to the seashore.

 

What is the hold that a beach has on me? Whatever it is, I think it casts the same spell on millions of others as well. Last week, I came across a little book entitled Gift from the Sea that I read many years ago when I was a younger mother. There were many passages that spoke to my life and situation at the time, and when I skimmed the book yesterday, I was amazed to see all of the things I had underlined. The passages took me down memory lane as I recalled the sometimes overwhelming responsibilities and “occupations” that I had, most of them centered around the home and family. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author of this timeless volume, remarks that that saints were rarely married women because of the distractions inherent in raising children and running a house. “Human relationships with their myriad pulls–woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life.”

 

Although it was written many decades ago, the challenges and issues faced by Lindbergh are the same ones faced by women in today’s crazy, bustling world. In fact, although women in Siberia, Cameroon, or Ceylon might not have her specific set of circumstances, they can still identify with Lindbergh’s ponderings about a woman’s life, her obligations, her relationships, and her needs. She lived in an upscale suburb of Connecticut and was the mother of five children, and yet there’s something in her writing that can touch the souls of women everywhere whether in a grass hut, McMansion, or mountain shack.

 

The chapters in Gift from the Sea center on Lindbergh’s musings during a two-week vacation at the shore. Leaving husband, children, and house behind, she lives in a bare beach cabin without heat, telephone, plumbing, hot water, rugs, or curtains. Loving her simple beach life, Lindbergh takes a shell at a time and describes it in relation to other things in a woman’s life. For instance, the moon shell reminds her that quiet time, solitude, contemplation, and “something of one’s own” is needed. The double-sunrise represents the pure relationship found in early stages of friendship and marriage, and she reminds the reader that there is no permanent return to an old form of relationship since all are in the process of change. The oyster bed symbolizes the middle years of marriage and family, especially as the home itself grows and expands to accommodate the growing family.

 

Now in midlife, I can better understand her affinity for all the shells as reminders that each cycle of the wave, the tide, and the relationship is valid. When Lindbergh leaves her seaside home away from home, she sweeps several shells into her pocket to remind her that the sea recedes and returns eternally. The shells serve as her “island eyes” and remind her of lessons learned about solitude, closeness to nature, life of the spirit, and the cycles of human relationships. I probably have a hundred or more shells at home, most of which are on my back porch. Thanks to re-reading this book, now I can better understand their significance and symbolism.

 

As a P.S., my DH and I are going to Myrtle Beach for a few days during the week of the Fourth. I think he’s planning to play golf, read, and eat shrimp and oystsers. I’m planning to read, walk, relax, and people watch ON THE BEACH. And yes, I have plenty of sunscreen, Doc.

Selling Your Life

I just finished reading a book that’s made a profound difference in how I view work. Entitled Nickel and Dimed, it’s by Barbara Ehrenreich and tells of her year-long foray into the world of minimum wage jobs. Waitress, nursing home aide, hotel maid, cleaning lady with The Maids, and “Wal-Martian” were a few of the jobs she held while subsisting on meager compensation and living in inadequate housing. Ha Ha. To call her accommodations “housing” is pretty funny. How many of you have ever gone “home” from work to find your landlord standing in your room to inform you that there’s been a little sewage problem and that, in fact, it’s in your room?

 

There’s so much I could say about Dr. Ehrenreich’s experiences, but today I want to zero in on a paragraph in which she’s describing her perceptions of her Wal-Mart tenure.  “You could get old pretty fast here. In fact, time does funny things when there are no little surprises to mark it off into memorable chunks, and I sense that I ‘m already several years older than I was when I started….Yes, I know that any day now I’m going to return to the variety and drama of my real Barbara Ehrenreich life. But this fact sustains me only in the way that, say, the prospect of heaven cheers a terminally ill person: it’s nice to know, but it isn’t much help from moment to moment. What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.”

 

Selling your time by the hour is actually selling your life! This fits into nicely to something I’ve been writing about for a few months, the idea that what you do for a living, if you do it long enough, will eventually become a way of making a life. That said, I don’t know why more people don’t spend the time and effort necessary to make their lives rewarding.  

 

What you do, your self concept, your friends, what you think about, what neighborhood or community you live in, your income level, your status, your health, and just about every other aspect concerning adult life is related to occupational choice. I’m not big on statistics, but I’d venture to say that perhaps as much as 90 percent of your happiness or misery can hang on occupational choice.

 

Let’s start by thinking of our work as a calling, a vocation, instead of a job. Then read her book if you dare.

 

A Man on a Mission

I just finished reading The Preacher and the Presidents, a book about evangelist Billy Graham and his relationship with eleven U.S. presidents and their wives and families.  While I was at times bored with the details of political plans and strategies, I was fascinated with Dr. Graham’s basic character and his manner of reaching both the high and the low among us mortals.

Although I’ve never attended one of his crusades, I have listened to snippets of many of his sermons. I also have a daily devotional book of his that I purchased at a mountainside flea market and keep on my bookcase at work. It’s entitled Day by Day with Billy Graham, and it’s soothed my soul on many a crazy, stressful day. I’ve always known that he was a charismatic and effective evangelist, but I didn’t realize just how phenomenal he was (and is) until reading the book about his relationship with the presidents from Truman to Bush (both of them).

The essence of the book is that although Dr. Graham associated with the powerful movers and shakers of the world (yes the world), he always remained humble and spiritual. Certain of his mission to spread the good news of the gospel, he wasn’t wowed by money, fame, or fortune.  In fact, as I read about the presidents and other world leaders, I realized that Dr. Graham probably touched more lives in a positive way (worldwide) than any political leader. Even so, he was not without his critics and pundits. Amazingly, he was often cricitcized for being too forgiving, too conciliatory, and not judgmental enough. Huh??? And get this, many of those criticisms came from well-known religious leaders.

The gist of Dr. Grahams’s message is this: We all want to be loved, both the prince and the pauper, and God truly loves us all.  If you want to read details of luncheon dates, prayer breakfasts, golf matches, and traveling to Russia, read the book. My most lasting impression is that Billy Graham remained a man of integrity and faith despite his access to the rich and powerful.  

Reviewer or Critic?

Last week I learned that someone had written a review on my book, and it made me so happy that I wanted to do the same for someone else, pay it forward so to speak. It was easy. All I did was go to Amazon.com, find her book (Getting Maisie Married by Martha Alston), and write the review. Not too long, not too short, just right. In fact, Amazon provides guidelines that are quite helpful. It was fun and rewarding so I decided to write a few more.

Where have I been???? Seems like everyone and her sister have been in on the bandwagon except for me. My elation soon turned to sadness, however, as I read so many negative comments by readers across America. By negative, I really mean hateful, cruel, cutting, stinging, caustic, and acerbic. What would prompt a person to be so brutally vindictive towards a fellow human being?

Yes, I’ve read books that were poorly written, had no plot, were “simple,” or sophomoric, and yet I never felt compelled to berate the author or his creation in front of the world. What’s the point of that? To make oneself feel superior? To gain respect? To wound the author? To me, reviewer and critic are different terms with different meanings.  

My sweet momma always told me not to say anything unless I could say something nice, and I try (with limited success) to follow her advice. Like all mortals, I slip and fall…usually quite often And doesn’t the Bible warn us repeatedly of the power of words?

So what’s up with these mean comments? Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. If so, please straight me out. In the meantime, I’m going to put even more effort into speaking and writing kind words. Will you join me?