July 12, 2014
I got home last night from a week at World Fellowship Center, a progressive camp and conference center in New Hampshire dedicated to peace, social justice and nature. Summer camp for grown ups – that’s what I called it the first time I went there. It was 1982, I think, and Robby and our daughters drove up for a Red Diaper Baby conference. Over the decades since then, we keep returning, summer after summer. Here’s why:
1. The people. The folks who work there (Andy and Andrea and Howie and Ekere and the rest of the staff) and those who attend. World Fellowship is the kind of place where you can walk into the dining room alone and sit down at one of the long, family-style tables in the dining room, and within ten minutes you have figured out three or four connections with other guests – people you know in common, neighborhoods you’ve lived in, political groups you’ve worked with, passions you share for books or music or art or activism. A great pleasure, if you return, is rekindling those friendships. I was delighted this week to have a change to hang out with Jessica and Ethan and Holly and Alice and Alex, and to make a wonderful new friend, Aurora.
2. The setting. Over 450 acres in the southeast corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in the metaphorical shadow of Mount Chocorua. There’s amazing hiking and biking. There are loons on Whitton Pond, along with swimming, canoeing, rowing, kayaking, blueberry picking. Every day, Howie (CEO of the recreation department. Actually, the whole recreation department) offers organized outdoor activities or suggestions for the exact level and length of view of the trip you want. Or, there’s my personal favorite way to enjoy the setting – settling in an easy chair on the huge wraparound screened porch to read, talk, work on a communal puzzle, nap, or gaze at Chocorua. Priceless.
3. The programs. Choose from a wide and rich variety of arts offerings and body movement groups, plus intensive programs and evening events and concerts and performances. This year I taught a weeklong fiction workshop (part of the Mount Chocorua Writers Retreat), and Robby and I led an evening program/discussion titled Writing our Hot Planet. The 2014 summer includes programs ranging from early music to mass incarceration, from Feldenkrais to global capitalism in Bangladesh, from Zombies to Clamshell Alliance and Zoning out Fracking to a ukelele festival and Why Fungi Matter and Theatre of the Oppressed. Whew and Wow!
At World Fellowship, I feel so connected to the natural world and to a community of people who care. I think of it as part of the Commons – the precious public places and heritages that communities share for the benefit of all, where we nourish, renew and teach each other, where we inspire each other and ourselves to go out and change the world.
I’m just home, still doing laundry and scratching mosquito bites, but I’m already thinking about next summer…
July 6, 2014
I probably shouldn’t talk about A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra again, because I included it in my favorite reads of 2013 post. But I can’t help myself. I recently read this book for the third time, in order to have it fresh in my mind when I led a book group discussion, and I still think it’s the one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll just repeat that it is set in war-time Chechnya and is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous, offering a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers. Meyers knows a lot about emotional battlegrounds. In her third novel (MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS and THE COMFORT OF LIES) Meyers peels back the layers of a family in crisis. She reveals the clashing truths about Maddy and Ben’s marriage from three points of view, in three unique voices. I cared deeply about each of these characters, each searching for a way back from disaster. A veteran of domestic violence programs and interventions, Meyers refuses to settle for convenient excuses or easy answers. This book broke my heart and then began to mend it. Pub date is early September.
Also coming this fall is DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh. I met Champa seven years ago in a fiction workshop at Sewanee Writers Conference, where we had each submitted a novel chapter. I still vividly remember her chapter about a young Brahmin girl, widowed and shorn and ostracized from life by the customs of the time. It was a hot July in Tennessee and Champa’s chapter was set in southern India. The writing was rich with the smell of flowers and the sheen of perspiration. I still have vivid memories of the beat of the music Champa described, and the gender politics that were so much a part of her story. So I was delighted to hear from Champa that her novel DESIRE OF THE MOTH was being published by Upset Press. And even more delighted to read the finished manuscript and return to that critical time in Indian political history and to the story of a fifteen-year-old girl learning about liberation and making art.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This one of those big books in which you can lose yourself and the present day, and then emerge feeling new and even hopeful. In evocative prose, Doerr gives us two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who grow up into the chaos of World War II. Doerr’s characters have unique and fierce intellectual concerns that intersect with the social and political events in their countries, creating ripples I’m still thinking about. One of my very favorites of 2014 so far.
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston. One of the things I liked best about this novel is its restraint. It would have been so easy for the author, writing about the disappearance and reappearance of a kidnapped boy, to fall into melodrama and sentimentality. Instead, writing with finely controlled prose and emotional candor, Johnston turns that fraught literary trope on its head and dismantles it, giving us a complicated and devastating portrait of a family’s unthinkable crisis and imperfect redemption.
I’ve previously reviewed Faye Rapoport DesPres’ MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY in this blog, but want to mention it again here. The twenty pieces in this memoir-in-essays are beautifully structured, weaving together encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and loss. The natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats sleeping in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.
I had already read many of the essays in Bill Newman’s WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME before the book was published this spring; many appeared as columns in our local newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette, and I’ve known Bill and his family almost since the Kent State massacre that begins the collection. Still, reading the collection as a whole, I was carried along this river of political passion, through the various aftermath rapids of bringing activism home, raising a family, and infusing a life. This is an inspiring and graceful collection.
I’m reluctant to talk about poetry. I rarely write it and lack the necessary critical vocabulary. But I’ve been reading – and buying – more poetry collections in the past few years. I just finished reading Kate Gale’s THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE. These poems are quirky and playful, infused with fragments and quick images and startling juxtapositions. Gale brings bring oddly dissimilar things together and they fit in surprising and unpredictable ways, both funny and profoundly sad.
Next up on my reading list: THE BLOODY TIDE by Jane Yolen, THIS IS PARADISE by Suzanne Strempek Shea, A STORY LARGER THAN MY OWN, edited by Janet Burroway. So many books…