Started Richard Bausch’s Hello to the Cannibals last week and have had a hard time putting it down. I’m about halfway through and thus far it reminds me so much (in the very best ways) of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. In both, the protagonist becomes obsessed with a historical character. It goes without saying that I identify pretty strongly with that impulse.
Last week we did a fairly strenuous canoe paddle, more than 60km, in a remote northern area of British Columbia. The paddling wasn’t so daunting (3-4 hours per day of solid work), but it was the portages from lake to lake, the lightning storms, and the persistent pelting rain that quickly dampened my sleeping bag and all of my clothing that took their toll.
Now that it’s over, however, so much of that difficulty is forgotten. And instead what remains are the gorgeous images imprinted into my memory and onto the roll of film that we shot as we traveled. Such as this one, taken on the home stretch to Bowron Lake:
As I was writing in my journal when the journey was completed, the first thing I put on my list of lessons learned was:
I like to do hard things
And it’s true. The stretch of an ambitious endeavor makes me happy. Doing the mundane, the repetitive, the easily achieved task…boring. I thrive when presented with a challenge, which is why the trip to British Columbia was so much more appealing than a resort stay or some other leisure activity.
I just finished reading Tracks today, which is a book about a woman who walked across the Australian desert with four camels in the 1970s. At the close of the text, this quotation jumped out at me, as a better expression of my thoughts about hard things, than I expressed myself in my journal (emphasis my own):
As I look back on the trip now, as I try to sort out fact from fiction, try to remember how I felt at that particular time, or during that particular incident, try to relive those memories that have been buried so deep, and distorted so ruthlessly, there is one clear fact that emerges from the quagmire. The trip was easy. It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts. The two important things that I did learn were that you as powerful and as strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.
Because I do like me some book-ish poetry…
by Elizabeth Bishop
Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,
close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.
Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.
I sometimes make small bargains with myself to keep focused on the things that are important to me (and to reign in my time-wasters). One such bargain is that I often set is that I won’t peer into Facebook until I’ve finished reading my current book. So I’m up to that again, and have promised myself to finish Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul, which I picked up in the airport last week. It’s a pretty dense read, but is fascinating. I am learning so much.
When I was a kid (around the time that I was reading The Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), it was my dream to someday hide out in a library after hours, perhaps snoozing among the stacks and reading reading reading to my heart’s content.
I happen to be, at this very moment, nearly alone in a closed library. And musing about all of the possibilities…(so if you don’t hear from me for awhile, you’ll know why)
In lieu of reading the Sunday newspaper, I’m reading a variety of interesting web articles this morning. They’re all so good, it seemed well-worth sharing a few of the links:
A comparative review essay from LARB about Istanbul and Shanghai, which prompted me to add Midnight at the Pera Palace to my reading list.
A Boom article about camping (note: the vintage photos are almost as good as the writing).
This NYTimes article about why doctors still use stories (or case studies) in addition to data. (H/t to Holly for the link on FB)
When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.” – Out of Africa, 1937
Realizing today just how much of my life has been beyond my imagination–both for the good and for the bad. It seems one of those truths that is most easily recognized at moments of transition.
And, channeling my inner Karen Blixen as a reminder to keep writing and telling my stories even in the midst of so much change…
But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
~Anna Quindlen, A Short Guide to a Happy Life
Loved this thought, on being satisfied with this world, and not needing an afterlife (or a God)…
You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others–why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion…but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted to know was this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history–added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.
~Alma Whittaker in _The Signature of All Things_
This week’s books-in-progress (click on the book covers to connect to the titles on amazon):
Enjoying this historical-fiction book immensely. It’s got a bit of everything that I love: ocean explorers, early America, science, feminism, and engaging characters. Nothing like that other book that Gilbert is so famous for writing.
What I’m reading right now*:
I loved the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, so I picked this one up a few months ago. But I’ve not found it nearly as engaging as I’d hoped–I’m having to push my way pretty hard through to the end. The characters of this one just aren’t grabbing me and keeping me interested.
Jared Farmer’s recent SoCal lecture about Trees was one of the best that I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve been dipping in and out of his book and find it to be one of the best-written history books that I’ve encountered this year. And, the landscape around the OC looks so different to me after reading Jared’s tome.
My officemate recommended this book to me after she learned of my interest in western history. It’s about the Indian Wars, which is an era of history that’s not easy to digest. The writing is accessible (i.e. not for a historian-audience) and breezy. If you enjoy western history, I’d recommend that you add this one to your nightstand.
*Click on the book images to visit the amazon pages for these books.
When I was diagnosed with bone cancer, the weight of that word meant many things: I had some sense that I would lose my hair, that I would become thin, that I would be fighting for my life. I knew all of that because my disease had a name, albeit a frightening one (oh, and how glad I am that google did not exist then to tell me just how frightening a bout of bone cancer might be)….
So this article from the NYTimes highlights Ugandan women who have breast cancer and don’t even have a name for their condition in their language, caused me to wonder what it would be like to be diagnosed with a life-threatening ailment which carried no meaning, no cultural baggage, and no fears (a la Susan Sontag). I suspect that I would not have followed through with the treatment had I not been more afraid of dying of cancer than I was of chemo.
Related to that, is a book that I picked up yesterday called Improvising Medicine, about the cancer epidemic in Botswana. What connects these research pieces is that there is currently a surge of cancer in Africa and its unknown whether this is due to an actual increase in the disease or an increase in diagnosis rates. And, although I haven’t yet begun reading Livingston’s book, the summary tells me that, like the NYTimes article, it addresses many of the socioeconomic challenges of treating a disease in communities without sophisticated medical care options.
Perhaps a book that will hit a bit closer to home for me is a new release from UCPress, Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us, which combines cultural analysis and memoir in addressing the complex social nature of this disease in the United States. The summary says, “Jain explains how a national culture that simultaneously aims to deny, profit from, and cure cancer entraps us in a state of paradox—one that makes the world of cancer virtually impossible to navigate for doctors, patients, caretakers, and policy makers alike.” Indeed, my experience is that treatment for cancer now hinges so much on what type of health insurance one has and the process of “shopping” for a doctor who will tell you what you want to hear, which seems a wrongheaded approach to a cure.
Even though thirty years have now passed since I first heard that dreadful cancer word spoken in connection with the symptoms of my own body, I still find it difficult to comprehend the life-changing event that was my diagnosis and treatment for osteosarcoma. As I look back on what I went through then, it remains a kind of encapsulated moment that is hard for me to connect with now. But what I remember most significantly, was the feeling that the temporary horror of my cancer treatments was worthwhile to endure because of the possibility of eradicating my disease, and I trusted that my doctors were giving me the treatments that would increase my odds for survival. I suspect, now, that my faith in my doctors was naive, as was my willingness to endure mutagenic treatments. And if I had not lived in a society where I was told that it was my (heroic) responsibility to “fight” and “kill” that cancer, I am quite sure that I would not have consented to the amputation of my leg and the months of high-dose chemotherapy treatments afterwards. Of course, with 30 years of hindsight it seems to have been a wise choice. But I can’t help but wonder how differently my experience would have played out if I hadn’t been part of a community that encouraged, even championed, a specific behavior for me as a “victim” of cancer.