Thursday, October 16, 2014

PSA: Read James Herriot!

I’ve put off writing this for quite awhile because it’s daunting to write about the books I love the most. A book that was merely so-so—that I can write about. You want to know what I thought of Eat, Pray, Love? No problem: mostly self-indulgent narcissism, albeit mildly entertaining and pleasantly written. But you want to know about a book that really moved me, stopped me in my tracks, and transformed the hours I spent with it from commonplace to beautiful? Well, how do I pull the words up out of my soul to explain the magic of a book like that? Whatever I say will never be good enough, so there’s a part of me that doesn’t even want to try. Still, Anne Lamott says: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” So I will give it a go anyway. 

The man of the hour is James Herriot. And, to tell you the truth, I thought I had James Herriot all figured out. As a kid, I had a children’s collection of his stories that, for some reason, I was not overly fond of. I think it had to do with the fact that one of the stories was quite sad, and, being a sensitive child, I didn’t really like the way it made me feel. I also wasn’t an animal lover. So I always thought of James Herriot as the man who wrote pathetically sad animal stories that I didn’t want to read.

As I have found so often in life, I couldn’t have been more incorrect. In this case, I was mercifully rescued from my long-standing ignorance by none other than the Los Angeles freeway system and the Los Angeles County Public Library. The hours I spend commuting each week have forced me to plumb the depths of the library’s collection for audiobooks that might make the strain of traffic a bit more bearable. In this exploration, I came across an audio copy of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, and, desperate for fresh listening material, decided to give it a try.

This was my golden ticket to a world of warmth, joy, humor, and beauty such as I have rarely found between the pages of a book. I could not believe my ears! Far from being a fuddy-duddy old veterinarian who wrote boring animal stories, I found an author full of wit, a stunning sense of humor, and keen insight into the human soul, who was charmingly self-deprecating, while knowing how to tell a story with a Muse-given talent for spinning a yarn. Brilliance came pouring out of the speakers in my car, leaving me breathless with laughter. Let me assure you, it is a rare book that makes a person not only not mind being stuck in traffic, but actually long for the traffic to last so one can just keep listening to the story!

Maya Angelou said that people will mostly likely forget the things you said and did, but not the way you made them feel. I find that to also be true of so many of the books I love, and especially true in the case of Mr. Herriot’s stories. He created a world which it was a solace to enter—a world of brightness, natural beauty, laughter, heartiness, hard work, quirky characters, and sincere, unaffected emotion. I like books that make me a better person. Some books do that by providing outstanding examples of people with unparalleled courage and conviction, who make me want to be like them. Some books, like James Herriot's, do it simply by being beautiful, and wholesome, and good--and thereby teaching one's soul to love and enjoy those things. 

I can’t recommend his books enough. However, he is a veterinary surgeon who writes vividly about his work so if blood and bodily organs make you feel squeamish, take this as a gentle word of caution . (I found that I must have read so many books on midwifery that not much of what he wrote seemed to phase me!) I would recommend listening to the audio version of the books done by Audio Renaissance and read by Christopher Timothy. I think half the joy I had from these books came from the reader who brought the books to life in a way that I can only compare to Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter series (which is pretty much the highest compliment I am capable of giving). If you can’t get your hands on the audio books, read the stories aloud with a loved one and enjoy laughing your heads off together over the antics of Tristan and Tricky Woo, among other marvelous characters.

The good news is that there are five fantastic books to read:
All Creatures Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The Lord God Made Them All
Every Living Thing

I’m still working my way through all the books myself, but I have yet to be disappointed by their excellence and have decided my current mission in life is to convince anyone who will listen to me to read them posthaste!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Seasons in Florida

People always say that South Florida has no seasons, and while I know what they mean and that to some extent they are right, I also know that in the most important way, they are wrong. When I was growing up in Florida, we had seasons, and they did not change when the leaves began to turn colors, or the snow began to fall, or the daffodils began to bloom—they changed when my dad lugged a ladder over to the attic’s entrance, retrieved the next season’s boxes of decorations, and delivered them up to my mother. Then she would begin the process of transforming our house. I realize now that I still stare blankly, uncomprehendingly at anyone who says Florida has no seasons because my mom created the seasons each year within our home.

I awaited these transitions with great anticipation—the way I’m sure my peers in other parts of the country looked forward to huge piles of leaves in autumn or the first snowfall of winter. Many days in advance I would begin asking, “When will we get the boxes down?” And when the day finally came, it was as a holiday.

We had a small house, which seemed huge and wonderful to me as a child, and in retrospect is tiny and dearer to me than any place I’ve ever known. The center point of it all was the tall hutch in the dining room, which was built into the wall, and the connecting shelf that stretched across two of the dining room’s walls. It was here that the transformation began, and ran delicious threads of color and seasonal, festive cheer to every corner of our little home. In the fall, the shelves in our dining room were filled with pumpkins and scarecrows, pilgrims and turkeys, and fiery-colored leaves and acorns collected on trips up north. Additional autumnal accents were scattered throughout the house: dishes and hand towels in the kitchen, pumpkins on the doorstep and pumpkin seeds baking in our oven. Hand-made Indian corn necklaces circled our necks and Squanto felt like our next-door neighbor.

Christmas was the grandest time--with a whole shipload of boxes coming out of the attic and washing ashore in our living room. Out came branches of holly and garlands of evergreen to line the shelves and fill my mom’s collection of Longaberger baskets. Out came Christmas lights for my parents to frustratedly untangle and books about St. Nicholas and the Nativity to read by the glow of the Christmas tree. Out came the ornaments with their stories and memories, the stockings handmade by our grandma, and the crown jewel: Mom’s small ceramic Christmas tree frosted with snow and sparkling like stained glass with tiny, colored lights.

I’m indulging myself in the dearest of memories as I risk digressing from the point of this essay—suffice it to say that after Christmas came winter and our house became a wonderland of snowmen and icicles. It was easy to imagine cold weather as my sisters and I huddled in blanket forts with fans blowing on us and pretended to be snowed-in. (Little House on the Prairie also helped a lot with this.) In February, our home brimmed with valentines and red heart-shaped lights strung up cheerfully around the room. With springtime came bunnies, and chicks in an abundance of stuffed-animal delight, and Easter grass and bright flowers and a kaleidoscope of colorful eggs. Meanwhile, the temperature outside rarely varied from a steady, humid, 85 degrees. But who knew? Not I. As far as I could tell the seasons were processing along exactly as they should and I loved the predictability and rhythm of it all.

What I am not trying to say is that the actual seasons are unnecessary or not worth experiencing. What I am marveling over is my mom’s ability to create the seasons for her kids in a place where they don’t really exist. She was helped out by the occasional cold-snap, but for the most part she made something out of nothing, and raised kids who knew what it felt like to eat a bowl of chili on a crisp night in the midst of a world that was turning from yellow, to orange, to red in a blaze of dying glory. She raised kids who knew about the earth’s rhythms and patterns, though we lived far from them in many respects. She gave us beauty and excitement and a land much bigger than our city, or region, or state. She gave us the tools to experience things far away from us. Now that I am grown, I wonder how she found the time or energy to do it. In the midst of raising and homeschooling four children, it might’ve seemed a bit superfluous to put so much effort into decorating so beautifully and thoroughly for each season. Did she know how essential it was? Did she know that atmosphere of beauty was something worth fighting for? Did she know the gift of joy and imagination she was giving us? She made our little lives so much bigger than they actually were---she did it through books and movies and education and allowing us endless hours of imaginative play, but also through simply decorating our home to give us an environment of wonder and nature that sparked our creativity.

This past Thursday I walked into the grocery store to pick up a few things and found myself greeted by huge bins full of gigantic orange pumpkins. I thought first of my mother, and then of the way fall feels in Florida, when the air is just the tiniest bit cooler, a difference so small that only a native would notice and know that the seasons are once again changing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I love you, California!

I recently listened to Kevin Starr’s California: A Biography on audiobook. I have to be honest: I did not pay much attention to dates or details, but rather let the words roll over me like poetry, the poetry of California.

Los Angeles. San Francisco. Mojave Desert. Monterey. The Sierras. Santa Barbara. Salinas. Missions.  Miners. Padres. Ranchos. Joan Didion. John Steinbeck. Jack London. Death Valley. Santa Monica. Big Sur. Palm Springs. The Grapevine. Point Reyes. Sonoma. Mt. Shasta. Pasadena. Griffith Observatory. Sacramento River. Palos Verdes. Yosemite. Half Moon Bay. The Golden Gate. Napa vineyards. Catalina Island. Laguna Niguel. San Juan Capistrano. Big Bear. Half Dome. The Hollywood Bowl. The Berkeley Hills. The Pacific Ocean.

Have you ever heard such magical words?

It is a language and a poetry that holds greater sway over me than I can ever explain.
All politics aside, when he was running for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger called California, “a golden dream by the sea,” and that is a phrase I can’t get out of my mind. I know this is a place with problems galore. I know it has poverty and inner cities and injustice, but it continues to be a place of promise and hope as well, and  I don’t know if I’ll ever wake up from the dream that is California. I just know that I wake up each morning and thank God that I live here. I just know that I’ve never been anywhere else so big, and beautiful, and bursting with life and excitement and adventure. I’ve never been anywhere else that I wanted to be as much as I want to be in California. Every time Sean suggests we move somewhere else where the cost of living is less, I reply with the adage, “I’d rather be dead in California than alive in Arizona,” and the truth is I’m only half-joking. What is it about this place?! 

I like living in a place that is bigger than me. Obviously most places other than a broom closet fit that qualification, but California is so much bigger than me: I will never master it. I will never visit everywhere I want to go. I will never know it by heart or discover all its secrets. It will always be wild and mysterious and grand, and somehow just out of my reach.

There is an energy and a gladness that fill my heart living here. Most days I just can’t believe my extreme good fortune to be here. Even my long drives in endless traffic can’t seem to dampen my enthusiasm for this place, but only serve to confirm what I already knew: this is the place to be. See? Everyone else wants to be here too. And I’m here, in California! I won’t apologize for being in love with this place. I want my children to be Californians and I want my ashes scattered here too.

I don’t know if I’ve known a happier moment than driving home at night on the freeway: the L.A. skyline gleaming on the horizon, the planes lined up to land at LAX glimmering in the sky, the mountains looming like purple shadows in the distance, a fat white moon rising over the L.A. Basin, and Blink 182 playing on the radio. That I can call this home seems a privilege too great for me, but I’ll take it, and appreciate every second of it.

This summer we visited three new (to us) California landscapes that further confirmed my awe of this state: 

Lassen Volcanic National Park, May 2014

           Duck Lake in the Sierras, photo from because I forgot my phone that day! 

                                                 Santa Catalina Island, July 2014 

I mean, really!!!!!!! Does it get better than this?!?!?! 

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Heroes

This past Thursday, July 31st, I attended the public memorial service for Louis Zamperini, held at his old high school in Torrance, California. Louie is a national hero, an inspiration, and just about my favorite person ever.

I met Louie in the pages of his biography, Unbroken, by the magnificent author Laura Hillenbrand, and ever since I have been wanting to write about him and this book but have been unable to find the words to express how deeply his story touched me, and how profoundly it has changed me. Unbroken is one of those books that makes you want to use your life’s savings to buy a million copies and hand them out to everyone you meet because you know the world would be a better place if everyone would just read this book! You say things to your friends like, “He was an Olympian! He lived for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific! He punched sharks! He survived years in a Japanese POW camp! He forgave his torturers! He is amazing! If you read only one book in the next five years, make it this one!” And you just hope that what you are saying will somehow intrigue them enough to read the book, but at the same time you know you are doing an absolutely terrible job of trying to tell Louie’s story because it’s just so incredible and you’re just so ineloquent.
It wasn’t until he died on July 2 of this year that I discovered the words I was searching for regarding Louie had already been written, years before, by the poet Maya Angelou:

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

--From the poem "When Great Trees Fall" 

I can never hope to express it better myself because those words say it all. Louie’s picture is the background on my phone because when I see him I am filled with courage and reminded that I have been given the strength to endure.

After the service, I wiped away my tears and turned my attention to celebrating another hero of mine: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Since I read the series for the first time back in 2008, I have made it a tradition to honor Harry’s birthday in whatever way I can—ideally by baking a cake that says, “Happee Birthdae Harry” and celebrating with friends, but sometimes just by raising a glass and offering a toast to the Boy Who Lived.

As I drove home from the memorial service, I couldn’t help but feel how fitting it was to be honoring two of my dearest heroes on the same day, but a part of me wondered if I should feel a bit guilty comparing Harry Potter, a fictional character, to a World War II veteran who actually lived and breathed and suffered terribly. Was it unfair to Louie and to his memory? Did it somehow trivialize his suffering? And why is it so easy for me to think of Harry Potter as real? Have I seriously crossed a line in being unable to distinguish fiction from reality? Should my friends and family fear for my sanity? I know I probably have friends and family who at the very least don’t understand and at the very most are deeply concerned about my extreme love of Harry Potter.

 But I don’t think I’ve lost my mind quite yet. I know the difference between fiction and reality, but I also believe there is a sense in which Harry Potter is a true story. It tells a story about things that are True: love is stronger than hate, help will always be given to those who ask, joy will come in the morning, friendship will save our lives, death will not have the ultimate victory, and Good will triumph over Evil.  I love Harry Potter so much because it tells my soul true things, and I choose to live in the truth of these stories. At the end of the day I believe that the fictional character of Harry Potter is more real than a lot of things presented to us as true or factual by the world. 


I listened to Unbroken on audiobook, and one night after I finished the book, I went to Barnes & Noble and found a hard copy of it so that I could look at all the photos. Towards the back of the book there is a picture of Louie, in his eighties, riding a skateboard with a grin on his face. I'm telling you, I sat on the floor in Barnes & Noble and wept as I stared at this picture, which was, to me, the ultimate symbol of hope. Here was a man whose life was hijacked when the world exploded into war, a man who was lost at sea, then tortured sadistically for years, and declared dead by the U.S. government, and yet he lived. He lived a life of forgiveness and helping others. He lived to skateboard in his eighties with a smile on his face and joy in his heart. He lived to say he hadn’t been angry for 40 years. His story reminds me that no matter the evil we encounter, Good will win in the end. Our broken souls are not so damaged that they can’t be healed. We will soar and skateboard, free and whole. All shall be well. My soul needs these words of truth because life is hard, the world is sick, and I grow weary. I grow so very weary. But then I think of Louie skateboarding, and I think of Harry’s scar, which hasn’t hurt for 19 years, and my soul whispers to me, “They existed. You can be, and be better. For they existed.”