Of Books and Brownstones

The brownstone building that houses the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn

Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn

 

As a child, I knew nothing about the east coast; what I understood about the metropolis of New York City came from Sesame Street. The show debuted in 1969, so my family was probably living in Wisconsin when I first dropped on the floor in front of the television set to watch it. Although we wouldn’t have a color set for another ten years, even in black and white the show captivated me. New York was an exciting place where all kinds of kids ran down sidewalks to upbeat music. Friendly people sat on stoops. And they sounded different, like that grouchy puppet whose voice, I didn’t know then, was based on a Bronx taxi driver’s. If I could have, I would have moved to Sesame Street.

As I grew older, I read books set in New York, like E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a sister and brother sneak into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and live there. I longed for a museum so vast and sumptuous that a girl could hide for days, collecting pennies from the fountain at night.

In my M.F.A program, everyone had read Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and although its New York of cocaine-fueled parties wasn’t one I wanted to enter, I was captivated by the bravura of the second-person narration. As a counterpoint to the mostly white and male writers in the curriculum, I made my own reading list, and that’s when I discovered Paule Marshall’s 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. Here again were those magical front stoops. By now I was living on the east coast; not only could I sit on a stoop myself, I could easily travel to New York.

On my first visit, I arrived on Halloween. My college friend was staying there temporarily, and, after I arrived, we dropped off my duffel bag and descended into the subway. We emerged in a Greenwich Village weirder and wilder than anything I’d imagined; of course, it was Halloween. Late that night, we returned to the subway, but my friend wasn’t sure if the next train was the right one. At the last second, she jumped on the train, the door closed, and I was left on the platform alone. This was pre-cellphones, and I didn’t have a phone number or address for where we were staying. A few people in scary costumes stood nearby. My throat closed in fear.

What to do? I waited many long minutes for the next train and got on it, hoping it was on the same line. At the next platform, there was my friend. We grabbed each other and held on, laughing.

That was over thirty years ago, and I’ve visited New York many times since, most recently last month. The magic for me this time was spending a morning doing research for my next novel in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. I am so grateful to the women who thought to collect all of this pre-digital material, attesting to the fact and beauty and persistence of lesbian lives: cassette tapes and videos, photographs and flyers, magazines and books (alphabetized by first name because, of course, last names are patriarchal). I could have spent days there.

Coincidentally, when we returned home, the Seattle Queer Film Festival was showing a documentary about the archives called “The Archivettes” – I highly recommend it.

Did I mention that the archives are housed in a beautiful old brownstone? In another version of my life, I am moving to Sesame Street, where I can visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives any time I want or just sit on the stoop, chatting with friendly neighbors.

 

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A Tribute

Arline Garcia: Faculty Member of the Year

Arline Garcia: Faculty Member of the Year, 2016

Two friends recently gave us sourdough starter at the same time and, not knowing what we were doing, we accepted both. One came with a name: Bobby. One came nameless. We soon took to thinking of our starters as “hers” and “hers.”

Sourdough starter is weird because it’s alive. I took my jar out of the refrigerator this weekend, and it was pulsating like some zombie brain in a lab. Apparently, this is because bacteria eat the sugars in the flour and turn them into acids; yeasts that like an acidic environment eat the sugars and give off carbon dioxide. And get this: some of the bacteria come from the person raising the starter. Scientists have compared bakers with their starter and found they have many microbes in common.

Arline is experimenting with making bread from sturdy grains, like spelt. She is also retiring. After using her hands for several decades to grade exams and record homework assignments, she’s now using them to knead. It’s a different kind of nourishment, just as essential.

I made pancakes with my zombie starter. Buttermilk, sourdough, blueberry pancakes. With barrel-aged maple syrup from the Woodinville Whiskey Company. They were as good as they sound. After breakfast, I left a plateful in the kitchen to cool before freezing, but one by one they disappeared. Not saying how many I ate.

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother made sourdough pancakes at our family cabin in eastern Washington. Now that I know her microbes were in that starter, I’m even sadder that I didn’t inherit any. Rob Dunn, a Professor of Applied Ecology who was one of the authors of the bread/baker study, said, “There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread.” My grandmother’s essence was nothing less than unconditional love. I swallowed it with her pancakes, her chocolate cake, her jams and jellies. She loved me through adolescent storms and adult choices she didn’t understand. A body knows when it’s loved.

Arline has loved teaching. I know because she has spent hours preparing for class, meeting with struggling students, delighting when students thrive. She develops relationships with students so strong that she can, when they’re not stepping up, gently call them out and call them back in — and then, usually, they step up. She creates classroom environments in which students of all kinds support and learn from each other: heritage speakers, first-time Spanish learners; young students, returning students; high school students, professionals; neurodivergent and neurotypical students; home-schooled and public-schooled and private-schooled students. I have heard stories about them all, and the common thread is that she cares deeply for their learning.

Now Arline is retiring and turning her attention to other pursuits. She wants to travel. She may learn to play guitar or speak French. She is baking. Last night she brought me a slice of warm spelt bread, melting butter.

As her starter bubbles on the counter — will you give it a name, Arline? — I honor her years of commitment to education. Her knowledge of pedagogy, her skill in the classroom, her passion for language and learning. She has made an incredible difference in many lives. And, like the essence of her in every bite of bread, some of her has gone out into the world with her students. They are out there living their lives, different people for having studied with her. And, in some way, stronger. Because students know when they are loved.

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Thirty-Nine Years Later

On the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, I tagged along on a geology field trip with students from my college. This was my fourth visit to the volcano (spoiler alert: manuscript-in-progress), and I was hoping to learn something new. Thanks to instructor Carla Whittington, I did.

A kouign amann pastry and a sticker "Olympia coffee"

My butter-and-sugar fix

First, though, I learned that the kouign amann pastries at Olympia Coffee Roasting Company are wickedly delicious. I bought one in Olympia on my way through and, arriving at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, munched myself into a butter-and-sugar daze.

 

 

 

 

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

 

Inside the Center, the students roamed with handouts and clipboards. Most, but not all, had been born long after the eruption and were fascinated by their elders’ stories. At sixteen, I had watched the eruption column from the front yard of our family’s house in north Seattle. Carla, living in Minneapolis at the time, had put a cup outside her apartment window because ash was drifting eastward and she hoped to catch some. Sadly, she didn’t.

House destroyed by eruption

House on Toutle River destroyed by the eruption

Our first stop after the visitor center was a county park on the south fork of the Toutle River. Here, almost thirty miles from the summit, lahars flowing down the valley destroyed the park and surrounding homes. Houses collapsing near the road showed what an eruption and four decades of decay can do.

 

Includes a poem by Truman's sister

Memorial headstone for Harry Truman

At the old Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, now privately owned, the gate was open for the anniversary, and I saw the Memorial Grove for the first time. Harry Truman still haunts these forests, as do the others who lost their lives that day, most outside the official off-limits “red” zone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

View of the mountain from the observatory.

The mountain, thirty-nine years later

The best part of the day was at the observatory near the summit. Among the experts staffing information tables was Carolyn Driedger, a geologist who had been studying glaciers at the time of the eruption. She and Mindy Brugman had spent the afternoon on the ridge here with Dave Johnston, the volcanologist assigned to monitor the volcano that day. She and Brugman wanted to camp overnight, but Johnston said it wasn’t worth the risk. The next morning, at 8:32, he radioed the United States Geological Survey headquarters in Vancouver: “This is it!”

Carla, who knew Driedger from professional circles, introduced me to her, and Driedger told me that scientists did not know then that volcanoes could erupt in a lateral blast. Only afterwards, as they reviewed changes to the terrain, did they understand what they were seeing near other volcanoes.

But as interesting as it was to learn about the volcano from Driedger, the more visceral thrill was simply listening to someone who had lived through this moment in history. Thirty-nine years ago I had been waking up in Seattle while Driedger and Brugman, driving back toward the mountain, heard the news. Her story connected me to that moment and to all the others whose lives were affected that day: Johnston, Truman, the dead and the surviving. Time was a spiral, not a straight line, and for a moment, I was there as the volcano blew.

 

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Apocalypse

Ruins of building stairs with stuffed animals.

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” So begins N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which appeared under our Christmas tree wrapped in cheerful, glittery paper. Arline gave me the boxed Broken Earth trilogy, knowing I’ve been obsessed with apocalyptic novels this year. I just started reading it, so don’t ask me yet how Jemisin plots three novels after the world ends.

Dissertations have no doubt been written on why we enjoy stories about the end of the world. It’s probably for the same reason people enjoy horror (although I don’t) and murder mysteries (these I do). Narrative imposes order, which makes the unimaginable not only imaginable but possibly cathartic. Even the mere fact that each sentence follows the last makes life feel more controlled, less scary. Most of the time.

Samuel Delaney’s 1975 classic Dhalgren, which I hadn’t read until this year, was the least consoling book, probably because it’s the least comprehensible. A young man who wears only one sandal and can’t remember his name wanders a devastated midwestern city. It reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses, also disorientingly difficult to read and, for me, a book one is glad to have read but wasn’t particularly glad to be reading. What I’ll never forget about Dhalgren is the psychedelic stream of sentences and an ominous elevator, its door stuck open, that eventually swallows an innocent, as cities do.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City. A flu pandemic orphans an adolescent boy, who is then adopted by evangelicals in a small town. Of the novels I read this year, it’s the least apocalyptic; in fact, I came to wonder why the plot needed those millions of deaths. Were they the only way to get the son of a history professor and lawyer into the home of a store-front-church pastor and his wife, people his parents would have ridiculed? Regardless, Nunez tells the story of Cole’s coming of age as he navigates the mysteries of this new community with such grace and respect for the people around him that I stopped waiting for the major plot developments one expects from a good apocalyptic novel.

However, if you’re looking for those heart-stopping moments in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death delivers. In a post-apocalyptic desert world, perhaps in what we now call Sudan, a girl, born of a soldier’s rape of her mother, grows to realize she is the savior her people have been waiting for. Onyesonwu’s journey from child to sorceress, battling her own demons, is classic and classically satisfying. That Okorafor weaves in contemporary political and social issues makes the story surprising and new.

This year I read another 1970s novel I had neglected until now: Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. Set in a post-nuclear landscape of small, struggling towns, the novel tells the story of an itinerant healer who travels with her bag of snakes. Why had I never read this classic of feminist speculative fiction? I think, in my young-adult desire to reject stereotypically nurturing female characters, I was turned off by the idea of the snake healer. But reading the book now, I’m sad I missed it at that age. Snake is a humble woman in a dangerous world, trying to use her skills and knowledge for the common good. She might have been an appealing model for a young woman trying to find her way.

In the year that Ursula K. Le Guin died, I re-read many of her novels, some of them apocalyptic. In Lathe of Heaven, a man struggles with his ability to change the world by dreaming. Even when he tries to change things for the better, his intentions produce warped, disturbing versions of our world. Le Guin, as always, is a wise and loving writer. She guides us through the apocalypse to a renewed world that, while never perfect, nonetheless offers us space and time to pursue justice, to demonstrate compassion, to flourish.

As disturbing and apocalyptic as this true world too often feels — this real one, not of paper or digital words, but of wood and stone and skin — it, too, affords space and time for justice, compassion, and flourishing love. This is what I wish for all of us in the new year. And many more books to read

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Toasted

Oregon beach, hazy sun, person walking two dogs.

Forest fire haze on the Oregon Coast, September 2017

A week ago, the sky above Seattle turned hazy, and an eerie orange sunlight fell across our hardwood floors. The air smelled burnt, toasted. Yesterday, we had the worst air quality for a twenty-four-hour period in recorded history.

Almost exactly a year ago, Arline and I were camping with friends in a forest service campground near Mount Rainier when we noticed a brown haze high above our Eurovan. A construction worker from the highway came through and said smoke from British Columbia fires was coming our way. The camp host had been that morning to Yakima, east of us, and said it wasn’t possible to see ahead more than a city block, the smoke was so thick. It was over ninety degrees next to our river, and we were hot and irritable. We headed to Packwood for the air-conditioned Mountain Goat Coffee and Bakery, where we researched the fires online. Could we find somewhere else to go, less hazy? Even the beaches looked bad.

Arline was six weeks out from cancer surgery, and the smoky air worried her. We decided to cut short the trip. Our friends stayed but we packed up and headed to Seattle. I was so exhausted emotionally and physically from coping with the cancer, and so in need of a vacation, that I cried as we left the campground.

But as we traveled home, the air got worse. Enumclaw sat under a dirty haze. On the approach to Seattle, we couldn’t see the skyscrapers; it was as if the city was socked in with fog, orange instead of white.

That night, we got online again. The dot over Seattle was bright red: unhealthy for all. But Mount Rainier had some of the best air in the state. Our friends texted that it wasn’t bad. The next morning, we packed again and returned.

This year, we took into account the possibility of forest fire smoke when planning our August vacation with our friends. Instead of the Cascades, we’re going to a tiny island in British Columbia, 170 miles northwest of here, as the crow flies. There’s no guarantee it, too, won’t be in the path of smoke, but we’re hoping.

And so we begin to adapt. It’s a sickening feeling, remembering the years and years of Seattle summers, when heat didn’t climb until after Fourth of July, and for two glorious months the sky was almost always the purest blue. Where will these changes take us? How will we adapt? For how long?

When I returned from that trip last year, something kept bugging me. Although the campground was stiflingly hot, and the sky never turned fully blue again, at night campers all around us built fires in their pits and sat around them, roasting marshmallows. The entire state was under a burn ban but not the national forests; they were guided by federal policy.

Finally, I called the ranger’s office in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and asked why there was no burn ban in the national forest campgrounds. The man who answered said that campfires were perfectly safe. The trees were difficult to ignite, and it was extremely unlikely a campfire would start a fire in the forest. Also, he said, the forest service has a different mission than the state parks and serves a different constituency; “we serve the people,” he said. The people want campfires. They call him up and ask if they can have a campfire, and if they can’t, they won’t go camping. I was so astounded I just said, “Well, now I understand the reasoning.”

I get that the forest service is involved in commerce and industry in ways that state parks are not. But surely there is a general consensus on when a burn ban is a good idea. And you can’t tell me there’s a huge difference between people who camp in forests owned by the national government and those who camp in forests owned by the state. Perhaps most significantly, burn bans “serve the people,” too.

What I heard from the ranger was an ideological bias against regulation, a willingness to risk our trees and our health. Because as long as campers can have the same camping experience they’ve always had, they’ll be happy. They’ll ignore the orange skies, the burning forests, and the warming planet. They’ll adapt.

 

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The Ones Who Stay

A sad mouse statue ringed with green lights

Recent events have reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s much-anthologized story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which a utopian society depends for its continued existence on the suffering of one child. Some, when they learn of this requirement, leave in search of a different kind of society, but most stay.

Of course, our society is no utopia, and more than one child suffers; more than the two thousand children taken from their parents at the border suffer. But Le Guin knew that. Her parable brings us face-to-face with our complicity: At first, when young people of Omelas learn of the suffering child, they are shocked. But then they begin to rationalize. Isn’t it better that one child suffers so that everyone else may prosper? If the child were released from the dungeon, surely it could no longer function: “Indeed,” Le Guin writes, “after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.” And so the people of Omelas accept the child’s suffering and even believe their own lies about it.

One version of this utopia is white supremacy. People who can justify separating brown children from their parents have already decided that these people are not as worthy, perhaps not even as capable of feeling, as white children and white parents. They imagine an Edenic United States, when it was whiter and more powerful and more prosperous. That this country never existed does not seem to bother them. They believe that, if the children suffer, their city on a hill will shine on.

But I don’t want to let myself off the hook here. As much as I protest this white supremacist utopian ideal, I benefit from it. I’m like the citizens of Omelas who wake from bad dreams in the night but continue to partake in the joys of utopia — in my case, vegetables picked by migrant farm workers, electronics made under grueling conditions, the legacy of wealth and education that came from my homesteading ancestors, etc. and more etc. I read the news. I go to an occasional protest and send an occasional donation. But I don’t walk away.

Last week I attended a tribute to Le Guin in Portland, an evening of love and laughter in an elegant theater from the 1920s. Editors read funny emails they’d received from her, and writers shared reminiscences (China Miéville said Le Guin told him the description of the scary Shadow in The Wizard of Earthsea was based on the tardigrade, a microscopic animal). Margaret Atwood attended via prerecorded video. She said she was talking to us from a planet called “Canada”; the universal translator was translating her words so we could understand them. She told a story about asking Le Guin: “Where do the ones who walk away from Omelas go?” Le Guin couldn’t answer.

And where would I go if I walked away? Justice, of course, is not a place. I find myself tossing and turning. I don’t believe the lie that the child suffering for Omelas is better off in the dungeon, but I have trouble walking away from the benefits I accrue from that suffering. Someone, I keep thinking, will show me the way out. Meanwhile, I guiltily sleep.

 

 

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

LeGuin

Ursula K. Le Guin, Flight of the Mind, 1995

Our class took a break one sunny afternoon and hiked along the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest of Oregon. Our teacher, Ursula Le Guin, led the way, naming the trees, shrubs, ferns, and groundcovers. It was the summer of 1995, and I was lucky to have landed a spot in her writing workshop at Flight of the Mind, a week-long retreat for women writers. In class, we were discussing the first chapters of our novels.

I was in awe of Le Guin, whose work I had been reading since adolescence. On the first day of class, which met in the cottage where she was staying, I had gone into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. This is Ursula Le Guin’s toothbrush, I thought. This is Ursula Le Guin’s lotion. As the week went on, I listened closely to her critiques of first chapters. She was brutally direct with a student who was writing science fiction: “You haven’t imagined this world yet. I don’t believe it.” When it was my turn, every muscle in my body tensed. But she liked my chapter; she liked it a lot.

On the hike, I angled discreetly among the dozen or so students for a spot close to Le Guin so I could hear every word. She looked up and saw, where I saw only towering trunks, hemlock and Douglas fir. She looked down and saw, amid the blur of small green leaves, Oregon grape and salal. “You don’t really know a place,” she said, “unless you can name the plants that grow there.”

I returned to Seattle and resolved to know this place where I had spent many of my growing-up years. I read up on native plants and troweled them into my garden — the clover-like Oxalis oregana; kinnikinnick, with its tiny, tough leaves; the delicate-branched Pacific dogwood and vine maple. I also kept working on my novel. I took a pair of scissors to Le Guin’s comments on my draft and framed them with a picture of her signing a book for me. The chapter she read became a middle chapter of Half-Moon Scar, published five years later.

We never communicated again; I have read in many tributes that she was a generous correspondent. But she touched my life and my writing, not only that week on the McKenzie River, but through her body of work. One summer I read all of her Hainish cycle novels in order, appreciating the interlocking universe they created. I am re-reading The Dispossessed now, and what strikes me is how elegantly Le Guin weaves a classic quest tale with a novel of ideas — about power, sexism, political systems, and ethics.

In moments when my own writing seems pointless, self-absorbed, unnecessary — a kind of fiddling while Rome burns — I remember the fierce intelligence of Le Guin’s work and how powerful words, stories, histories, and visions can be. I want to walk with her and others like her, naming the leaves and stars.

 

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