A Babe in the Woods by Yvonne Wakefield

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On the night Yvonne’s mother died, leaving her and her two younger siblings parentless, she vowed that when she was old enough she would “build a log cabin from trees on a mountain.” There she would write poetry, make art, and “everything would finally be alright.” Unfortunately ensuing years saw things drift even further from alright.

Initially family members agreed to care for the three children, but it soon came to light that they were only interested in gaining control of the family business. Once the three children were no longer useful, they were abandoned and scattered into the foster care system where Yvonne suffered even more mental and physical abuse.

In spite of these hardships, she never forgot the promise she made to herself. On the day she turned eighteen she collected the money from her trust fund, pack her belongings, and set out to purchase land in Oregon. In the sleepy mountain community of John Day Oregon, Yvonne finds the perfect land. It was secluded, had a stream, and contained plenty of trees to begin building her new home.

After a quick return trip to Minnesota to tie up loose ends and sever certain ties, she returns to begin building her cabin. However, it only takes a day of work for her to realize that she’s woefully unprepared for the task of building a log cabin by hand. A feeling of hopelessness drives Yvonne into town to drown her sorrows in a cup of coffee and a couple of apple fritters.

Although she is leery of strangers, a caring diner owner breaks her defenses and encourages her to contact a local woodsmen skilled in building cabins. Over the course of building her log home, these sorts of found relationships begin to stack up around Yvonne protecting her and providing a safe, nurturing place to begin life again.

This memoir is sure to draw comparisons. The jacket copy even mentions Into the Wild and My Side of the Mountain. While I can’t speak for My Side of the Mountain, I don’t really think Into The Wild is an accurate comparison. The book that kept arising in my mind while reading was Cheryl Strayd’s Wild. Perhaps it was the similar stories of abuse, broken homes, parental deaths, and perseverance, but either way I think it will appeal to similar audiences. I personally found Yvonne to be a more likeable and endearing heroine. Both seemed naive about the journeys they had undertaken, but Yvonne was balanced with a sense of objective, self-awareness that was lacking in Wild.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wakefield’s writing was her use of color. You’ve probably heard the linguistic anecdote about the Inuit language having fifty different words for snow. Their closeness and experience with snow necessitates a highly nuanced way of speaking about and understanding it. The same could be said of Yvonne’s artistic background and her use of color descriptions. She creates and uses colors to describe objects, emotions, and memories in a way that no writer I’ve read has ever done.

In this colorful passage Yvonne contemplates the events, influences, and circumstances that have brought her to the backwoods in Oregon.

Now I’ve put myself out on another limb of sorts, hanging tight to the thought that I might own this spot where evergreen branches bow low. Five nights in a row I squat there beside the creek, stab stick into coals, stir up flames, and in this light continue to think about other colors that made me like,

Inheritance Grab Greed – an uneven blend of raging reds,
Foster Parent Folly – an incestuous smokey scumble of contradictory values,
I’ve been around the block – black and blue,
Are You My Mother – Hello Kitty pink,
Burnt Green Fried Tomatoes – a putrid shade of green,
And “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley = a piece of shit brown.

These blends cannot be bought off the shelf, squeezed from tubes, spooned from jars. They are a custom mix of dark tones, convoluted hues with names that brand all the wrong ways. The statute of limitations on these colors may have expired, but they have a shelf life all their own.

The palette to paint the portrait, Girl Sitting Around a Campfire, Stirring Coals, would include other unnatural colors never brought up in police company. And other colors too – a solid earthy mix of values reflecting the foundation laid by caring parents, even though it cracked irreparably when my father first toyed with suicide.

Like Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing, this memoir wasn’t obtuse or shallow. There is no cut and dried life lesson that Yvonne is spoon-feeding to her readers. She doesn’t have any social drum to beat. She does offer a first hand descriptions of rural community, the dynamics of broken families, and life “off the grid.”

In refreshing contrast to many modern memoirs she avoids braggadocio and luridness and remains humble and private about most things. You won’t feel like you “really know” Yvonne Wakefield after reading this book. Who she is retains a great deal of mystery and intrigue. (Which is, in itself, a wonderful lesson about our relationship to fellow humans beings.) I only had one big complaint about this book and that was that the early review copy lacked photographs. I hope that the final version will include images of Yvonne’s cabin, friends, and family members. I will certainly buy a copy for my bookshelf.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

On Reading Crowds and Power by Geoffrey Hill

On Reading Crowds and Power
by Geoffrey Hill

1

Cloven, we are incorporate, our wounds
simple but mysterious. We have
some wherewithal to bide our time on earth.
Endurance is fantastic; ambulances
battling at intersections, the city
intolerably en fête. My reflexes
are words themselves rather than standard
flexures of civil power. In all of this
Cassiopeia’s a blessing
as is steady Orion beloved of poets.
Quotidian natures ours for the time being
I do not know
how we should be absolved or what is fate.

2

Fame is not fastidious about the lips
which spread it. So long as there are mouths
to reiterate the one name it does not
matter whose they are.
The fact that to the seeker after fame
they are indistinguishable from each other
and are all counted as equal shows that this
passion has its origin in the experience
of crowd manipulation. Names collect
their own crowds. They are greedy, live their own
separate lives, hardly at all connected
with the real natures of the men who bear them.

3

But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff (Satire)

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From pigs and pancakes to dogs and donuts, the If You Give A… series is widely celebrated in children’s literature. It has certainly earned its author, Laura Numeroff, a place in the pantheon of other greats like Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle.

Though these books may seem like a bit of fun children’s fluff, a closer look reveals that they are actually teaching metaphors of Aesopic proportions. Each book’s story conveys an important message about the dangers of the welfare system.

The first book in the series, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, begins with a mouse’s seemingly innocent request for a cookie. A young boy, not understanding that he peers over the precipice of a pit of despair, naïvely becomes the mouse’s benefactor and seals tangled their fates.

One might expect, at the least, a word of thanks from the mouse for the boys kindness, but how foolish is such a thought! Instead the mouse demands a glass of milk, insinuating that by giving the cookie the boy has become culpable for the mouse’s thirst. Again the boy acquiesces, even going the extra mile to provides a napkin for the increasingly lackadaisical mouse.

At this point the chains of dependency and despair have clamped upon them both. Not only does the working class, property-owning boy have his possessions “redistributed” to the lazy, gypsy mouse, the mouse no longer has any incentive to provide for himself or better his situation. We see this odious truth most distinctly when the mouse notices his slovenly appearance in the mirror and is unwilling to even muster the means of grooming himself.

Critics of this interpretation might argue that by cleaning the house the mouse does exchange his labor in repayment. But are they certainly incorrect in this assessment! The mouse’s actions were either a ruse or an inexplicable anomaly, because after finishing his work he demands a bed to rest in – a bed that is taken from the rightful possessions of the boy!

Things escalates further. Unhappy with just living off the boy’s possessions and toil, the mouse now demands control over even his body. Once reclining on the bed, the mouse requires the boy to sit and read a story to him.

As if the mouse hadn’t degraded himself or humiliated the boy enough, he soon begins a campaign of psychological torture. Abandoning the bed, the he prominently displays pictures of himself and his rodent comrades in the boy’s home.

Finally the story ends with the mouse asking for yet another glass of milk, alerting readers of the bleak future of endless subservience and dependency that has taken root in the characters lives.

It’s important that we teach our children the damage a welfare state can wreak upon the middle and working class people. But this book’s lessons aren’t just for laborers, it also reveals that welfare creates, as the great Henry F. Potter once opined:  “a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty, working class.”

Most young readers and even many adults aren’t ready to tackle the visions of Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard head on, but If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is an age appropriate and timeless introduction to these important social and political ideals.

The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hahn by Thich Nhat Hahn

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If you’ve spent anytime researching or studying Zen Mindfulness, comparative religion, monasticism or non-violence you’ve probably heard of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called Thay). He’s been a hugely influential, worldwide leader in these areas since the early 60’s.

I was introduced to Thay via Thomas Merton who was a famous Catholic Monk from my home state of Kentucky. He and Thay worked together to spread a message of non-violence during the Vietnam War. They also co-authored some books and gave lectures illuminating the path for religious dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monastics. Since both men spoke about things that were important me from two traditions that I find helpful, I added Thay to my list of authors to read.

After reading a few of Thay’s books I have noticed a hit and miss pattern for myself. His work is extremely accessible compared to Merton’s. It’s far less esoteric and abstract which makes the benefits of Zen Mindfulness far more approachable regardless of a person’s religious tradition or background. Thay’s approach lacks the religious overtones of other Buddhist teachers like D.T. Suzuku.

At the same time much of Thay’s work is terrible repetitive within single works and across multiple works. I can’t recall how many times I’ve read the following in Thay’s books.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I notice my breath has become deep.
Breathing out, I notice my breath has become slow.

Breathing in, I calm my body and my mind.
Breathing out, I am at ease.

Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release.

Breathing in, I got back to the present moment.
Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment.

In, Out.
Deep. Slow.
Calm. Ease.
Smile. Release.
Present moment, Wonderful moment.

That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful, thoughtful insides in between, but when anybody brings up Thay in conversation that passage pop’s into my mind. So for me Thay’s work depends on how fresh it feels v.s. over repetition of certain ideas.

I was actually very interested in this particular book because it was something that seemed really new and creative for Thay’s type of literature. The focus would be on his artwork, Zen Calligraphy, rather than his teachings. I was previously unaware of what Zen calligraphy was or even that Thay was a practitioner. Unfortunately it disappointed me on both fronts.

This Moment is Full of Wonders is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different aspect of mindfulness like conscious breathing, mindful walking, and being present. Each section contains around ten to fifteen examples of Thay’s calligraphy and a paragraph about that chapter’s topic. Understandably the calligraphic images are short, pithy, Zen mantras like “Peace in myself, Peace in the World” and “The Moment is Now.” That written sections are very, very brief and are taken from transcripts from some of Thay’s Dharma Talks. Unfortunately they were mostly the types of Thay-ism that he repeats ad nauseam in a lot of his works.

What was strange to me is that this book isn’t really about Zen calligraphy at all. The introduction offers no background information about what Zen calligraphy is or entails. There are no images or discussion of the tools and processes of Zen calligraphy or even a picture of Thay practicing the art. (I had to get on YouTube for that.) When I finished this book down I didn’t know or appreciate anything more about the history, process, purpose, benefits, or art of Zen calligraphy or Zen Buddhism. It’s regrettable because without some of those insights I found the art form to be a bit dull and boring on it’s own.

I can’t recommend this book to anybody unless they are already knowledgeable and interested in Zen calligraphy or are Thay completists. Honestly, if you are a person that desires to read or collect Thay’s work this one is skippable. In my opinion it was clearly thrown together by a publisher without any real thought or goal in mind besides shipping a few units. I think you can gain as much, if not more, than this book offers by spending a few minutes on YouTube or Wikipedia.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Spark Joy by Marie Kondo

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I’ll be the first to admit that I have a touch of the OCD. I don’t have an irrational fear of germs or a strong urge to clean, but I do tend to slip into serious bouts of agitation and discomfort about clutter. Sometimes I can’t sit down, relax, sleep because all I can see is things that need picked up and organized.

I also occasionally struggle with depression which exacerbates my obsession with tidiness. Sometimes this is good, like when I clean and organize every closet in the house, but usually I just become an insufferable human being.

It was during the tail-end of such an episode that I ordered a copy of Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy. (I don’t remember ordering it because I did so while I was in an Ambien stupor trying to get some sleep.) When the book arrived a week or so later I was surprised and confused. It didn’t seem like the kind of book I would order, but the subject was definitely interesting.

Spark Joy is sort of a supplement to author Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Spark Joy is more about the specific tasks within the method, like how to fold, organize, and sort things. For readers who aren’t familiar with the Konmari Method the first section of the book is devoted to explaining it.

Just like any great philosophy Marie Kondo’s starts by naming the problem. In her view we are drowning in our own clutter. We have far more things than we need. Rather than bringing the happiness they promise, the extra possessions actually cause us to be miserable. She believes that tidying isn’t just a physical process, but an emotional one. Her solution to our consumption based misery: keep only what sparks joy and toss the rest.

What was most appealing to me about this philosophy is that it wasn’t a preachy, one-size fits all solution. It requires people to take the time to become aware of the relationship they have with their possessions. As our world has become more consumeristic this skill has been lost. We no longer really know why we want certain things, why we own them, or what role they serve in our lives. Marie Kondo’s approach requires a person to slow down and seek that understanding about each thing they own.

Marie’s method asks practitioners to gather up, touch, smell, gaze at, and embrace each possession. She wants people to be aware of their own physical responses to objects. How does this item make them feel? Does it cause anxiousness? Frustration? Grief? Nostalgia? Happiness? Nothing? If it doesn’t elicit happiness then it’s time to get rid of it.

Initially I scoffed at this idea. I have lots of things I don’t need that bring me joy. I have cases of books and music, bins of gadgetry, and boxes of bric-a-brac. I also have plenty things I need that don’t bring me joy like a box of tools and a riding lawn mower. This seemed like irrational idealism. But, anticipating these objections, the author addressed my concerns. She explains that one must learn to understand the nuances of nostalgia, utility and joy.

For example, in the case of a book which I have already read, will I really ever read the book again? Is there something about the physical object that brings me joy or is it the ideas I gleaned from the book? Maybe the book recalls joyous memories of the experience of reading it. She proposes that in most cases there is ego, nostalgia, or something other than the book itself at the root of that “joy.” When that’s the case it may be time to thank the book for what it has given and let it go to a new owner.

What about tools and other utilitarian objects that don’t bring joy? Kondo suggests that again our definition of joy has been warped by overabundance. I don’t feel as if my riding lawn mower brings me any joy whatsoever. I don’t enjoy mowing the lawn, maintaining the mower, or storing it every winter. The author suggest that if I take the time to be mindful of my relationship with the lawn mower I will begin to see the joy it brings.

It allows me to mow the lawn in the half the time it would take otherwise. It allows me to sit while I mow rather than pushing a clunky machine up hills and around trees. It gives my daughters joyous, scream filled rides around the yard. While I feel mowing is a waste of time, my mower gives me more time to enjoy other things. My life would be less joyful without my riding mower even though the act of mowing the lawn brings me no joy. (A fact I’m acutely aware of when my riding mower isn’t working!) My relationship to my riding mower has been warped and taken for granted. It is an object that brings me joy!

The second part, and majority of the book, is an illustrated encyclopedia of tidying techniques. It contains useful tricks for folding clothes, organizing drawers & closets, storing important documents, and displaying sentimental items. Each tip has step-by-step illustration to make it easy to understand. Some of the tricks seemed like overkill to me, especially the clothes folding techniques. If I attempted to fold my families clothes using Marie’s methods it would take me a week. It’s an accomplishment that our laundry gets done, folded at all, so aesthetic folds and drawer placement aren’t on my radar. Thankfully these tips were presented as a take-it, leave-it, or adapt-it offering. There wasn’t any pressure of failure if you don’t choose to do things exactly as suggested.

I also like how Marie addressed family differences in the third section. There will be multiple attitudes towards tidiness or what sparks joy within a household. She encourages readers to engage physically and mentally with their loved ones possessions to understand the joy those objects spark for them. She also promotes each person having a personal “powerspace” that reflects their personality. These “powerspaces” become a place for each person to retreat, recharge, and spark joy.

Over all I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. It presents a very fresh and healthy perspective on personal possessions, one that I think many would find useful. Although some parts of the method are zealous and foreign to our western culture, it’s good to be challenged by differing viewpoints. I think this Marie Kondo’s approach is holistic and deals with the root problem of our relationship to our stuff while offering techniques to change it. Spark Joy is an excellent introduction to her ideas and I’d be interested in reading Kondo’s first book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up after reading this book.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.