There is something about digging in the dirt, planting a garden and pulling weeds that is nurturing and healing. For me, reading about it is an equally healing experience especially when the writing is as visual and thoughtful as the writing of David Mas Masumoto. I have read and reread his book, Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring. He is a third generation Japanese-American peach farmer and his description of life on his farm is such sensual writing that you can almost taste the peaches.

One hundred years ago his grandparents arrived in America with dreams of owning land, farming and raising a family. They rented land, planted fruit trees and grape vines; survived the Great Depression and continued with their work of raising food and family. But December 7, 1941 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed their expectations of a better life in America. The family was interred in the Gila River relocation camp in the Arizona desert and lost everything. 

Then Masumoto's father was drafted. "Lock up our family behind barbed wire in the middle of a desert and then draft me?" He was on his way to Europe when Germany surrendered. In 1950, he took a chance and bought a small farm in the Central Valley near Fresno, California. He lavished care on his trees and vines. 

"Good pruning is really the art of taking away, like a sculptor chiseling at a rock, working to uncover life inside. Dad paced around the grapevine, paused and clipped, leaning in and cutting: eyes darting back and forth, searching for the strong canes, locating spurs for next year's growth. He worked with the past and saw the future--adding to a living timeline."

In his biography, Wisdom of the Last Farmer, Masumoto writes, "As we move on, we leave behind our stories in interior and exterior landscapes. The looming fog of death, the passing of time, the nature of change all lead us to greater self-awareness, and to a final transformation We mourn the loss of our people and miss them. But we continue to tell their stories." 

This, indeed, is the continuing story of how the family cared for his father after a stroke, how working on the land even in a limited way was healing and life-giving, how the family continues to raise organic, juicy fruit. 

This book stirred up so many of my own memories. Everybody has a junk drawer in the kitchen or the garage that collects odd bits of wire, screws, batteries and small tools, but this is nothing compared to my Dad's barn of objects too good to throw away because 'I might need it sometime to fix something.' And he most often found a use for many of his treasures. I was tickled by the chapter "Perfect Junk" in which Mr. Masumoto talks about the farmer's junk pile at a farm conference. An old farmer responds, "Out here we don't call them 'junk piles'. We call them 'inventory'." 

Masumoto writes a whole chapter on the varieties of heritage flavorful peaches. It reminded me of the grocer in our small town calling my mother to say, "Lois, the Elberta's are in." We girls then knew it was time to bake pies, to peel and can and sample a few rich juicy morsels of the Elberta peaches. I remember, too, the Red Haven and Hale peaches. Now I long to taste a fresh Sun Crest peach straight from one of the Masumoto trees.

 

Kay Redfield Jamison is a courageous woman and a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. She is also a manic depressive. One of her early books, An Unquiet Mind, reveals her madness, attempted suicide and mental illness.

Her latest book, Nothing Was the Same, is the story of losing her beloved husband, Richard, to cancer and her survival beyond his death. It is also much more. She teaches us about mental illness, depression, grief and loss, and points out the disturbing gap between what scientists and doctors know about mental illness and what most people believe.

"Moods are contagious; they spread from those afflicted to those who are not. It is rare for even an experienced clinician to remain unaffected by a manic or depressed patient. For those who do not have the protective cloak of professional training, or who are personally involved, it is next to impossible to maintain equanimity."

"Brevity [in manic/depressive episodes] in itself buys no protection. Graham Greene observed that a Mediterranean storm may be over in a few hours, but while it lasts, it is savage enough to drown a ship full of men."

Kay and Richard have a special and wonderful relationship.
   
"[He] was clinically and scientifically knowledgeable about manic depression, and was aware of its genetic basis; he was not inclined to attribute to character what he knew to be disease. He was curious by nature, in the habit of careful observation and he possessed a charitable slant on odd behavior. He was able to make me laugh in the midst of truly awful situations, and he loved me in a way I never questioned."

When Kay decided to reveal her manic depression in her book, An Unquiet Mind, she was wary of being labeled by her colleagues as a manic-depressive psychologist, rather than being seen as a  psychologist who happened to have manic-depressive illness.

Richard supports her all the way and in his own inimitable style arranges one of his treasure hunts in their hotel room in Rome. He fills the tub with rose petals and lilacs flowers, hiding among them a small pill bottle with a note inside: "check the bed".

"It was a hunt. Richard was in his element. After a prolonged search of our exceedingly large bed. I found a small red box. It was from a jeweler in Rome and inside, on silk, was an antique gold ring. Underneath one of the pillows was a note. "Thank you for the happiest year of my life," Richard had scratched in his dyslexic hand. "I know that talking and writing about your illness has been hard. I am very proud of you -- not only as your husband, but as your colleague."

In these pages is hope for the depressed and for their families.
"When I talk to students, so many of whom have tried to kill themselves,. I tell them that it is hard to get well and that it is hard to stay well, but that it can be done. I find myself using Richard's words: Take your medication. Learn about you illness. Question your doctor. Watch your sleep. Use common sense about recreational drugs and alcohol. Reach out to others…"

I dare you to read Nothing Was the Same without shedding a tear or falling in love with Richard, beloved husband of Kay.

Kay Redfield Jamison speaks in Portland on "The Mercurial Mind: Bipolar Disorder and Creativity" on February 22, 2010 as part of the OHSU Brain Institute lecture series.

The colorful cover catches your eye -- a group of smiling grandmothers in vivid costume from many countries of the world have joined hands. The sparkling gold stars and slimness of the book are attractive. The story is simple -- two grandmothers stand in the park all day long and soon have everyone in town talking. More grandmothers join. Why? Read this charming book by Sharon Mehdi to find out.

And the "story of the story" is equally enjoyable. The idea for The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering was born at a corner table in the café upstairs over Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, Oregon. "I remembered something a Native American elder said to me a very long time ago: Men have taken the world as far as they can. It's up to the women to lead us the rest of the way."

Originally intended as a birthday gift for a granddaughter, it was shared with a group of women in the café who then decided that they should have copies to take to a conference. The book grew into a booklet and was read in the Bloomsbury bookstore. Soon orders started coming in from all over the world. Now you can check out a copy here at the library.

I seem to be at a crossroads in my life now and two books that I read recently have sparked me to do some deep examining. The first is a mystery by James Sallis called Salt River. His main character, John Turner is an ex-policeman, ex-con, war veteran and former therapist who wonders, "how much a man can lose and how much music he can make with what he has left."  

One of the characters talking about the troubles of a young man says that the boy had a hard life, "Not making apologies, and I know he brought a lot of it on himself. But there wasn't much that was easy for him, such that you had to wonder what kept him going." Turner then muses, "I had been wondering that, ever since I could remember, about all of us."

One thing that keeps me going is the pleasure I find in good writing, like this sentence spoken by Doc Oldham in Salt River, "Got more wrong with me than a hospital full of leftovers. Asthma, diabetes, heart trouble. Enough metal in me to sink a good-size fishing boat."

Part of the great pleasure of the second book, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, was listening to Wanda McCaddon read it on CD as I read it.  I sometimes read ahead of the recording; sometimes listened to fresh parts that I hadn't read, told in the narrator's rich Irish accent. What a nice way to enhance the reading!

The story reveals two very different versions of an Irish girl's life. Roseanne McNulty, once the most beautiful girl in all of Sligo, is incarcerated in the Roscommon Mental hospital. Now 100 years old, she is writing her life story and hides it beneath the floorboards in her bedroom.

Meanwhile the hospital is preparing to close and her caregiver, Dr. Grene is evaluating the patients to decide which ones can be returned to society. He begins to visit Roseanne and to listen to her story. He also discovers a document written by a local priest whose story of Roseanne is very different from her own tale. As they come to know each other, they uncover long buried secrets about themselves.

Roseanne says, "My father's curious happiness was most clearly evident in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories and events composed for him a ragged gospel."

I think that this is also true of Roseanne and the telling of her own story and how she coped with the events of her life. Along with her story, we are given glimpses of life in a small community in Ireland from the early part of the 20th century to the present time.

Roseanne and Dr. Grene come to respect each other. He says, "There has never been a person in an old people's home that hasn't looked around dubiously at the other inhabitants. They are the old ones, they are the club that no one wants to join. But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body."
  
Dr. Grene is also grieving the recent death of his wife."Too much thinking on death. Yet it is the music of our time. As the millennium passed fools like myself thought we were about to taste a century of peace." Roseanne observes him with compassionate eyes, "he was looking into that strange place, the middle distance, the most mysterious, human, and rich of all distances. And from his eyes came slowly tears, immaculate human tears, before the world touches them."

How can you go wrong with such lovely language!

I'm not much of a short story reader, but every once in awhile a story will strike my fancy. This happened with Ed McClanahan's hilarious story, "How's that again" in his book O the Clear Moment. Ed's wife has been after him to get a hearing aid, but of course, he is not ready to hear this. One day at the car wash, he discovers why he needs to listen to her advice.

"I roll the window down halfway (for the purpose of telling him to stop mumbling, fer crissakes) and hear instead 'Take your foot off the brake and take the car out of gear!' (as any competent audiologist can tell you, 'put' and 'take' sound remarkable alike under certain atmospheric conditions), but before I can sort out and obey these apparently contradictory instructions the car lurches forward - 'lurch' is going to be the operative word from here on - and I see to my horror that rushing toward me is this great hideous spongy pink alien thing with long flabby tentacles slapping at my fenders, my hood, my windshield, and now these vile slimy pink tendrils are actually inside the car, flippetty-flappetty-flopping through the still half-open window, invading my personal space and flinging nasty car wash juices all over me and my glasses and my nice upholstery and my new goatsuede jacket, and I frantically trying to poke them back out with one hand while fumbling for the electric window button with the other, but the more tentacles I push out the more come flopping in behind them... "

And you can imagine the rest.

Jane McCafferty's Thank You for the Music is another book to try. This collection of short stories is about the silences and the connections that can develop between strangers. My favorite is the story "Dear Mr. Springsteen" which shows how a love of music creates a momentary bond between an aging lonely white woman and an African American boy.

Happy Reading.  

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