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In this issue:
Summer, my brain, and Mare of Easttown
Lupine and Loons of the Lake: A Soap Opera
Lauren Hough, Elizabeth McCracken, Summer Reads
Book Adoption and Zen in The Evening Over The Missouri River
“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”― Henry James
Learning to Pay Attention - and Other Brain Changers
Summer is creeping into my bones. There are days when I feel I have started to exhale a breath I’ve been holding for months. My ears fill up with birdsong when I take my morning walks. Last weekend, we gathered with friends to celebrate a wedding. The solid bank of gray that blanketed us for two weeks is thinning, moving off, clearing patches of sky and sun. Zucchini the size of zeppelins have taken over the garden.
I’m sharing these details with you because I’m trying to pay more attention to the little things these days. There are all kinds of excellent reasons for paying attention. For one thing it makes for a nicer conversation in the morning if, when I am looking at my husband’s face while he speaks, I’m actually listening to what he’s saying instead of wondering if I have any more clean underwear or replaying the last scenes of Mare of Easttown in my head to see if I still approve of the ending. [I’m still not 100% satisfied with it. And would anyone tell me the purpose of the Guy Pearce character who kind of hung around like a vestigial organ?]
Turns out it would be better for my brain if I cleared all that debris out and focused on him. We spent a little quality time with PBS the other night watching Build a Better Brain Through Science. We wanted to see what we were doing right. And wrong. And how to hang onto our respective memories because we’ve watched folks we love struggle from dementia and it’s not fun. The show highlights several practical ways to boost your memory and foster a more resilient brain, all supported by research:
Cultivate and nurture joyful memories
Get regular sleep
Relieve stress with meditation
Learn new things
They seem obvious when you look at them - they are among the basic building blocks of being a whole, balanced, and probably happier person. If I look at this list as a report card, though, I'd average C-minus across the board. The thing I noticed is that each factor is something I can control. No one can do any of these for me and I don’t have to rely on a pill (well except, sometimes, for sleep). Watching it was like a getting a nudge between the shoulder blades from my mother when I was thirteen. I hated it. I needed it. I have to admit that it’s time to stop fearing memory loss and do what I can to up my game a little.
Here are some more things to read about all this:
Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain At Any Age (Book) by Sanjay Gupta M.D. who recommends, among other things, blueberries for brain food.
“The Exact Amount of Time You Need to Read Each Day to Boost Your Brain Health” (Article) by Meredith Schneider
“The New Science of Sleep : Everything We Know About How it Affects Your Health and Your Brain” (Article) from BBS Science Focus
The euphoria of last week’s “breakthrough” on my novel-in-progress turned into a slog this week but I still wrote over 1,000 words a day and got myself to a point where the next steps are much clearer than they were. I’m just going to trust this process.
This field of lupine you see before you is the result of my mother’s lupine relocation program executed decades ago. Whenever she passed a stand of lupine in a field or roadside distant enough from anyone who looked like an owner, she would stop and with the shovel she kept in the car, she’d dig up a few plants and bring them home. We, like many, labored under the myth that she could be arrested for this. It provided a little drama to our lives. Turns out, though, that there is no fine for picking wild lupine and the only thing Mom risked was a case of poison ivy or some black fly bites when she waded into the brush.
Over the years, the plants settled in and multiplied. She knows when the summer has finally started when the purple spikes appear on the hillside outside her kitchen window. When her annual photo arrives, we know too.
Loons of the Lake: A Soap Opera
Speaking of paying attention, summer, and the state where I grew up, I can’t stop thinking about some news passed along to me about the loons of Pleasant Lake in New Hampshire. It’s one of the oldest story lines around: male loon ditches long-time mate for younger model. (These photos were taken by Jen Esten and Jon Waage).
The drama was captured by close observers of all things lake and loon and chronicled in words and photos. According to the reports passed to me, the male loon was on site and already flirting with a younger female when his mate of 14 years showed up. Yes she is older, 20. But apparently she wasn’t ready to go without a fight. The females faced off a few times while, naturally, the male pretended he had nothing to do with it and dithered around the nesting area waiting to see who showed up.
I felt a pang in my heart when I read that the younger loon “won” and has already produced an egg. The older female was reduced to following them around like a demoted wife in Big Love. Since the egg appeared, she has not been sighted. I like to think she found herself a boy toy and is going to start a new chapter. I’m pulling for her. To be continued...
Short Read: Spooky Action at a Distance
This piece called “Entangled” is short but it poses a question that I keep coming back to: once we’ve connected with someone, do we stay connected even when we are separated by time and distance? See what you think.
Just finished Reading...
....Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough -- I mentioned this book last week and finished it this week. Wow. Story and voice are the two things that make a memoir really work for me, that and something universal that I can hang onto. Hough packs all of that into 10 linked essays that move back and forth from a childhood in a cult, The Family of God, to her five years in the Air Force during the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; from trying to suppress her attraction to women to embracing who she is; from doing any job she had to do to keep dry and to eat: bouncer, bartender, cable technician to the writer she always wanted to be. This is not a feel-good story -- Hough’s story is also a mirror and as we read, we see how the world we’ve made is so difficult to inhabit for those who don’t fit the standard mold or who are poor or who are working on the fringes. It hurts at times but then you come to passages like this:
“But the thing I know about depression is if you want to survive it, you have to train yourself to hold on; when you can see no reason to keep going, you cannot imagine a future worth seeing, you keep moving anyway. That’s not delusion. That’s hope. It’s a muscle you exercise so it’s strong when you need it. You feed it with books and art and dogs who rest their head on your leg, and human connection with people who are genuinely interested and excited; you feed it with growing a tomato and baking sourdough and making a baby laugh and standing at the edge of oceans and feeling a horse’s whiskers on your palm and bear hugs and late-night talks over whiskey and a warm happy sigh on your neck and the unexpected perfect song on the radio, and mushroom trips with a friend who giggles at the way the trees aren’t acting right, and jumping in creeks, and lying in the grass under the stars, and driving with the windows down on a swirly two-lane road. You stock up like a fucking prepper buying tubs of chipped beef and powdered milk and ammo.”
“It’s comforting to know what happens next. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that no one fucking knows. And it’s terrifying. I don’t dream of a home and a family, a career and financial stability. I dream of living. And my inner voice, defective though it may be, still tells me happiness and peace, belonging and love, all lie just around the next corner, the next city, the next country. Just keep moving and hope the next place will be better. It has to be. Just around the next bend, everything is beautiful. And it breaks my heart.”
I loved this book.
Also: The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken
The Souvenir Museum, a collection of stories, opens with “The Irish Wedding” the story of a new couple traveling to a family event together for the first time. I was weeping with laughter by the time I finished it. It reminded me of everything good and bad that can happen when one member of a couple is thrust into the heart of the other’s family for the first time. The couple who travels to the wedding crops up again throughout the book and we see them merge, solidify, pull apart, come together. In between, there are other people, a ventriloquist, an ex-husband who meets his son at a souvenir museum, a fading star of a children’s show. Elizabeth McCracken is one of my favorite writers. She likes to introduce oddities and elements of the bizarre and big, bold characters but they remain grounded in their humanity, their entanglements, their loves, their hopes. If you’ve not read her before, start with her debut: The Giant’s House and work your way to Bowlaway, her last novel before this short story collection.
Summer Reads From Around The Web
What are you reading this summer? If you’re looking for ideas, here are a few from the Interwebs:
From NPR: Four New Books To Read for Pride Month
From Seattle Book Review: Beach Reads To Kick Off Summer
From The New York Times Book Review: Summer Reading
If you’re into soaps, here’s another one
Some folks send newsy letters, others just go ahead and write stories. Rachel Macaulay of Edinburgh will send you installments to her soap opera The Links, a “little light entertainment with drama, romance, intrigue” all in an email that you can read in 3 minutes, 3 times a week.
Adopt This Book
I’ve got some books that need a new home. I’ll post them here on a regular basis. All have to do is like this post, comment, or, if all else fails, email me. I’ll add your name to the hopper, draw a name at random and send it to you.
This week, I’m looking to re-home a signed hard copy of Less, by Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Sean Greer. It’s a witty, funny, heart-filled story of midlife crisis love with a lovely twist at the end. Perfect vacation read but also good at any time.
Before I go, just wanted to give you a heads up that I’ll be reaching out to a lot of you in the next couple of weeks to ask for your input on how we can make Spark better but please don’t wait for me to ask. If you’ve got ideas, tell me. I want to know: what do you want more of? Less of? Is there something you’ve been thinking about that you’d like to see us talk about here? Email me any time by just hitting reply to this email.
And if you DO like something you’ve found here today, let me know by hitting the “like” button (the heart) down below and/or leaving a comment. It’s fun to hear from you and I am ready to pay very close attention to your feedback :). Also - spread the word! Here’s a button for that:
As always, browse for any of the books mentioned in this or any issue of Spark at the Spark Community Recommendations Page at bookshop.org where every purchase supports local bookstores. Any commission we make on the sales will go to support a literacy program we all choose when we’ve got enough to make a difference.
Ciao, see you next week.
P.S. And now, here’s your moment of Zen…Fire Over the Missouri River
Sandra deHelen’s first post-pandemic trip was to her family in Missouri where the sun honored her with this display.
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!