Barkskins: Book Review (La Gaspésie — 2)

barkskins

  • A generational saga ~ the four hundred years’ narrative of two families, one First Nations from what the area known today as Quebec and the Maritimes, and one European, specifically French, eventually reaching Chicago and western North America;
  • The story of the destruction of the North American forests, a devastating attack which takes entrepreneurs to China and spreads as far as New Zealand;
  • The harrowing details of the devastation which white settlers, trappers, missionaries, and purveyors of commerce visited upon those whose fished and hunted and understood as sacred the lands of North America, and the beginnings of the conservation movement, wholly inadequate to address the losses which will take a millennium from which to recover;
  • A female anti-heroine, oddly compelling in her single-minded pursuit of trees and money:

Barkskins is a riveting, albeit loooong novel.  At one point, unable to keep track of the multitude of characters and their relationships (unfortunately, the illuminating family trees are located in the back of the book, and I did not discover them until I was finished), I put it aside, but several days later found myself drawn back, and finished every page.

North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a brutal place, one in which violence was common and in which people lived and worked in the midst of constant danger.  Annie Proulx does not mince details; pages and scenes in Barkskins require a strong stomach.

It was also a place of a seemingly endless supply of natural resources, and the greed carelessness with which the Europeans destroyed them ~ birds, mammals, waters, forests ~ is well known, but documented with  harrowing precision in this novel.  The term “barkskins” refers to the woodsmen who logged and transformed the forest into ships, houses, and furniture, swiftly and remorselessly.)

It’s a difficult read, made more so by the speed with which some of the characters are dismissed within a short space of having been introduced.  (And the ironic twist by which the families, unknown to themselves, become re-connected in the twentieth century, is rendered nearly invisible, and those back pages are required to clarify it.) But it’s also a fascinating read, in its attention to period detail and its sweep across human emotion and entanglement.

I did not choose this book with my upcoming trip to Gaspésie in mind; I chose it because I admire and enjoy Annie Proulx’s writing.  However, as I paused every few pages to google yet another reference ~ tribes, families, places, historical events ~ I discovered that much of it is set in eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Maine, and so it took on added meaning for me.  The friend with whom I am travelling and I had been focused on the Gaspésie coastline for our travels, but I am now trying to ensure that we at least dip into the interior of the peninsula, so that we can see something of the forests that once dominated this continent.

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“You do not understand the saying ‘tian ren he yi.’ It refers to a state of harmony between people and nature.  You do not feel this.  No European does.  I cannot explain it to you.  It is a kind of personal philosophy for each person, yet it is everything.” (Hong merchant Wiqua to French trader Charles Duquet in Barkskins.)

 

 

 

 

When I’m 64 ~ 3

64th

On the plus side: I had a great birthday!  My family arrived and, picnic gear assembled, we headed to our city’s outdoor ampitheatre for dinner on the lawn and an Apollo’s Fire concert of music by Vivaldi.  Apollo’s Fire plays baroque music using period instruments, and Vivaldi is often my favorite composer, so it was a wonderful evening for me.  The last time I heard The Four Seasons performed live,  we were in St. Chappelle in Paris on a simmering summer evening; Saturday evening was as delightful, and a good deal more pleasant insofar as temperatures were concerned.

On the downside, no sooner I had resolved, as I described in my last post, that the future would hold more time for family and friends than . . . it didn’t.  As I opened gifts on Saturday evening before our picnic, I learned that my daughter had spent the previous several days organizing a surprise birthday party for me for the night before!  A party that had been cancelled because I was conducting a funeral that evening. I was crushed when the surprise was inadvertently revealed by my son (who assumed that I must have known by then) ~ I had had NO idea and have always wished that someone would plan a surprise party for me!  Well, as a friend pointed out, I did get my wish  . . .  someone did plan a party.

A few nights later, I missed my book club, a bi-monthly gathering of women friends, because I was en route home from an out-of-state training event.  I am so often flummoxed in my efforts to spend more time on my own relationships, and so disappointed when that happens; I am beginning to see retirement as a necessity more for creating time with those I love than for anything else!

 

When I’m Sixty-Four . . . 2

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. . . tomorrow!  Four things to which I am looking forward, to accompany yesterday’s six for which I am grateful:

  1. A better balance in life, meaning more time with friends, more time getting to know people new in my life, more time outdoors, more time for photography.  That’s a lot of more, which means that there also has to be some less.  It’s so easy, in a life of ministry, to allow the demands of the work to consume all waking hours and then some, which is not healthy for any of us.
  2. Changes in physical space.  I know, I know, I’ve been talking about downsizing for years, but really . . . all this stuff has got to go!  Our kitchen is an antique and I’d really like to remodel that, enjoy the house for a few more years, and then move to our retirement bungalow.  (Or perhaps sell the house as is and move for a new adventure?)
  3. Better health.  I am indeed grateful for what I have, but there is plenty of room for improvement.  It’s all a crapshoot, but if I’m still around at 74, I’d like to be facing the following decade with less weight and more strength and more flexibility (that means any) than I have now.
  4. And, of course, travel.  Last night at a party, a few of us talked about our bucket lists.  Mine increasingly include a desire to spend a substantial amount of time in a few places and get to know them a little, including Alaska, Vancouver and BC, Quebec and the Maritimes, the Cinque Terre, more Utah, more PNW, more Paris, more Scotland.  My grandmother and I spent my 13th birthday in Copenhagen and my 15th in Florence ~ maybe I should be working on future birthday plans!

When I’m Sixty-Four . . . 1

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. . . which I will be in two days, I am hoping to look back and forward with gratitude and hope.  So, today, six things for which I am grateful and, tomorrow, four to which I look forward!

  1. 1. My parents.  I barely remember my mother, but those moments etched into the grooves of my mind confirm that she was a woman open to all, unfailingly generous, and patient with her ever inquisitive and persistent firstborn child.  I’ve recorded this before, but one of my favorite memories is one in which I was waiting for her to get off the telephone in the kitchen one afternoon, so that I could ask about a new word I had just overheard. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, what does ‘dammit’ mean?”  Definition: “That’s not a word for little girls.”  My father, on the other hand, lived until almost his 85th birthday last year.  As I prepared for his memorial, I realized that despite his lifetime of disappointments (three wives, one son, one stepson, and one grandson all died before he did) and his rejection of any traditional faith as a possible source of solace (a response I find completely understandable), he was a deeply spiritual man in his passions for nature, canoeing into the back country, and music.
  2. My education.  Each stage offered different gifts, some of them intellectual, but many much broader.  A small, rural elementary school. (Cows on the other side of the playground fence). A Catholic convent boarding school. (Vatican II).  A demanding New England boarding school. New England colleges.  Law school in Cleveland.  Jesuit training in spiritual direction.  A seminary education in Pittsburgh.  If I were younger (and richer), I’d go back for a D.Min.
  3. My family.  A long marriage.  Three beautiful, funny, inventive children.  Today, the prospect of a daughter-in-law and grandson.  More sorrow than anyone should have to swallow, but I guess I learned a few things (all of which I would trade in a nanosecond, along with everything else in my life excepting my surviving children, for one more day with my son).
  4. Good work to do.  It has been my privilege to accompany people through some of the roughest moments in their lives as they have negotiated divorces and custody decisions, to teach students of all ages, to do volunteer work that has mattered ~ in nature and in suicide prevention,and to serve God and, a little bit, the world, through ordained ministry.  (I also happen to know how to make GI Joe flashlights on an assembly line, how to serve endless rounds of hamburgers and beer, how to whip a hotel room into shape while watching soap operas (do the bathrooms during the commercials), and how to order and display drugstore cosmetics.)  The best thing about every job I have ever held has been the people ~ the ladies in the Hasbro factory, the folks who taught me about birds and about photography, the clients who shared their deepest fears and frustrations with me, the students who taught me about Orthodox Judaism,  the parishoners who have welcomed me on even my worst days, and the people who push for health, especially mental health, care, education, legislation, and funding.
  5. Some reasonable good health.  I have been careless and lazy and had some major stumbles along the way (and now, oh, those knees!), but I am grateful for a body which  has recovered again and again.   On the whole, I can walk a long way, paddle a canoe, and get through the day ~ no small things.
  6. Nature.  The skies and all that swirls through them, the mountains and beaches and lakes and rivers and canyons I’ve seen and those I haven’t, the hikes and paddles I’ve made, the animals and birds (including the ones who’ve lived in my house) who ignore us but make this world so much more than it would be were we here alone.  Most especially the owls and the hawks and the gannets.  If I have a theme poem, it’s Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese.  “The world offers itself to your imagination.”

It turns out that 64 means a lot of life. Not yet “Yours sincerely, wasting away!”

 

Family

Casha and AlyasaI puzzle over questions of race and religion and nationality as I try to figure out where my piece is and how it interlocks with the others.  I preach and teach about diversity and global community, even as I know that those matters are more complex than I want to admit, because my deepest gut desire is for people to love and enjoy and celebrate one another.  But the truth is that I mostly hang out with white Protestant Americans who are about my age and live in the suburbs as I do.  I didn’t do much to make that happen, and I haven’t done much to change it.

And so the world has come to me, and my incoming family members have brought their own identities and histories right into my living room and said, “Here we are, full of love and peace and joy and hope!”

 

 

 

Talking About Race

I wondered, yesterday, about posting a few sentences about my discomfort in speaking in a varied racial context.  It’s a difficult topic, one with which I have become less, rather than more, comfortable over the years.  As with pretty much everything, the more you learn, the less you know.

I grew up in a family (in a rural, all white, Midwestern community) in which overt bigotry and discrimination were not tolerated.  I remember well the shock I felt when I discovered in junior high that my maternal grandmother was vocally and unrepentantly racist.  My mother was long gone by that point, so I couldn’t ask her about it; all I could manage at that juncture was to absorb that my extended family and my immediate family were two distinct entities with respect to questions of race.

But the lack of overt racism in my family concealed something just as insidious — an unarticulated attitude that “there are no differences among us,” which disguises, at least for white people when in the majority, a belief that “everyone is the same to the extent that everyone is like us.”

As the decades passed, I learned differently.  Even in our universal longings ~ for love, for kindness, for peace, for justice ~ we differ in that we hope and speak and act from different experiences and different perspectives.  My own dream is always to celebrate our distinctiveness while growing in relationship, but I am finding it harder to know how to do that in honest and generous ways.

My own primary experience of having been the “outsider” was my six years of teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school, in which I was one of about five Christian teachers in a faculty of about 50, and in which every student was either a Conservative or Orthodox Jew.  It was a period of learning to listen and hear differently, and learning to understand in my bones and heart rather than merely in my intellect that my community and individual perspectives were not family rooms in which to lounge with the relaxed confidence of being a member of the dominant culture, but posed significant challenges to all of us in this world.

When I served a church in the same neighborhood as the one in which I participated yesterday, our congregation was joyfully diverse ~ but we only had two years before we closed, and had only just begun to explore our back stories together.  My last and present churches are nearly 100% white in communities similarly constituted, and questions of race barely ripple the surface.

The more we learn, the less we know.

 

Women’s Ministry

I was a little nervous.  Maybe more than a little.  A friend and colleague from my days in another church and community, a pastor with whom I had shared monthly gatherings as part of an ecumenical ministry group, had invited me to spend today as one of the speakers for her annual Women’s Week-end.  “What do you want me to do?” I asked insistently.  “Just tell your story,” she responded.

I was a little nervous.  For one thing, I don’t really do that ~ tell my story, out loud, in big public settings.  I went to a Biblical storytelling conference last winter; a compelling educational week, filled with ideas new to me, with exciting ideas for ministry, and with a community of gracious, generous women clergy.  Several of them signed up to tell their own stories one evening.  I wasn’t one of them.  I guessed, mostly correctly,  that the participants would be telling stories with good endings; stories, that is, in which everyone is still alive at the end.  Not one of my stories.

For another thing, my friend and colleague is African American and, while I knew her church to be genuinely and lovingly diverse, I wondered whether anyone would care about what I had to say, or how I would say it.  Black preaching is different from white preaching.  The black clergywomen I know exude an inner and fearless power that . . . I don’t.  (A lot of white clergywomen do, too, of course.  But my style is different.  Very WASPy in a reserved sort of way.) Also, black churchwomen tend to wear hats ~ elaborate hats.  I don’t have any hats.   I am good with as much diversity as possible, but I was actually quite nervous about the hat issue.

Ah, well, I sighed.  I would go.  I would be myself.  I would tell my story.  No hat.

What I discovered was another group of tremendously gracious and generous women.  Black and white.  Older and younger.  Women who preach and pray as if they are on fire.  Three women from my former church came, and was it ever a great gift to spend several hours with them!  I met a college student who is majoring in Human Rights and impassioned about the issue of sex trafficking, and is a woman on the move to make a difference in the world.  I learned about a couple of significant church outreach events ~ for the past two weeks, for instance, instead of a children’s Vacation Bible School, the church held an event for girls 7-17 designed to bolster self-esteem, build community, and have fun.

And at the end, a lovely woman about my age came up to me and grasped my shoulders and told me something of the stories of suicide loss and devastation in her family.  Heart-wrenching stories, in which some people are dead and some are alive.  Like my story.

I left out some things which I had intended to say.  It was clear to me that, if I am going to do this sort of thing, I need to make some improvements.  I was, in fact, the only white clergywoman there, and there were, indeed, a few women wearing hats.

But I am so grateful to have been offered another opportunity to reach out, and to have learned, thanks to a pastor who was once down the road from me, that perhaps I do have a story to tell that might make a difference to someone.   And I got to hear some women preach and sing and be generally awesome, and that was very, very good.

Thank you, Pastor D!

 

La Gaspésie – I

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Long ago, probably decades ago, National Geographic inaugurated a new publication, Traveler, to which I immediately subscribed. The first issue included a feature on the Gaspe’ Peninsula (la Gaspésie en francais), north and east of Quebec City. I was enchanted by the pictures of one of those realms seemingly at the end of the earth which I love so much, and tucked the name away in my memory as a someday destination.

In the last year or two, Quebec Province moved to the top of my travel list, partly because I had devoured the Inspector Gamache mystery novels, and partly because it had occurred to me that travel on this continent, much of which I have not yet visited, held advantages over the hassle of transoceanic flight.

Several weeks ago (the time frame keeps condensing itself), a friend from my boarding school days, herself still a New Englander, mentioned on FB that she was planning a dream road trip to Gaspésie. I had not forgotten that article! ~ and asked, mostly in jest, whether she would consider moving her trip up a week and loping a day off, as the new schedule would exclude Labor Day week-end.

The upshot of that little joke is that I am flying to Boston four weeks from today and the two of us, who have not laid eyes on one another since our high school graduation in 1971, and have mostly become friends thanks to FB postings on our class page, will immediately head north.

I am surprised at myself! ~ but the years are speeding by, most of the world still awaits, and people from all the different parts of my life keep popping up on FB with intriguing stories and dreams of their own. There’s a lot not to miss!

It’s Been So Long . . .

since I’ve attempted to blog with any regularity.  Presumably the desire is striking me at the moment because I have far too many commitments, most of them requiring me to write a great deal, over the next few days even to consider taking time out to write for fun!

  • A funeral which will take most of tomorrow
  • Participation in a women’s event which will take most of Saturday
  • Worship and a meeting which will take most of Sunday
  • Several meetings which will consume Monday
  • Another funeral on Tuesday
  • An interview Wednesday afternoon and evening . .  .

I’m not sure how all of the above has crammed itself into one week.

And yet, that old urge to write, long dormant, is emerging from a wintry season.

About what might I write?  I wonder what would happen if I were to assign myself some topics so that I might move forward again?  We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

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