Tag Archives: memoir

Rocky Mountain Blues

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Part memoir, part diary, part poetry, The Last of the Living Blue: A Year of Living and Dying Among the Trees propels readers into the haunting landscape surveyed by author Gin Getz from her remote mountain home in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Here readers will find the magnificent blue spruce and pine forests of the Rocky Mountains dying from a beetle infestation once prevented by frigid winters now diminished by a warming climate. In a small entry like a poem, Getz introduces us to the problem she faces every day:


Confessions heard in dying trees
a small woman looking
at a big forest ravaged
by tiny beetles

As this passage portrays, Getz’s memoir is a story of witness, a lone woman’s voice compelled to detail the loss through the hope of raising awareness before the tragedy is complete: “I can only tell you what I see. I see our hillsides turning pale green, yellow, brick red, then brown, and eventually gray. If you were here, you would see this too.”

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Beetle killed pines in Rocky Mountain National Park

Between descriptions of the disappearing treescape, Getz writes of her life in the mountains with her son and husband, of difficult transportation for goods and services, hard work for daily needs, and welcome isolation for many snowy months of the year. She shares a diary of “digging ditch”—the tough physical labor of clearing a wilderness river diversion of trees, stumps, and rocks with horses, saws, and picks. The work is grueling but the pay-off is large: “Silence. Space. Air. Wind. Rain. Wilds.” The appeal of these everyday scenes carries us through the grief of Getz’s interior conversation.

One summer, drought and fire threaten Getz’s home and guest ranch business through smoke and blaze worsened by the forest’s death: “Beetle kill burns well. This fire has gone huge. We’ll never look at a dead standing hillside the same way again.”

Fire claimed a ridge of pines outside Gold Hill in Boulder County

Fire claimed a ridge of pines outside Gold Hill in Boulder County

Still, Getz and her family remain on the mountainside, choosing to build a new home from logs they themselves will clear from the other side of the frozen river. This home will be full of light, with room for books and baking bread, a place from which to watch her “beloved trees.” Despite the changing climate that threatens her way of life, Getz knows the mountain will endure. “If I am to have faith,” she asserts, “I shall find it in the wind and wild.”

Sometimes, Getz’s verdant prose lulls us into forgetting that what she’s describing—the death of the trees she loves–conveys the opposite of the rich imagery with which she describes their demise: “Sap emerges in sparkling drip lines from almost invisible pin holes. A new batch of dying trees. A new generation expiring.”

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A stand of dead trees near Bear Lake in RMNP

Lush language pulls the reader—the often-addressed “you” Getz hopes to persuade into caring—toward empathy with Getz, the mountain, and the disappearing forest. To those who consider such devastation “natural,” Getz counters with a small dose of science and a large dose of observation: “I take out the draw knife for the first time this season and peel a small log we need for a remodel project on a guest cabin bathroom. With every pull of the knife, tiny white life revealed. Ten, twenty, maybe more. Slicing through life. Larva.”

Readers unfamiliar with the beetle infestation of Colorado’s Front Range eastern slope may require more context before they’re convinced of the link between “the last of the living blue” and global warming, but for those who are interested in this environmental tragedy or remember the Rockies before they withered brown, Getz’s memoir will remind them why testifying to such a loss matters. By many accounts, any policy actions—should the will to enact them ever transpire—will be too little and much, much too late. But for Getz, what matters first is the sharing: “Perhaps there will never be comprehension, but at least there should be compassion.”

Snow-capped Scotch pines still standing on the Front Range

As an ecology-based memoir, The Last of the Living Blue falls into a category I call “ecobiography” that connects a human life with the larger ecosystem in which it exists. Ecobiographies are testimonies that bear witness to the natural world around us. Insightful authors like Getz see and evoke beauty for us so that we, too, may understand. As life on earth changes lamentably and inexorably, books like The Last of the Living Blue will become important records of a world once lived with abundance and hope.

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Girls, Intercepted

Even before Winona Ryder produced and starred in the film with Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted was a strikingly honest memoir that exposed the consequences of rejecting traditional female gender roles for white, affluent girls in the late 1960s. In the book, Susanna Kaysen alternates memories of her stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts with analysis of a mental health system that recommended institutionalization for rebellious girls whose families could pay the $60 a day fee, an enormous expense that, as Kaysen ironically notes, could have paid for several college educations.

But Kaysen refuses to go to college, rejecting the upwardly bound expectations of her parents and teachers. Instead, she lives in a Cambridge boarding house, working various jobs without a plan for her future or any particular ambition other than to be a writer. When her self-obsessive thoughts lead to an aspirin overdose, a therapist suggests that she “needs a rest” after a consultation of only thirty minutes (the amount of time is debated in the memoir as an example of the medical profession’s acquiesance in institutionalizing young women from the right kind of families).  He calls a cab and Kaysen checks herself into McLean for what she believes will be a short stay. Instead, she’s there for nearly two years.

One of the debates framed by the memoir is the definition of insanity. Kaysen admits that she knew she wasn’t crazy but instead living in a state of contrariety: “My ambition was to negate. . . . So the opportunity to be incarcerated was just too good to resist. It was a very big No—the biggest No this side of suicide.” At 18, saying No is easier than suggesting an alternative and Kaysen doesn’t yet have the wisdom or role models to find her Yes.

Kaysen is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis given more frequently to women than men and a familiar description of many young women who don’t follow social expectations: instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, or mood; engaging in impulsive acts like shoplifting or spending sprees. BPD can also have a self-damaging side such as self-mutilation or suicide. Still, the diagnosis remains controversial because of its gender bias and because many young women experience these types of symptoms at some point in their adolescence or young adulthood. As a therapist later told Kaysen, “It’s what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.”

One of the delights of Kaysen’s memoir is the inclusion of her hospital records detailing observations by hospital doctors and staff. One admission form notes that Kaysen is “likely to kill self or get pregnant.” Which fate would be worse for an affluent white girl in those pre-women’s liberation days? The note also labels her “promiscuous,” but as Kaysen later writes, “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn [that] label?”

Another debate at the center of the memoir is whether McLean was a refuge or a prison for young women like Kaysen. At that time of countercultural upheaval when attitudes regarding women were changing but social opportunities had not yet met their pace, the options for girls who questioned the status quo were still limited. Trying to live independently of her parents or a husband, Kaysen is confronted with sexist attitudes about women and the lonely struggle to make a living. In McLean, however, she is part of a community of young women who support each other and accept each other’s idiosyncracies within the shelter of a hospital that cares for their every need–except to let them leave the way they are.

Eventually, Kaysen does decide to leave this ensemble of misfit girls in order to pursue her own life, but the admiration and love they’ve provided strengthen her belief in herself. It’s this community of women that makes the memoir so appealing to young women readers, who are drawn to the sisterhood formed within the walls of Kaysen’s imprisonment and the collective antics that fill the time.  They relish its depiction of friendship offered fully and freely, like the young women I saw on campus yesterday, two with arms around the third one sobbing, letting her cry as long as she needed, willing to wait as long as it took. How iconic that image and how important to coming of age for young women today as much as in Kaysen’s time.

My students love Girl, Interrupted. In part they’re fascinated by the story of a girl who refused the script that they themselves are living—college in preparation for a comfortable and interesting life, one they hope will balance work, family, and friends. But they can also see the allure of the hospital as refuge for Kaysen, the appeal of being taken care of while the world’s craziness goes on outside. Still, they know the value of their youthful years and they empathize deeply with Kaysen’s insistence on accounting for each minute she’s lost.

Girl, Interrupted makes me think about my own teenage years and I hope to write more about them someday.  It’s tricky, though, to tell those truths because if they don’t sound trivial, they certainly sound crazy, an admission of behavior somewhere between bad judgment and caution thrown to the winds of wanting more.  If you haven’t read Girl, Interrupted, give it a try and then watch the movie too. You’ll root for these girls and their crazy lives, intercepted until the times can catch up with them.

 

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The Girl Who Tells

“There she goes again! Why does she always have to be telling everything?” You probably know one of these girls, the kind who not only has opinions but feels compelled to share them. Maybe not even all the time, but when it matters most, this girl is brave enough—or angry enough—to speak up about the injustices she observes around her.

Young adult author Margaret Willey* calls this character the “Girl Who Tells”: “In both adult and young adult fiction, an adolescent daughter is often presented to the reader as the guide most willing and able to travel beneath the surface and into the deeper layers of her household.” Girls Who Tell play a “truth-telling function” in literature because “[i]f there is a weak seam in the family fabric, she is the one most likely to put her finger through it and make it a full-blown hole.” A GWT can’t stand hypocrisy or mendacity, even when she’s told that telling the truth isn’t nice or could hurt someone. She’s self-absorbed, true, but from that narcissism comes the ability to see more than the adults around her are willing to see themselves.

As protagonists, Girls Who Tell initially function as observers from the sideline of the story in what I call the “liminal space” between childhood and adulthood. When I teach this concept, I stand in the actual doorway of the classroom and put my hands on the sides of the doorframe to illustrate this “in-between” place. (The word “lintel” is related to the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.) Neither still a child nor completely an adult, a GWT has a foot in both worlds, a limbo of ultrasensitivity that leads to impulsive responses, if not downright overreaction.

From this liminal space, a GWT can observe the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the world around her, which leads to a second GWT characteristic: asking questions, particularly about truth and authority. “Why?” is a GWT’s favorite word.

But when a GWT finds her questions ignored or the answers vague or even false, she must speak up and tell the truth from her special—and sometimes limited—perspective. She may not always be right in her analysis but her speaking is always a catalyst for change.

Observer, questioner, and truth-teller, the GWT is the perfect protagonist for literature that attempts to reveal the injustices of family and society. In classics like Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, The Color Purple, and Anne of Green Gables, GWT characters face consequences for their outspokenness but are still guaranteed happy endings. Reality must be faced, wrongs righted, and truthfulness rewarded.

And in movies like Rachel Getting Married or Girls Town or Real Women Have Curves (based on the play by Josefina López) or Precious (originally published as the novel PUSH by Sapphire), we cheer for Girls Who Tell because even when they’re arrogant, obnoxious, or ill-equipped to handle life’s problems, we know they’ve gotten a raw deal.

In real life, however, Girls Who Tell may face parental anger, peer ostracism, social harassment, or even or judicial punishment or mental institutionalization. Memoirs, diaries, and letters like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and the Rachel Corrie’s My Name is Rachel Corrie recount the pain, punishment, and sometimes triumphs of young women overcoming prejudices that limit their lives. In real life, we may not always appreciate girls who tell it like they see it and, because of their youth and gender, their voices are easily ignored. They’re just teen girls, after all, what could they know?

But if we listened to the real voices of GWT as carefully as we listen to their voices in literature, we’d learn something astounding: their truth-telling depends on ours.

I’ll write in future blogs about GWT in works that I’ll be teaching this semester, but I’d love to hear from you. What GWT characters—fictional or real—have inspired you?

*“The Girl-Who-Tells.” Margaret Willey. Hungry Mind Review (Summer 1995): 46 & 48.

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Saving the Orchard

I’m waiting for the fire to take. May 13th and we’re still lighting the woodstove for heat. We had snow two nights ago and last night dipped to 30. The question is, will the apples freeze tonight if the cloud cover lifts?

The cool, moist spring has brought a beautiful show of blossoms but one frigid night will nip them in the bud. Good to know what that old saying really means: if the cold enters the tiny fruit at the center of the blossom, the emerging apple will freeze and blacken. Cold this late in the season means potential devastation for our vulnerable old trees. Until the weather turns, we’re living on the edge.

It’s not like our livelihood depends on apples, not like a commercial orchard would, or like growers during the Depression who needed every piece of fruit to survive. Until I read The Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson, I didn’t realize that apple rustlers of that time would sneak into orchards to steal fruit.

In Robertson’s memoir, she writes of trying to save her family’s land in Massachusetts by saving the apple orchard. Robertson was in her early 30s, college-educated and unmarried, when she convinced her doubtful family that she could manage an apple business after her doctor father’s death and Depression-era debt reverses the family’s fortunes.

Like farmers today, Kitty, as she was known, faced challenges both human and natural—growing debt, cutthroat competition, broken machinery, insect infestation, and unpredictable weather. She even faced down rustlers with a pistol—unloaded, but they didn’t take the chance of finding out. Robertson paid her small crew of immigrant laborers above-average wages, earning their loyalty and respect when they saw how hard she worked. But was her persistence and courage enough to save the orchard? I won’t give the answer away except to say that it’s sexism, not her own failings, that determine the story’s ending.

What’s most remarkable is that Robertson wrote her memoir and then stuck it away at the bottom of a bookcase, never published. Her daughter found it after Robertson’s death and fortunately realized what a treasure it was. Whenever I worry about our apples, I can’t help but think of Kitty Robertson, a daughter of privilege, skin brown from the sun, climbing ladders, peddling apples, and trying her level best to save a piece of land from Depression developers exploiting the misfortunes of a family and a nation.

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The First Post

Odd how coming back [to London] upsets my writing mood. Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. . . . I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.

                                          Virginia Woolf’s diary, Sunday, October 2, 1932

Where to begin is always the question, so today I start this blog with Virginia Woolf, the writer to whom I turn most often for insight into a woman’s writing life.

Since reaching 50 last year, I’ve kept Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary by my bed, reading entries randomly for insight into her genius and “determination not to give in.” Facing 50, she wrote, “Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at last the exact shape my brain holds.”

Woolf is one of my many mentors; the night before I started graduate school, I dreamed that she invited me for tea. Tea with Virginia Woolf! What better way to assure myself that I was ready to realize my own intellectual voice?

Now, as I alter my aspect toward the sun of less certain but newly imagined years, I turn to Woolf again and find that at 50, she too was poised to follow her own mind wherever it might lead. “Shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are.” Let that be my motto as I round the fullness of 50 like a pearl moon embracing the plenitude of its shine.

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