Judging only the cover*: Broken (review)

Lisa Jones
Scribner (2009)

As I drove through New Mexico on my trip this summer, I was struck by the signs–Leaving Nambe Pueblo; Entering Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo–and those ubiquitous green historical markers–Aqua Fria: a traditional historical community; Bandelier National Monument: home of the Cochiti; Captive Women and Children of Taos County.

This is very clearly a land proud of its heritage and its people.

But as my car slowed to wind through reservation land, I was struck (as many are) by the poverty. It seemed to me that we talked out of both sides of our mouth. “We honor the heritage of these Native peoples, but we really screwed them over … so we’ll honor the heritage of these Native peoples.” I visited the famous Taos Pueblo and saw the love our college-student guide had for his traditional way of life–but I felt like an intruder, traipsing through someone’s living room and gawking at their kitchen. Add to all this the fact that I know many in the New Age movement who have (in my mind at least) co-opted religious traditions and practices that don’t belong to them–and it seems like a kind of spiritual colonization.

Writer Lisa Jones wrote about one Native American, Stanford Addison, in her memoir titled Broken: A Love Story. And while she didn’t lay to rest any of the conflict I felt in New Mexico, she did speak eloquently to the incredible spirit that can transform even the most desperate circumstances–and in that very transformation come to heal others, including her. Through her eyes, I came to see New Mexico in a different light.

As a young man, Stan Addison lived life at full tilt. He boozed it up, used women shamelessly, and didn’t shy away from a good fight. That is until a truck accident left him first, near death, and finally, a quadriplegic. But even while he recovered in the hospital–even when he hadn’t yet accepted his fate–the spirits came to his side and made it clear: he could stay or he could go. But if he stayed, he had some compelling business to attend to. Stan wasn’t ready to leave quite yet, and he gradually came to understand that he was given some powerful medicine. And he was to share those gifts. He held sweat lodges and took on the pain of others so they could heal. Shared his visions. Warned off bad spirits. Gentled horses. Took in young men who needed the anchor he provided.

But that’s Stan Addison’s story.

And, yes, the story in Broken seems at first to be Stan’s–but it is, in the end, the story of Lisa Jones. Lisa grew up in a less-than-functional home. (This, despite the fact that her father was a psychiatrist.) When her parents divorced, meeting the emotional needs of three children wasn’t high on their list of priorities. But Lisa was smart, driven, and independent. A survivor. She became a successful journalist and lived a life of adventure. It was the Good Life. Except when it wasn’t. There were those nagging doubts. Feeling lost. The draw of commitment and its companion, the fear of being tied down. Uncertainty.

Like most 20th century educated professionals, Lisa disguised her fears quite well. Except Stan saw through her and her heart felt the pull of the man with incredible gifts. Lisa became the supplicant to Stan’s sage. So she returned to the sweat lodge over and over again. She listened to Stan’s stories. She argued. Questioned him for hours on end. She washed his hair, lit his cigarettes, and drove into town for his sodas. Cooked meals. Stan waited and Lisa learned–but not without unraveling even more emotional pain.

And that’s what I failed to keep in mind as I drove through New Mexico–I was outside looking in. My eyes saw what might have been material poverty, but they failed to see the richness of spirit.  I wasn’t privy to the private lives of Native peoples or their spiritual practices–but Lisa Jones was when one very extraordinary human being welcomed her into his circle, and I am grateful she shared her story with us in Broken. 


* When I looked over the art on the both the hardcover  and paperback of Broken I so. totally. misjudged the book, actually passing it over a few times. (Isn’t there some saying about that … ?) The cover art was rather … romantic … and then there was the subtitle “a love story”. I convinced myself I wouldn’t like the book (I was thinking shades of Horse Whisperer) until I actually read the back cover blurb. I finished the book in just under two days. ‘Nuff said about that whole ‘book by its cover’ thing. How fitting that my first drive through New Mexico left me feeling similar.

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

Writing with Jen

Go ahead and Google ‘writing retreats’. (No, seriously–do it.) Over thirteen million hits. How was I ever going to figure out which retreat fit my writing needs? Which retreat wasn’t going to break the bank? Which one wasn’t too prescriptive? Last July my roomie at the Boston AWA facilitator training suggested I try one of Jen Louden’s Taos Writer’s Retreat. She had attended at a time of great change in her life and had nothing but positive things to say about her time writing with Jen in Taos. How serendipitous! I was also going through a great time of change in my life … so I trusted Kathy’s suggestion, and hit the “apply now” button before I could change my mind.

Because here’s the deal. I’m a fairly reserved person. I tend to warm up slowly, especially in a group. Butterflies and all that … at least initially. So why the heck did I sign up for a retreat that was comprised of ‘Small Group Check-in’ and ‘Evening Council’ according to the sample schedule online? (Honestly, by June I was a little panicked.) The truth is, I might be reserved, but that doesn’t mean I’m a loner, nor do I dislike sharing once I settle in. And another truth is that I needed some event to mark my retreating from my professional life (I retired from 25 years of teaching high school in May) so that I could move forward into another life. It was get-out-of-my-comfort-zone time*.

So off to Taos I flew for what I called my Transition Trip. And what a beautiful transition it was!

Everyone probably has a friend like Jen Louden. She’s that one who is funny and doesn’t have a whole lot of inhibitions. She’s the one who is genuine and warm and at times a little crazy. The one who is hard-working and smart. She’s that friend who is your biggest cheerleader. She’s the one who has no problem having a heart-to-heart, but at the same time will respect your privacy.

Our retreat days were full–and as productive as each participant wanted them to be, beginning with writing prompts in the morning that gentled us into two or more hours of time to work on our projects. After lunch there was a class on a specific topic: plot, structure, dialog. Yoga closed our work day–teacher Genevieve of Shree Yoga in Taos shared a lovely Anusara practice that was accessible to most levels of experience. Evening Council was a time of book discussion, guided sharing (*gasp*) and reflection, along with a loving kindness meditation.

So what about the women, my fellow retreaters?

They are remarkable. Accomplished and driven. Open-hearted. Supportive. Progressive. There was no drama, no exclusion. Women as women are meant to be. Our professional talents ranged widely: we were a social worker, therapist, university instructor, energy worker, realtor, visual artist. But what connected us all was our drive to write. Each retreat Jen hosts a guest teacher, and this week’s was journalist and writing teacher Lisa Jones, author of Broken(Which, of course, I have ordered!) Lisa’s class was rigorous–and gave me new insight into plot development.

This is the text I sent my group, explaining my unexpected departure. They held my spot. Photo: Jenny Grill

The retreat was held at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which could be a post in itself. Suffice it to say, the setting was beautiful–and, in my mind at least, teeming with Story Sprites. And the food. Oh, my heart, the food …

My retreat didn’t end as fortuitously as it began. I received a midnight text that my flight out the next day had been cancelled and I needed to find another one–at 1 AM. The best connection was one that left Santa Fe at 6:30 that morning (maybe you see where this is going) and it was easily a 90 minute drive to the airport. In the dark. On roads I’d only traveled once before. So my time at the Taos Writing Retreat ended with me sneaking out as quietly as I could at 3 AM and missing our closing circle. I texted Jen. I texted my small group. And the picture they posted on Facebook sums up the spirit of the week beautifully.

I’ll be back.

Mind you, I didn’t totally abandon my comfort zone. Something about morning dance and all at 7 AM. Just. couldn’t. do. it. At least not this time!

An enchanted place

On the O’Keefe tour at Ghost Ranch–many of her painting sites remain as she saw them.

When life looked desolate to me a few years ago, I threw out all my writing. Emptied the file folders onto a pile on the floor … dumped in with 1999 tax forms, a window sticker from a car I no longer drove and Explanation of Benefit booklets for insurance that had expired. “That’s over and done with,” said I, “A waste of time and a road going nowhere. Life isn’t all fairy dust and light, so get over it.” But even as I stuffed those pages into the trash, I thought to myself, At least I birthed them–the stories made it out into the Universe, and while I might not have copies any longer, I brought them alive for a short time

When I started writing again (I guess life wasn’t so dismal after all) I had some momentary twinges of regret at tossing out my work, but, surprisingly, I do have a sense that those stories are still alive, swirling in the ether around me–Story Sprites that have a life and a mind of their own.

Last week I went to the land where many Story Sprites live.

New Mexico has long been home to the amazing art of its native peoples. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Anglo artists and writers began throwing their words and images into the cauldron that is this land, creating a delicious brew of magic art. Writing in New Mexico–with its elevated plateaus,

This was the view as I walked out of my room.
Part hallway, part gallery, outside windows opened wide on this hallway and let in extraordinary breezes every afternoon.

mesas, sandstone cliffs, sweeping sky and pulsing silence–is extraordinary. The women who came here at the beginning of the last century, especially, strode in bravely and fiercely, leaving behind the constraints they’d grown up with when they arrived–and Willa and Georgia and Mabel are only the famous ones. Their’s was a time bound even more to you musts and you musn’ts and yet they wrote into this space and carved out lives that fit them just so.

Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Tony built a house that was a draw for creatives, and the space they held for those artists and thinkers was a kind of extension of the beauty of the landscape. My retreat to New Mexico this month has given me a glimpse of the sacred space of that sky and land and it has beckoned me on to the Next Chapter. I’ve thought a lot about Willa and Georgia and Mabel. (And, you can be sure I’ve bought some books!) and how they ever had the courage to defy tradition and demand life on their own terms

I spent six. whole. days. in Tony’s room–the room Tony Luhan described to Mabel as he scratched the house’s plan in the dirt on her property nearly one hundred years ago. I’m writing this on the sleeping porch which he envisioned. This is a permission I’ve not ever given myself–take a solid block of time to write and the retreat is a kind of blessing I’m allowing myself. I’m retreating from something–a professional life in teaching–and, I hope, drawing back in order to move forward–to a writing life.

The labyrinth at Ghost Ranch

And truly what better place than here on the plateaus, sky wide and open above me, the adobe walls of Mabel’s home holding so many stories. Breathing in the stories of Cather and Lawrence and Huxley that still must spin around this space, blowing in the windows with the wind that stirs the cottonwoods so furiously each afternoon.

Next up: A Jen Louden retreat in Taos–my Transition Trip into retirement. (Go me!)

Radio Girls: review

Radio Girls
Sarah-Jane Stratford
New American Library (2016)

radio girls

Every now and then when I was a teacher, I’d get a box of books donated to my classroom library. Maybe from a parent or another teacher or a community member. I have to admit I found this title in one such delivery, and I’m glad I brought it home. The novel Radio Girls gave me a peek into a world I knew nothing about: the early days of the BBC in 1928 and the pioneering women who worked there. While the story’s focus is the fictional Maisie Musgrave and her rather Mark the Match Boy rise in the world, I found the inner workings of the newly established British Broadcasting Corporation a more compelling story and the figure of Hilda Matheson (who was the dynamic head of Talks at the BBC) fascinating.

hilda matheson
image@nationalportraitgallery (London)

The first general manager of the BBC, John Reith, couldn’t decide whether to keep the left-leaning, open-minded Matheson on a short leash–or a long one. While he basked in the accolades the BBC received for Matheson’s programming decisions, he feared she was a communist too liberal and his conservative nature was offended by her affair with Vita Sackville-West. The relationship between Reith and Matheson was often a contentious one. Matheson, however, used her position as the Director of Talks to bring the public information conveyed in a more informal, conversational manner, and she featured the first on-air political debate, popular authors from Virginia Woolfe to H.G. Wells, and newly enfranchised women voters. Matheson’s position opened the way to hiring other single women in positions other than secretary. (The BBC under Reith maintained a policy of hiring women only if they were not married.) Add to her trailblazing at the BBC the fact that Hilda Matheson worked as an M15 operative during the Great War and the fact that she served as secretary to Britain’s first female parliamentarian Lady Nancy Astor and you’ve got quite an incredible individual.

In researching her life I discovered another book, a privately published (and so difficult to find) biography titled Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson. I think it would be well-worth the read. In any case, if you’d like to read about a pivotal time in the history of the BBC and English women, I don’t think Radio Girls will disappoint.

How is it I’d never heard of this incredible woman before now?