wet earth

Places of the Heart

Sometimes how we feel about a book—or how a book makes us feel—can depend on where we are when we read it.  I first read Louise Erdrich, who will be in Santa Cruz next week to discuss her latest novel, when I was living in France.  One fall afternoon I bicycled to the outskirts of Bordeaux and settled myself in a small park overlooking a lake.  I sat on the grass, took off my shoes, and leaned against a tree.  I remember that the bark was gray and soft and the trunk was wide and sloped just right, as if it had been designed for the purpose of providing shelter and support.  It was my second year of teaching English in France, and that year I had decided to be a student myself and take an American Lit class at the university.  Love Medicine, Erdrich’s first novel, was our first assignment.  I opened the book, and this is what I read:

The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.  She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.  Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar.  He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her.  She had seen so many come and go.  He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus.  She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him.  Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn’t all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.

This was the first paragraph, occupying the first page of the novel.  But instead of turning the page I put the book down, overwhelmed with too many feelings to name.  I remember how I stared at the lake for a long time, thinking of home, not just my home but also a larger, rougher, American home.  I was dimly aware of unspecified longings in my heart which these sentences pressed upon in a way that, at twenty-five, I was too young to understand.  She had seen so many come and go.  We are barely into the first paragraph, and already Erdrich has generated a atmosphere suffused with loss, an atmosphere that is raw and tender and most of all, to my eyes then and now, real.

Years later, sitting on another patch of grass, I was reading another Erdrich novel.  I had just finished a weekend workshop at Esalen, in Big Sur, and was enjoying some time on the Great Lawn which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  The book in my hands was The Plague of Doves.  A chapter called “Sister Godzilla,” about a nun whose deformed jaw looks like “a great raw-boned jackal’s muzzle” and causes her students to openly mock her, ends like this:

There was no place to look but my teacher.  But when I lifted my eyes, this time, Sister Mary Anita was not looking at me.  She had turned her face away, her rough cheek blotched as if it bore a slap, her gaze hooded and set low.  Sister walked to the window, back turned against me, against the class, and as the laughter started, uncomfortable and groaning at first, then shriller, fuller, becoming its own animal, I felt an unrecoverable tenderness boil up and rise around my ears.  Inwardly, I begged Mary Anita to turn and stop the noise.  But Sister did not.  She let it wash across us both without mercy.  I lost sight of her unspeakable profile as she looked out onto the yard.  Bathed in brilliant light, her face went blank as a sheet of paper, as the sky, featureless as all things which enter heaven.

It was while reading Plague of Doves that day at Esalen, under a brilliant blue sky, the sea also deep blue, its surface whitely shredded by the wind, that it occurred to me Louise Erdrich just might be my favorite living author.  I can’t think of another writer whose storytelling is as rooted in the deep earth of living while reaching out for spirit.  Her sentences are pathways to those places of the heart I can usually only access through music, or nature, or lovemaking, or grief, or prayer.

At the end of the first chapter of Love Medicine, June Kashpaw has gone with the man from the bar, has let him groan his body against hers in his car and now has pulled herself together and left him and is walking through the snow.  Earlier, while still at the bar, in the ladies room, “she was afraid to bump into anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch . . . But as she sat there, something happened . . . She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old.”  This is how the chapter ends:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction.  Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance.  The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course.  She continued.  Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

Louise Erdrich, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Thursday, October 18, at 7:00 p.m..  Click here to pre-order a copy of The Round House, her latest novel, and to receive a numbered signing voucher.

The Power of Two, Part Two

It is 99 degrees in Big Sur today and my heat-benumbed brain has just about enough energy to write a short postscript to last week’s Jazz Festival piece.  Immediately after Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell’s transcendent duo performance, I remained in Dizzy’s Den for a group called 90 Miles, so named for the measured distance between Cuba and the southernmost tip of Florida.  David Sánchez and Nicolas Payton were the marquee attractions for this six-man Latin Jazz band, and they did not disappoint.  Unlike DeJohnette and Frisell, however, Sánchez (tenor sax) and Payton (trumpet) mostly took turns offering stellar solos that soared above the supportive framework of the other players (piano, bass, percussion and drums).  This was a two-man show that was more about comparison, even competition, than connection.

With a creamy, open tone and incredible technical dexterity, Sánchez (photo at right) is a visceral player who involves his whole body in his playing, leaning back on his heels as he blows, sinking into his knees, and thrusting his pelvis forward in a gesture that is frankly sexual, if only because his playing is so free and utterly unrestrained.  His exhaustion after he plays also seems sexual, yet he quickly recovers, and stands to the side of the stage, loose and supple and listening to the others.

Payton is more of the stand-and-blow type, his face and body impassive, like a martial artist whose power is concealed by a lack of expression.   As the two men took turns in the solo spotlight, I found myself thinking of Payton as a tree and Sánchez as a wave.  Payton doesn’t move: where does the energy come from?  In Sánchez’s playing, everything is transparent, his passion and his effort, and his performance is therefore more satisfying to watch.  In one of his blistering solos he slowly but persistently moved in degrees up the musical scale, two or three or four notes up, one or two down, then back up again, as if carrying a burden up a mountain.  When he reached the top of the phrase with a declamatory shriek the entire audience felt the glory and achievement of the moment.  Payton is a virtuosic musician, no doubt, but he plays as if he were alone, unmoved by the warm-hearted rhythms that surround him.

The Power of Two

For some, committing to one’s creativity sometimes means committing to the solitary territory of a life spent mostly alone.  The writer and his desk, the musician and her instrument, the artist and his tools: the countless disciplined hours spent developing one’s craft can mean that these may be an artist’s most enduring relationships.  Perhaps that is why seeing two people perform together has the potential to be so compelling: we are witness to a solitude that is broken, yet the performers’ voices remain distinct, individual, not lost, say, in the anonymity of an orchestra.  Last weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival I had the opportunity to hear fantastic music performed by ensembles of various sizes, but it was the duos that struck me as the most emotionally rich and satisfying.

Jack DeJohnette remarked before his performance Sunday night that the music he was about to play with guitarist Bill Frisell would be “as much a surprise to us as it is to you.”  That quality of surprise, of open curiosity, transformed their set at Dizzy’s Den into a 90-minute arc of music-making that can only be described as spiritual.  When he is playing the drums DeJohnette has a habit of starting pieces in a mood of almost random exploration, beginning with the most basic activity of two sticks hitting a drumhead, without apparent shape or purpose. One can see him not imposing, not planning, but allowing, observing, listening.  Trusting.  Slowly, something coheres.

In this intimate set-up, Frisell never once took his eyes off DeJohnette, which meant that throughout the entire concert the audience saw the guitarist in profile, as if we were mere eavesdroppers to an important and private conversation.  I was struck by the way the two men took turns supporting each other.  DeJohnette’s depth as a musician gives him free range to improvise complex rhythmic melodies on the drums while Frisell offers a steady chordal groundbeat—usually the function of the drummer.

When DeJohnette moved to the piano, it was he who created the musical foundation in the form of slowly repeated chords, while Frisell seemed to be following a train of notes that traveled far into the ether.  (Frisell uses pedal effects to generate a loopy, sliding quality to his notes, so that each note seems more like a wave than a precise tone.)

I wish I could mention the names of some of the pieces I found so beautiful, but DeJohnette, who turned 70 last month, has a mumbly, raspy voice, and the only reference I could make out was to something from Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain,” a wandering piece whose C-Major resolution felt like the arrival of the divine.  With such exalted artistry the titles don’t really matter.  Does a lengthy drum solo that seemed to emerge out of the earth’s molten core have, or need, a title?  It does not, but it does have a context: two people in equal partnership and offering mutual support.  At the end of DeJohnette’s ferocious solo, which brought the audience to rapturous applause, Frisell was there to gently weave their sounds back together again.  It was magic.

One of the joys of this festival is simply being at the fairgrounds amidst all the people and the vendors and the wafting scents of delicious food and the strains of music that float from the different venues across the grounds and through the oak trees.  To an observer, stories and the myriad fascinations of human behavior abound.  On Saturday afternoon I watched a mother and her two boys on a patch of grass, all three of them blowing bubbles, except that the younger boy, who was around four, wasn’t getting it.  He held the little plastic blower too close to his mouth and he blew too hard.  I watched as frustration and even despair settled into his young face, as his fingers gripped the blower more tightly and his cheeks puffed up to really blow.  I saw that his mother didn’t see this.  I saw that already, at age four, this boy thought that he needed to figure out on his own how to achieve the bubbles that now surrounded him, that were emerging so easily, tauntingly, from his mother’s and his brother’s lips.  He saw them doing it successfully, and rather than ask for help, ask for someone to show him how, he burrowed ever deeper into his desperate attempt to do it alone.

The power of two is the power of listening, of asking for help, of coming out of the fire of the solo and finding that someone is there with a melody to wrap around you and carry you forward.