Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering Ellen Levine

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dear friend Ellen Levine, who lost her battle with cancer yesterday. I started rereading her emails, pulling out bits and pieces of her words, trying to recreate the essence of her--like people who catch the scent of a loved one they’ve lost in an old coat and just want to hang onto it.

Right before going to bed last night I looked at the stack of books at my bedside. On the top of the pile was Art and Fear. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. For some crazy reason, I said, “Okay, Ellen,” and picked it up. I tend to be fearful whereas Ellen was fearless. The first thing I read was this:
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.”
--Hippocrates (460-400 BC)
Life is short. Hippocrates only lived to be 40. Ellen was 70, which looks young to me these days. But art is long and yours, Ellen, will long outlive us. 

Opportunity is fleeting but you, Ellen, knew how to grab it by the horns and run with it. And you knew, too,  the treacherous nature of experience and were always ready and willing to pin it to the floor.

Oh my wise and scrappy Ellen!

When I questioned my judgement I always went to Ellen and she always made me see what I already knew but was reluctant to admit. When I asked her whether she thought I was foolish to speak out publicly about the sale of Marshal Cavendish to Amazon, for example, here is what she said:
"Those that disagree with the M/C sale can't hurt you any more than they already are by not carrying the book. You, George, Rachel, et al., may talk about stepping warily as you wade into political waters, but thank god you all never have.  You're fighters and say what you think.  Sure there are times when it's wise to be silent.  My 2 cents is this ain't one of them."
And another time, when I was worrying over reviews:
"...listen, there's nada we can do to combat stupidity except to keep writing and speaking truth as we know it."
And here, when I was plagued by the thought of those who might question the authenticity of my work and my right to write it:
"Seems to me we spend way too much time in life locking ourselves and others in boxes that we think are important definitionally.  But when I read My Name Is Not Easy, one thing so very moving to me was the way Luke talked and thought about his far north landscape.  It's not mine; I don't look out on vast unhemmed in openness, a true bowl of a sky, etc etc, but I related and was deeply moved.  It reminded me in a sense of my grandmother's kitchen, as it were -- i.e., that I have a landscape and it has meaning to me." 

And this, when I asked her to write a blurb for the book:
"Meanwhile, my fine writer friend, why in hell do you want a quote from this NY urban Jewish radical woman..."
Ah, my dear Ellen, that’s an easy one. As it turns out I happen to love NY urban Jewish radical women….or at least one of them.  

And her quote, part of which is on the cover of the book:

"In My Name Is Not Easy, Debby Dahl Edwardson has given us an
extraordinary tale of love, betrayal, and above all, survival, as a 
group of young Alaskan Natives are transplanted from their home
villages to a parochial boarding school in the Alaskan wilderness.
Through their stories, Edwardson reminds us that the landscape we see
is also the landscape of our soul, whether arctic tundra or urban canyons.
This is a novel that, like landscape, marks a reader's soul forever."
The line about love, betrayal, and above all, survival was used on the cover--but it's the last line that carries the essence of Ellen and the mark she's left.

PS--Her Books (some of them):

Darkness Over Denmark, the story of the Danish resistance that saved the Jews in Denmark during World War II

A Fence Away from Freedom, about internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s

I Hate English, which has become a resource for ESL teachers.

Freedom's Children, the story of the young black civil rights activists of the 1960s, which the New York Times called, "nothing short of wonderful."

Henry's Freedom Box, the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom, a book which earned her a Caldecott Honor

Catch a Tiger by the Toe, of the MacCarthy era.

In Trouble, the story of two pregnant teenaged girls in the l950's, pre Roe vs Wade, written in a voice pitch perfect, which nails the era. I know; I was there. Much I had forgotten. Thanks to Ellen we will remember.

I am particularly fond of this line from Ellen’s introduction to Darkness over Denmark:

There were “good people” in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors said, “What could we do?” For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: “What else could we do?”

The essence of Ellen Levine, her passion for social justice and her willingness to always act in its defense.

Go buy one of her books right now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Two videos, totally unrelated

The first one was made by my daughter in opposition to offshore oil development in the Arctic.

I am really proud of her. That's my granddaughter on the image above (and later on in the film, my grandson appears, as well.) This touched my heart.  I hope it touches yours, too.

The other one is Neil Gaiman's graduation address to the University of the Arts. The Christian Science Monitor calls Gaiman, "one of this year's best commencement speakers." Well worth a listen. The two takeaways for me:

  1. Regardless of what life gives you or doesn't give you, make good art.
  2. Be wise and if you can't be wise, pretend to be a wise person and do what they would do.
These both work for me on this spring day in the arctic.

And speaking of graduates, I wanted to share a picture of our oldest high school graduate, from this year's graduation ceremony at Nunamiut School in Anaktuvuk Pass.

At 77 years old, with the help of teacher Inge Lisa Jensen, Grace Ekak (pictured above with grad Megan Ahgook) learned to read and write. When she read her first letter--a letter from her doctor--she was amazed. "Is this right? Did I read it right?" she asked. The letter said she was cancer-free.
 And hey, people, don't be afraid to talk to me here. I won't bite, or at least it won't hurt if I do.

Friday, May 18, 2012

On the trail of dark & light to New York City

I'd meant to post from New York where I attended the PEN World Voices Festiveal of Internal Literature  earlier this month, but, well, I didn't. It was a wonderful gathering of writers. I was slated for something called a Literary Safari, advertised as an event where one could see writers in their "natural habitat.  I had joked with friends prior that I was either supposed to arrive with a spear in hand or I would be ensconced in a bed with a laptop, my "natural habitat." Happily, I did neither but was, instead, a guest at the home of artist Stephen Hall and his wife Samantha who live in the Westbeth artist's community. It was a wonderful evening of reading and discussion, which Lyn Miller-Lachmann blogged about. Actually she posted on Tumblr so maybe I am supposed to say she Tumblred about it. Okay, maybe not.

I was hosted by writer Susanna Reich whose book, Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, was released on May 1. I stayed in the East Village which just sounds incredibly cool to someone referred to by her capitalist eldest son as an old hippie. In fact Susanna and her husband Gary Golio were driving me back to my hotel when Gary said: look, there's Bob Dylan! My head turned so fast I nearly got whiplash. It wasn't Bob Dylan, of course. Gary was just pointing out that we were in the middle of Dylan's old digs. He had no way of knowing that I was once a Dylan groupie (well, figuratively speaking) and I did not yet realize that he was the guy who wrote When Bob Met Woody.  Small world.

Dylan was from Hibbing, Minnesota. My mother was raised in Buhl, Minnesota, right next door, and my dad was from Virginia, Minnesota, right down the street, all three towns in the heart of the Iron Ore Range, the source of Dylan's early ballads. What's not to love? When my dad complained about "that godawful noise," my brother and I sat him down and made him listen to the lyrics of Mr Tambourine Man. Dad was a writer. He loved words. He never complained about Dylan again. In college I Shall Be Released was pretty much my theme song. Still is.

Which all leads to the next NYC experience. I finally met my agent, Faye Bender, (stay with me) who is absolutely just as lovely in person as she is on email and I told her about how the hotel I was staying at had bikes and how I was biking around New York. How cool is that? But Faye scolded me about the fact that I wasn't wearing a helmet and I thought about my kids--who would be horrified to see me biking NYC without a helmet--so I started wearing a helmet.  In fact, I took a ride that very afternoon wearing a wool jacket and a helmet. But then it got really hot for this Alaskan, so I took off the jacket. And there I was, biking around New York in black jeans, a black t-shirt and a helmet. Tough, huh? Then I stopped at a light and some old guy, rather worse for wear, asked me if I was Janis Joplin.

Of course I immediately thought of Amos, an Inupiaq from Point Lay, Alaska who is said to have dated Janis. We call him Famous Amos. Ever hear the song Quinn the Eskimo?

Just to set the record though: when I was younger, nobody ever mistook me for Janis Joplin.

Oh, and this is for my oldest son, who loves New York: I now know what it's like to be at a penthouse party in NYC. How amazing to stand in the night sky with the lights of the city and all its iconic buildings, spread around one like jewels on black velvet.

Hmm, maybe I do look like Janis.

Backtracking---Before New York, I visited my daughters at Dartmouth which was wonderful but I went through a total sense of culture shock when I arrived there. I had, after all, left the near 24 hour brilliance of sun on snow--springtime in the arctic, in other words--and I arrived into the darkness of  a New Hampshire night, where I was in the middle of a woods. It was not just dark at night; it was black dark, inky dark, soul-sucking dark. No streetlights no visable stars and apparently no other guests that first night at the little motel where I stayed--the one with the wooden Indian in the lobby. This was beyond culture shock for old Janis here.

I was glad to get these pictures of my granddaughter Josie, fishing in the intense Arctic light.

There's a wonderful Greenlandic movie called Heart of Light. Exactly so. My home is in the Heart of Light.

They were camping near Anaktuvuk Pass, my son in law's home.

I really wanted to be there.

At PEN I participated in  the panel on children's rights  with Wojciech Jagielski, Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick. Patty's new book Never Fall Down was released earlier this month. It's Arn's story of how, as an 11-year-old boy in Cambodia, he survived the Khmer Rouge by playing music in the Killing Fields. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it, “One of the most inspiring and powerful books I’ve ever read." I read it on the plane home and it was. Sorry to sound like an old hippie, but it blew my mind. It was that good. It will win many awards. Read it.

I also read my friend Jane Buchanan's wonderful Gratefully Yours on the plane trip home and I cried. A wonderful story about grief and healing set in the orphan train era. How can a book like this go out of print? Someone is asleep at the wheel. We--VCFA classmates David, Hatsy and I drove up to Greenfield, MA from Hanover NH to surprise Jane at her book launch for newest book, Seed Magic.

Another wonderful book.

Thank God for wonderful light filled books, for people who pour their souls into story, for story standing witness, painful and transcendent; for story illuminating trails through the abyss.

I dedicate this thought to my dear mentor Ellen Levine, whose books have always done exactly that. Ellen lives in New York City, but she's battling cancer and was too sick for visitors when I was there.

Always, I hear Ellen's indomitable voice with it's Yiddish wisdom:  so what's against it? Be well Ellen, and follow the light.

What's against it?