Monday, January 26, 2015

Between the Lines: Writing and Empathy

by Zinta Aistars

Vincent van Gogh self-portrait with felt hat

Tuesday, Jan. 27, on Between the Lines , Zinta Aistars speaks with Nellie Hermann, Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and author of "The Season of Migration." Her new novel imagines the life of Vincent van Gogh during the 10 months when he lost touch with his brother Theo and began to discover his calling as an artist. 

WMUK Tuesdays at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. Listen at 102.1 FM in southwest Michigan or online. WMUK is southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. 

Author Nellie Hermann says "narrative medicine" is the use of creative writing and narrative to enhance our capacity for understanding and empathy in clinical settings or any other social encounter. Telling a story and the hearing or reading of it has the power to untangle our psychological knots and to help others untangle theirs.
Hermann's first novel The Cure for Grief had an autobiographical basis and she says writing it provided an opportunity to work out issues in her own life. The book won acclaim in Time magazine, Elle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and others, and was chosen as a Target "Breakout" book.

The Season of Migration cover
The Season of Migration cover
In her second novel The Season of Migration, published in January 2015, Hermann imagines the life of Vincent van Gogh during the ten months from August 1879 to June 1880 during which he lost touch with his older brother and benefactor, Theo. Van Gogh struggles with his search for meaning and purpose in his life, dealing with what he feels is his brother’s rejection, and with the death of a stillborn sibling on his birthday also named Vincent. He lives in a mining town called Borinage in Belgium and tries his hand at being a priest, but his artist’s eye draws him in another direction.
Parts of the novel incorporate letters van Gogh wrote but never sent to his brother, exposing the workings of ...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Between the Lines: Exploring Michigan History

by Zinta Aistars

The numbers are impressive: he has 45,000 books in his library and he's written his 21st. Zinta Aistars speaks with Michigan's historian Larry Massie on January 20. Listen to BETWEEN THE LINES on WMUK 102.1 FM every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. Tune in or click below to listen online

Larry Massie in his personal library

Larry Massie has earned himself the title of Michigan’s historian, earning the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. His 21 collections of stories about the ship captains, lumberjacks, poets, politicians, cereal makers, outlaws, and anyone who has had an impact on the state’s history culminate with his newest book, published in August 2014. Blue Water, Red Metal and Green Gold: The Color of Michigan’s Past includes 27 stories, illustrated with photos and drawings. It is the 12th in a series called "Voyages into Michigan’s Past."  

Massie in his library
Massie’s interest in old books began in his boyhood and has grown over a lifetime. He has amassed a personal library of more than 45,000 books, including many first editions. As the library outgrew his home, he moved it to an old government building in Allegan, Michigan.
Credit Priscilla Press
“I do much of my research and writing there,” Massie says, but he also travels across the state and digs into the archives of other libraries and private collections and memories. Massie worked as an archivist at Western Michigan University for eight years. When he left that job in 1983, his aim was to become an independent historian.
“I was told that was impossible to do,” Massie smiles. With his books filling an entire library bookshelf and ....

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Deer, ice, and the other side of country life

by Zinta Aistars

The three deer at Z Acres

Oh dear, where are the deer?

I had hoped to have seen the three of them show up by now, to nibble at the treats I leave for them in the back of the farmhouse. Certainly not enough to feed them—they are on their own there—but to offer a little extra something, a juicy apple, a handful of cracked corn, to ease the winter months. The larger doe has a broken leg, seemingly an older injury. She hobbles along through the snow, but can run surprisingly well when startled. The two younger deer hang close, and from time to time, she nuzzles them, perhaps her offspring.

Sunday afternoon waning, they have yet to show themselves. Last night, when I climbed the hillside to my car in the long drive past midnight, heading out to pick up my son from his late night work shift in town, I stopped in my tracks in horror. I hear coyotes howling around the property most nights, but this night they sounded particularly frenzied and near. In fact, their howling, at one moment coming from the north, then from the south, then suddenly just beyond the barn to the west, made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a wild sound I usually enjoyed, even listen to with relish, but on this night my stomach dropped. I felt ill. The deer with the broken leg …

Realistically, how long could a crippled deer avoid the hard decisions of Nature? Predators cull the weak, and she was definitely a weak link in the deer herd. My hope was that she would feel comfortable enough on Z Acres to stay relatively near the farmhouse or barn, a deterrent to a pack of hungry coyotes. Over just a few days of watching the family of three, I had fallen in love with these beauties.

Listening to the frenzied howling, however, I felt instantly that her story had come to an end. I stood for a moment in my drive debating whether to rush out into the dark, out into the backfield to scream and thrash and scare away the coyotes or hurry to pick up my son in town and bring him back to help. Either option, I was pretty sure, was already too late.

Nearly in tears, I got into the car and pulled out of the long drive and started up the hill as I turned out on the dirt road. It had been unusually warm all day, mid 40s, and the melt of the day had frozen into shining glass. Even though the temperature was still above freezing, the ground was frozen and turned even a relatively warm rain into thick ice as it spilled down the hill. My little car didn’t make it far before I started to slip backwards. I reversed and pulled further back to add momentum and made another try. Not a chance. The tires spun without the least bit of traction.

One thing I have learned by living far out in the country for now my fourth winter is that dirt roads can be a completely different scenario from paved. Asphalt warms quickly. Dirt roads can be icy long after pavement is dry and clean. Add to that that my driveway turns out onto hills in both directions, and I often get stuck when the rest of the more civilized world blinks at my spinning wheels. Really? I have to miss an appointment due to weather conditions? But it’s great out here! Not where I live …

I gave up trying to get up the hill. On my second try, the car started to turn sideways; I was playing with danger here. I turned around to head the other way, which added about 10 miles to my drive, but I had no other option. Only in this direction the hillside was downward and much, much steeper. I was driving at a crawl, pumping my brakes, but the car slid, slid faster, slid more, gathering speed, and I whispered a prayer as I slid down the hill, watching the trees pass along both sides.

Made it. Soon as I hit pavement about two miles further out, driving was a breeze. As expected, the pavement was completely ice-free and dry. I picked up my son, sharing my concerns about the deer with him as we drove back home.

“She’s dead,” I said firmly. In the pit of my stomach, I knew it.

“You don’t know that,” my son said calmly. “We’ll go out and look.”

I knew he was concerned, too. He’d been watching the deer visit Z Acres as much as I had, and I knew his soft heart for all animals.

It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time we got home. Almost home. I came up at the top of the hill just before the driveway and, as slowly as I was going, hardly even moving the needle on the speedometer, pumping the brakes gently, the car started to slide. I may as well have let go. The road in my headlights gleamed bright, like a mirror, and a light rain made it even more slippery.

My car turned sideways about midway down and slid, thunk, into the hillside along the sides of the road. I was almost relieved … it stopped my descent. But now I was stuck sideways, completely blocking the narrow road, hidden from anyone else’s view on the approach on the other side of the hill. Should anyone come over that hill, they wouldn’t see me until it was too late.

“I’ll get the truck,” my son scrambled into action. We were walking distance from home. As soon as his feet hit the road, he went down. I watched him grasp for snow along the edges of the road to give him traction. I remembered the winter before, trying to walk across the icy road to my mailbox, and ending up on all fours as I crossed back, my mail in my teeth. It had been completely impossible to stand up on the ice. This was like that.

He didn’t take long, though, my hero that he is. That young man has gotten me out of all kinds of impossible scrapes. Would he be able to get me out of this one? I sat in the car, thinking about him, grateful, but thinking, too, about the deer.

I saw his headlights coming down the driveway and breathed a sigh of relief. The old truck is not roadworthy, a wreck, but we use it for hauling wood and cleaning the drive and various other farm errands. Like pulling me out of ditches and loose from hillsides.

I watched him turn up the hill and squeeze by me. Oh good, his four-wheel drive is doing the trick.

Then I saw him start to slip. Nearly at the top of the hill, his big wheels started to slide. It was like watching a slow motion film with an oncoming train, unable to move. The truck had passed me, his intention to back up to me and pull me loose with a chain, but instead he was slipping sideways, parallel to me. I watched his truck sliding toward my car, out of control. I watched his face in the light of the cab, eyes wide, lips pressed into a line, measuring the fast-shrinking space between the truck and my car.

Wham. Softly. The truck slid up against me, but not hard. In fact, I felt it nudge me loose a bit from the hillside. Calling out to each other through open windows, he told me what he wanted me to do, when to go into drive, when reverse, and I felt a few hopeful inches of movement … but not enough. He tried to move the truck again, now both of us blocking the road. He gained a few inches higher, leaving a small space between his vehicle and mine.

Working to stay upright, he climbed from the truck and pressed his back against the truck and his arms and legs into my car. Dangerous. He could get squeezed between the two vehicles. He’s a risk-taker by nature, and I wasn’t going to argue (he wouldn't listen), just hurried to get us out of this situation. He pushed me loose, my car continued its slow spin until I was turned opposite of the direction I was going … but it worked. Driving slowly in reverse, I was able to turn into my driveway backwards and start backing down the drive.

With the car out of the way, the truck slid loose and down the hill until he got it into the driveway and followed me in. Parked, taking a deep breath of relief, we took a look at the damage. Not much. My bumper was pried loose, but he shrugged and pushed it back into place. It held, one crack more on the corner. I don’t care about the looks of a car, least of my concerns in life, so I nodded in satisfaction and turned my thoughts back to the deer.

One of the smaller does gets curious about the chickens
One of the deer walking the trail by the toolshed-chicken coop

We found flashlights in the house, put on heftier boots, and headed out into the night to look for …. a deer carcass? Blood in the snow? Some sign of what had caused the coyote celebration. He went one way and I went the other, following a circle around the back acreage. I could see his flashlight bobbing along the snow in the growing distance, looking for tracks.

I found tracks on my side and followed them into the woods. Here older, here fresher, but nowhere a sign of struggle, only areas where the deer had pawed at the snow to uncover some still green growth to eat. The scat I found looked fresh. The deer had been hanging out near the barn and the perimeter of the woods; I could see where they had lain in the snow to rest.

The spot of light from my son’s flashlight bobbed closer, sweeping across the snow and trees. When the two of us met in the woods, he shrugged.

“Nothing. Deer kill out back, but it’s old, almost nothing left but a few bones and bits of hide. Anything here?”

“Nothing. Here’s hoping.”

He nodded, and we made our way back to the house, checking in on both chicken coops on the way. The hens were huddled together, sleeping peacefully. I did a quick headcount.

I went to sleep an hour later, well past 2 a.m., only a little comforted by the lack of deer kill evidence. The night was quiet now, maybe too quiet.

These are the dramas of country life. Wildlife, and the cycles of life and death, as they should be. It hurt only when I fell in love with a particular animal, and I had grown quickly fond of these three. They had been showing up every day, several times a day, and sometimes when I turned into my drive, I saw the three of them lying in the front woods, peacefully watching my car pass. I felt honored by their trust. I felt sick about my inability to protect them. Even as I understood: coyotes, too, must eat, and if I got to know a particular coyote, wouldn’t I fall in love with him, too? Probably.

Sunday nearly done and no sign of the deer. The apples I left in the snow and the smattering of cracked corn is untouched, perhaps only a little disturbed by my own hens and a few wild birds.

Dark approaches, another evening on the horizon, and this may be a story, I realize, for which I may never have an ending. The coyotes may have caught their prey somewhere out of our sight. The coyotes may have chased the deer off to another area. The deer may be cautious today, playing it safe, and show up tomorrow or the day after. I may never see them again. I may walk out into the backfield in the spring, last snow melting, first wildflowers blooming, and find a white bone, clean of flesh, smooth and dry in my hand, and wonder.

Doe with broken leg