Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

I’ve always loved to read.  I completed every story in my elementary school reader (you must remember those) in a week.  We weren’t supposed to read ahead, but I couldn’t wait! For me, words are manna from heaven—both the written and the spoken.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had us keep a card file with a small book review of every book we read that year.  I kept up my card file until I went to college. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Fortunately, one of my sons-in-law gave me a book journal for Christmas in 1999.  I filled it up in a year, and then started a new card file based on the journal format.  Now I have a record of twelve years’ worth of books!

Eloise May Library

Two years ago, our local branch of the Arapahoe Library District moved from a small space on the third floor of a local government building to a new building two miles from our house.  Once it was so close, Dave and I made a pledge to stop buying books and start borrowing them.  Neither of us has ever had trouble finding a book to read in this library branch. We keep lists of favorite authors and new book titles, but we also have found authors unknown to us on the May’s library shelves. I have also requested books for us, even though we sometimes wait a month or two for a best seller. Every visit to the library is an adventure for us, searching the shelves for the right book that will provide us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Dave urged me to publish my book reviews for many years, but I didn’t know where I could do it until I started blogging and using Facebook.  I’ve done two reviews on this blog and a few on Facebook, but I decided to make book reviews a regular blog feature. So, let me begin with two of my favorite recent reads…

Alexandra Fuller (Bo Fuller) at cabin near Pinedale, Wyoming. Offhand decor includes an even mix of African and cowboy artifacts. CREDIT: David J Swift

This summer I stumbled upon the author Alexandra Fuller in the book review section of The Denver PostShe had written a book about growing up in Africa.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller (nicknamed Bobo) lived in Africa from 1972 until 1994. Her parents lived in Kenya and then Rhodesia before she was born, beginning their family with her sister, Vanessa, and a brother who died from meningitis in his infancy. Unlike her older siblings, Bobo was born in England, where her mother retreated to recover her health and give birth to Bobo.

Before Bobo arrived in Africa, the Fullers acquired their own ranch Rhodesian ranch where they could grow most of their food and run some sheep and horses.  Unfortunately for them, after a few years of ranching, a civil war interrupted their lives.  Bobo’s father joined the white colonial army, fighting unsuccessfully against the black Rhodesians.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the Fullers lost their home and began a peripatetic lifestyle fraught with deprivation: poverty, homelessness, hunger, danger and illness.  They moved from Zimbabwe to Malawi and finally to Zambia, running from conflicts and hellish conditions. The family lost two more children, numerous pets, livestock and land.  Bobo’s mother fought depression constantly, but her condition worsened with alcoholism. She displayed manic episodes as well and became unpredictable.

Bobo wrote this 2001 memoir based on her childhood memories. She uses a light and humorous touch as she describes learning to load and shoot a gun and riding in the family truck over roads that could be mined. I was captivated, as well as appalled, at the conditions this family endured, but their love for Africa was clear.  Bobo’s irrepressible spirit and her family’s indomitable pluckiness shine through their troubles.  I couldn’t put down this fascinating book.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sequel to this book was published this year, a few months after I read the first memoir.  After Nicola, Alexandra Fuller’s mother, read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she condemned it as “that awful book.”  She didn’t like her one-dimensional portrayal. She made the point when she told her daughter, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know anything about me.”  The book was written from a child’s memories of her parents.

For Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller listened repeatedly to hours and hours of family interview tapes and tackled her second book as portrait of her mother.  In a New York Times review she is quoted, “This book is my love story to (my mother).  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was a love story to place.”

There is no question that this portrayal of both the Fuller parents comes across differently, especially for Nicola.  She is a vulnerable woman who overcomes her depression with resolve and comes to terms with her losses through self-acceptance and forgiveness.  As a reader, I grew to admire Nicola and Tim Fuller for their courage, self-sacrifice and ability to build themselves the life they always wanted.  There is no doubt that the star of Cocktail Hour is always Nicola–and Africa.

Nicola Fuller pulled herself together and taught her daughters to make the best of their situations.  She cultivated their artistic and literary gifts and inspired them to endure.  Vanessa still lives in Africa and is the mother of several children. She is also a graphic and textile artist. Alexandra went to college in Nova Scotia and met her American husband there.  They live in Wyoming with their two children. Cocktail Hour is her fourth book.

Both of these memoirs are beautifully written, but Cocktail Hour has a compact, spare quality that is powerful as well as eloquent.  It is also laced with humor, a quality the Fullers must possess in triplicate to have survived their African troubles.

I close with some favorite passages from each book.

Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child … is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”               

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness:  “No one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence—that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission:  even a good war—if there is such a thing—will kill anyone old enough to die.”                                                     

RELATED ARTICLES

▪    Running From Grief (seattleweekly.com)

▪    Books of The Times: A Mother’s Long Love Affair With Colonialism (nytimes.com)

▪    Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review (telegraph.co.uk)

Another favorite book about an African childhood, this time in Kenya.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

Advertisements

Life-Work: Finding The Space

So far 2010 has been about organizing my Stuff–and it needed to be!   People who have retired from a paying job still crave some kind of  work.   When I retired from teaching elementary school in September 2002, I thought I knew what I would do as a “second career.”  I had spent four years working as a half-time teacher, “transitioning” into retirement.   After that “practice” retirement, I realized that the real thing requires on-the-job training.

Throughout the years I worked as an elementary school teacher, I dreamed of being a writer.  I had always kept a journal, but I added poetry and stories when on summer breaks from teaching.   During the school year, inevitably I became  frustrated with the regimen of classroom teaching.  I  saw myself setting my own agenda and working as a writer from home.  In hind sight, I know that most people become frustrated with their work, picturing  what they would do if they had it to do all over again.  Often writing is one of those romantic choices.   However, during those years, I was the only person I knew who believed she was a writer trapped in a classroom.

However, this isn’t a blog entry about suddenly discovering my calling.   Rather, I am writing about life-work.  Although I love children and I am glad that I had the opportunity to teach, I have never been sorry to be doing something else.  My teaching experience has helped me to play creatively with my grandchildren and enjoy being part of their expanding discovery of the world around them.  I have no regrets about my professional choices because they gave me insights into childhood and the importance of keeping my mind open to new opportunities.

Since retirement I have worked as a writer, though I haven’t received much money for my efforts.  I  finished writing a book in November.  It is “resting” while I decide on marketing and publishing strategies.  I love blogs and  blogging and have now started my third blog (!).  I’ve also developed numerous hobbies that are both creative efforts and keep my days full.  Fitting new interests into a townhouse, however, requires a different kind of creativity.  Enter Dave, my husband, the architect.  He knows all about space!

I have two working spaces in the house.  One of them is this room where I am writing.  It contains my computer and printer, paper, notebooks, pencils and pens–as well as two cat beds.  I also do the household accounts, so I have calculators, check books and the bills here.  This is The Office.  Since I  also taught myself to knit recently, I have knitting books, needles and the yarn I am currently using stored in here.  My bookcases contain dictionaries, writing books, genealogy books and family records (another hobby), most of the pictures from my ancestors,  childhood and my life up to now.  We also store some of our cookbooks in this room, plus my recipe collection–although cooking is not one of my hobbies.

Upstairs I have another room, called The Atelier.  It is also shared with our two cats, two more round beds for them and the towels stretched across a top shelf in the sunniest window.  This space was to be Dave’s architectural studio, but the room’s orientation is too hot and bright in the afternoons–which is why the cats like it and it is sometimes referred to as The Lair.   Dave’s  closet and bathroom are off of this room.  The walls show off some of his favorite architectural scenes and the bookshelves store his favorite mystery books. There I have my sewing machine and table,  patterns, wool for felting, felting needles and tools, as well as sewing books & doll magazines.

I restarted my doll collection after I gained a granddaughter, so I have my doll collection in a display case in the bedroom.  Dave built a play scale (not miniature) doll house for my granddaughter Julia and me.   When she comes over we play elaborate games with my dolls, and a few that I bought for her.

This doll collecting led to another mini-hobby–buying and selling dolls and doll stuff on eBay.  That endeavor has gone into semi-retirement, although I did enjoy it.  I had many business writing experiences creating descriptions for dolls, as well as reformulating my shipping and return policy. I also resold online most of the hardback fiction that I bought and hadn’t passed on to friends and family so that we would have room for other Stuff.  Our new neighborhood library, conveniently located several blocks away, sees a lot of us now!

For the last few weeks Dave and I have been reorganizing and storing my cloth and yarn stash since he has moved his office/studio to the basement.  Now that he is a retired–but still open to options–architect, we reshuffled his Stuff, my Stuff and our whole living space.  Most of my teaching materials and supplies are long gone.

During this next phase of both our lives, and the lives of friends and family who have retired, we have noticed that retirement isn’t easy on a number of levels.  My father said that you have to prepare for it, but I’m not sure that is really possible for everyone.  Most people don’t realize that retirement can feel like being “side-lined”, whether you chose to retire or were forced into it–with tinfoil parachutes, as my sister-in-law called her sudden forced retirement not long ago.

Even though I wanted to retire, to start something new, I still felt at loose ends.   My job had defined my daily parameters with schedules and requirements, so I was ill-equipped to delineate my own timefor a long time.  Then there was always the question of where to spend my time.  I had whole days to “squander,” which didn’t feel right to me.  I was flighty and unfocused.  It has taken years to work my way through all that I thought I wanted to do and find what fits my evolving interests.

I know I am a work-in-progress, just like the two sweaters I am knitting.  I work awhile, tear out a few rows, re-knit them and add that many more.  I’m counting on the sweaters being done long before I am!