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Independent and Strong Bookselling Supports Authors

Independent booksellers nationwide have chosen my new memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth as an “IndieNext” or “Indie Bound” Top Pick book for February.

I am so grateful to these bravely independent and devoted bookstores for keeping both authors and discerning readers alive in these hard times. And this nomination means the world to me, literally. It used to be that readers had only to rely upon the Publisher’s Weekly or New York Times bestseller lists for new books. But we’ve seen in the past years the rather cynical manipulation of those lists by say, conservative think-tanks who buy up thousands of copies of a new book, thus propelling it to the top of the bestseller lists – when actually those books simply sat unread in some storehouse. We cannot trust these lists, except as a numerical rating.

What is different about Indie Next “Great Reads” monthly list each month is that it is based upon actual readings and recommendations by professional booksellers whose business is to “hand-sell” the best of the new books. It’s just like walking into our favorite independent bookstores and asking, “What’s the best novel you’ve read recently? The best memoir? The best political thriller?” and have a real person answer, “Oh, you’ll love this book . . “ and off we go into the welcoming nooks and crannies of our local bookstore trusting an experienced good guide. Then there are the fabulously helpful hand-written recommendations or staff picks that adorn many books.

Independent booksellers have actually READ the books they recommend. They are real human beings who have formed a national presence in their IndieBound monthly lists. I find these IndieNext Great Reads invaluable in helping me to decide what to read. I also trust them to introduce me to new authors, not just bestsellers, to new ideas, not just popular trends.
My own Seattle independent bookstore, the revered Elliot Bay Books in Pioneer Square was one of the “indies” who recommended my book to Indie Next. You can follow Karen from Elliot Bay Books on Twitter (she gives wonderful recommendations for books). Another was Darvill’s Books in the misty San Juan Islands, where I’ll read at in the spring. Almost every book I’ve published has been launched at Elliot Bay. Their reading room is right off the restaurant. It is cozy, old-fashioned brick and shelves lining the walls. The accompanying “whoosh” of espresso machines and steamers punctuate one’s words. Seattle readers ask such intelligent and thought-provoking questions. The Elliot Bay reading series is one that authors nation-wide truly admire and ask to visit -- like a literary mecca.
Sometimes when I’m writing here by the Salish Sea I look out – just saw a seal pup surface her glossy head! – and summon up the soft lighting of Elliot Bay’s reading room, the upturned, kind faces of the readers authors must usually only imagine in our daily work. I wonder if those readers will enjoy this scene or that scene. In my mind I have conversations with these readers and they cheer me on when I’m feeling particularly dim or uncreative.

I guess you could say that independent and strong readers, just like the indie bookstores they support, are also my muses. For this nourishing nomination by Indie Next booksellers and for all of you readers, I am deeply grateful. And, as those of you who have read my books know, gratitude is my religion.

Brenda will be reading at independent bookstores in February.

Elliot Bay Books, Seattle, Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4th at 7:00 p.m.
Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Saturday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 p.m.
Book Passage, Corte Madera, California, Feb. 11th at 7:00 p.m.
Seattle University “Search for Meaning” conference, Feb. 13 at 9:00 a.m.-10:15 a.m.
Village Books, Bellingham, Washington, Feb. 18th at 7:00 p.m.
Powell’s Books on Burnside, Portland, Oregon, Feb. 25th at 7:30 p.m.
Vroman’s Books, Los Angeles, California, March 10th at 7:00 p.m.


Give Me One Minute More

Amidst all the horrific news of Haiti’s earthquake this week was the heartening report that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their official Doomsday Clock back one minute. According to Global Security Newswire, the infamous Doomsday Clock “is meant to symbolize humankind’s flirtation with Armageddon” and that “moving its hand away from midnight indicates the world has taken positive steps toward nuclear disarmament.”

In 1945, the Bulletin was first formed by the Manhattan Project physicists who were troubled by the “the destructive powers of nuclear weapons.” In 1947, the Doomsday Clock was created and the minute hand set at 7 minutes to midnight. Scientists cite our sitting on the cusp of nuclear annihilation based on our “nuclear proliferation and climate change.”
During the Bush years, the Doomsday Clock ticked closer to midnight at 5 minutes, the worst rating since its creation in 1947. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Atomic Scientists worried in 2007 that “the world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age” as “the U.S. and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes.”
When the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday minute hand back this week I found myself whistling the Mans Zelmerlow song “Give me one minute more.”

I just want one minute more

Just want one minute more

I just want one minute more

Of love

As we enter a new decade, there is some cause for optimism as those in the arms community note that President Obama and Russia have promised nuclear cutbacks in our dangerous arsenals. And more nations, including the U.S., are committed to taking significant steps to face climate change. It is not just about the environmental conservation; it is about the future security of all life here on earth.

Or, as my brother, who works in the military says, “Maybe climate change is the real terrorism and the biggest threat to our national security.” According to him, the military have been seriously studying climate change and future scenarios for survival.” He was the first to point me to the work of General Zinni, a visionary in studying military threats from global warming.
Of course there are those who see doomsday as edging ever nearer with each earthquake like that in Haiti or tsunami; they interpret every report of catastrophe as a sure sign that our world is on the brink of End Times. And that Armageddon is upon us – no matter that the Doomsday clock has just been turned back.
As a writer, I always pay attention to words and their double meanings. It’s interesting to me that the word Armageddon has the root word “arm,” which also calls to mind “arming” a nation or the nuclear “arms” race. Then there is the “hand” of the Doomsday Clock, or the “hand of God,” to biblical true believers.

Humans reach out their arms and their hands to manipulate matter, to defend, to attack, or to embrace. In turning back the hands of the Doomsday clock and in lending our hand to help in this Haitian earthquake -- the whole world is now reaching to aid a nation’s healing. This earthquake is not a sign of doomsday or Armageddon; it is an opportunity to use our arms to support and hold steady a nation and a people who have been shaken to their core.
Follow up: 
Global Security Newswire (NTP)
Christian Science Monitor
General Zinni


All Things Are Connected

“All things are connected
like the blood that unites
one family.”
-- Chief Seattle

This week my niece, Charlotte and her husband, Alex, and I called my 81-year-old mother to harmonize on singing “Happy Birthday” to celebrate her long life and continued good health. My parents are “Command Central” in their retirement because they are self-proclaimed “news junkies” who often are the first to tune into international crises. My father’s career in the U.S. Forest Service and international wildlife management and my mother’s C.I.A. job assure that they follow current events, far and wide – and embrace the “more-than-human” lives in our own story.

So it did not surprise me during her birthday call that my mother gave us the first alert and very sobering news about the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

“All those poor people were already so at risk,” she said. “ Now . . . this!”

Our birthday call took a sadder turn as we heard the CNN details relayed by my parents. They both always get on the phone so it’s like stereo – father in one ear, mother in the other. Entire buildings collapsed, hospitals overwhelmed, schools flattened and thousands dead. My parents had already contributed to the government aid program.  My favorite worldwide charity and emergency response grassroots organizations are Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Corps. Both charities keep a low overhead and almost all the donations go directly to those in need.

There are also the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, MADRE, and Partners in Health.

At the end of the phone call with my parents what could we do but sing a vibrant and heartfelt “Happy Birthday – and many more!” to my mother – celebrating her eight decades on this bountiful earth. An earth that sometimes speaks in earthquakes and tsunamis, in birdsong and mysterious winds or ways.

That night I dreamed of an ocean full of children. Some were swimming and splashing playfully; some were lifeless and floating. As I tread water, I heard from the sea depths below the familiar ricochet and whistles of spinner dolphins. They rose up in one pod, one synchronized breath, and they swam over to carry the floating children – some living, some dead – on their backs through the waves. The dolphin pod returned all the children to shore where they were met with keening or joyous embraces.

When I awoke from the dream I remembered that in ancient Greece many believed that dolphins were “psycho-pomps” or fellow creatures who carry our dead to other worlds. In my dreams I was trying to call upon these bearers of souls to accompany all those who’ve lost their lives to the earth’s trembling. And in the dream was this prayer: May all the living and the dead be carried and held and know they float on divine waves.


Apocalypse Never

Photo by Esben Bog

I was delighted today to see that The New York Times ran my “Letter to the Editor” in both its print and web editions, in response to the excellent op-ed piece by Professor Denis Dutton “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It” from January 1, 2010.

Much of my work has been about trying to reconcile Deep Ecology and fundamentalism. I grew up in a Southern Baptist tradition that portrays the earth as “skewed” and a temporary habitat – or as the hymn says “This World is Not My Home I’m Just A’Passin Through.” But because I was raised my early years in a pristine wilderness on a national forest lookout station on the High Sierra between California and Oregon, I was also blessed with the abundant living world as my spiritual tradition. And my father, who worked in the U.S. Forest Service, made sure we kids knew that the vast forests were to be respected as The Standing People; that the other animals were our “brothers and sisters under the skin” and that we were not to be in dominion over the Earth, but to be stewards of God’s creation.

So nature was never a place we visited as if we didn’t belong. It was not a park or well-kept yard. It was our habitat, wild, tender, and shared with fellow creatures. You might say that the forest got to me before the faithful or the True Believers who were always talking about paradise as a disembodied afterlife or heaven. As a novelist and nature writer, my life’s work has been in celebration of the living world – whether it’s gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja for the National Geographic Society book, Sightings or the ocean realms in my novel, Animal Heart.

Imagine then my dismay when I began to witness an unsettling echo of the religious EndTimers among my own environmentalist allies – what I came to think of as Apocalyptic Greens. Using fear and tragedy as a rallying cry, both camps issue their evangelical calls to their faithful followers. But this tragic vision – extinction or Rapture -- doesn’t serve us when we’re trying to find our way into a future.

This religious and environmental focus on tragedy and apocalypse pits man against nature – and both end with transcending through death. “I’ll leave it all behind,” as the hymn says. If we can embrace our lives and our natural world without our tragic projections, either environmental or religious, we open up a vast future for all species.

I am not saying that the way forward is through denial. Yes, we face global warming, yes, we are consuming our world at an alarming rate. But how about a little balance, some celebration, some new stories? And most of all, a sense of humor! Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? John Stewart and Stephen Colbert come close and bless them for it.

The great scholar and mystic Simone Weil once said that there are two ways to Truth: suffering and beauty. I’m choosing the beauty way, as indigenous peoples have always taught us. I’m choosing rapture here on earth and other teachers than terror. I’m choosing, as the wonderful poet W.S. Merwin wrote in “Place”:

On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree


Reasons To Be Left Behind: New Year of Music

Photo by Miami Love1

As promised, here is my traditional New Year’s Music CD for 2010, entitled “Sweet Old World” after the Lucinda Williams song, covered by Emmy Lou Harris.

1. Sweet Old World by Emmylous Harris
2. Hallelujah by Allison Crowe
3. K’erachaim’av by Brenda Peterson, accompanied by Diana S.
4. Peace In the Valley by Sam Cooke
5. The Crossing (Osiyeza) by Overtone
6. Yesterday by Boyz II Men
7. I Dreamed a Dream by Susan Boyle
8. If Love Were All by Rufus Wainwright
9. Bird Girl by Antony & The Johnsons
10. Yahweh by U2
11. Drops in the River by Fleet Foxes
12. Trouble in Mind by John Gorka
13. Here Comes the Sun by Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor
14. This Little Light of Mine by Marika Hughes, Marcus Rojas, Yo-Yo Ma
15. A Primeira Vez by Jane Monheit
16. Un gaou a Paris by Magic System
17. Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) by Alanis Morissette
18. World In Union ’95 by Overtone
19. Singing Sisters by Zap Mama and Sabine Kabongo
20. What I Did for Love by Caroline O’Connor
21. Gracias a La Vida by Mercedes Sosa

Listening to and choosing the playlist for this New Year’s music CD was so much fun. Hours spent with headphones at my computer, as I walked along the Salish Sea with my iPod, and while driving. So far, friends and family are giving it the “thumb’s up,” but we’ll see what the general consensus is before claiming it as a success.

A few more music notes on some of the choices: If there is a regional dominance it seems to be Canadian and South African singers. Rufus Wainright’s album of Judy Garland songs at Carnegie Hall was an unexpected discovery; he makes a tender and haunting ballad of “If Love Were All.” And the aforementioned Allison Crowe, will probably be a staple on many more of my homemade music CDs. The South African multi-dimensional harmonies from the soundtrack of the new movie Invictis by the group Overtone are soaring examples of what human voices can do when they seek the most subtle and heartfelt harmonies.

Perennial favorites are back on this 2010 “Sweet Old World” CD, including the bombastic blends of Eurasian sings Zap Mama (“Singing Sisters”), the elegant jazz singer Jane Monheit in “Priemera Vez,” and the marvelously inventive Fleet Foxes (”Drops in the River”), whose fame will surely not be fleeting.

A surprise discovery this year was Anthony. I arrived at his astonishingly vulnerable and gender-bending voice while following one of those “If you liked this, you’ll love . . .” links. I chose “Bird Girl” because it betrays such longing for another world, either those 60 other dimensions that string theory surmises exist if we could but find the portals – or simply the yearning to be feminine, from the soul of a man whose voice can fly.
U2’s soulful “Yahweh” calling upon the sometimes forbidden name of God to “take this soul and break it” is for all of my spiritual seeker friends. It seems a call-and-response to the mighty Sam Cooke’s “Peace in the Valley.”

Recently, my niece interviewed me for her high school report on the civil rights movement and integration in the 1960s when our family lived in northern Virginia. Our high school was segregated; and even the white kids were listening to Motown and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” we had to wait until the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make it official. I write about this tumultuous change in my new book and especially how it played out on the girls’ basketball court. So choosing Sam Cooke’s voice to accompany this New Year, the second year with a strong and visionary black president, who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, seems right.

“Sweet Old World” closes with the magnificent Mercedes Sosa singing “Gracias a la Vida” – thanks to life. This song always reminds me of a friend of mine who long ago said, “You know, I realize after all my searching, that the love of my life is – my life.”

So here’s to life abundant, to a New Year and decade together in this sweet old world, sharing all the multitudinous reasons to be left behind, to simply be here now.