Sunday, February 21, 2010

Life in Abundance

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

I am an Australian wandering the world for a couple of months, chivvied out of my house by my travel-loving husband. A few weeks ago, in Glasgow, I found a tiny second hand bookshop in an alleyway off a nondescript side street. While my six- and three-year-olds chatted to the owner and played with the resident cats, I negotiated the poky aisles. It was one of those stores with books shelved to the ceiling, books stacked 30 high in front of the shelves, and books stacked 20 high in front of the stacks in front of the shelves. I spent most of the time saying 'excuse me' to the other customers as we squeezed past each other, arching over stacks and bending our bodies around one another like a literary form of twister.

The shop was intriguing. And in one teetering pile, a slim purple book caught my eye. I slid it out, opened it up, began to read, and immediately experienced that electrical jolt you get when you pick up the exact book you need, the book you know you will read time and again until you die.

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives), by Ted Kooser, is an account of daily life in rural Nebraska. It is not a linear telling, nor a story as such, but instead a collection of observations and memories grouped by season. I mean no disrespect when I say that it reads like an unusually beautiful blog, the posts lovingly crafted. Individually, each piece stands alone, whether a paragraph or three pages, and provides much to reflect on. Together, the pieces create an intimate portrait of place, person and community.

The notes are suffused with gentle humour and tinged with sadness. This is the writing of a man aware of his mortality and our frailty, who yet sees that life is good. He uses the stories of fields and families, small towns and tools, to create something strong and good. The writing drew me in so that I, too, smelled the wild plums in the hedgerow and saw the beer cans nestled in the undergrowth; lay in his son's tree house and listened to the breeze rustle the branches; sat on his outdoor toilet in the early morning watching the sunrise; experienced the theatre of a garage sale; sniffed the cloves from his mother's ancient can; and longed to see a fox. And I too felt frustration at the louts spraying herbicide, the school board which closes the schools and busses the kids for miles, the farmer who dumps insecticide into the water in his irrigation well. Kooser takes the reader on a ramble through his observations and memories such that, by the benediction – the only way to describe the final piece – I felt I had come to know him.

Local Wonders has taken its place on my mental shelf of all time favourites, along with works by Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Marilynne Robinson and Robert Farrar Capon – all writers who cherish the mundane. Like these authors, Kooser has written a book about the everyday, to read slowly and savour, to dip into again and again, to draw nourishment from.

My life's thesis is this: if we could learn to see and cherish the gifts of the daily – the sight of a spider web as we walk down the street, the thread of song that comes to mind as we wash dishes, a baby's smile – then we would have a means to counter the gnawing insatiable appetite for more which dominates our culture: more clothes, more food, more sex, more experience, more power, more money, more thrills. This book invites the reader to step back, take a breath, and look around. By reading such a book, and learning to paying attention to our own lives, we might discover a deep and joyful truth: that all of us have not only enough, but riches and life in abundance.

> Ted Kooser Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives) (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).

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