Sunday, November 09, 2014

We Are the Willows

For fans of Bon Iver, The Weepies, Eastmountainsouth, Luray, First Aid Kit, and Nickel Creek, I recommend checking out We Are the Willows' Picture [Portrait]. The album's described beautifully on their website:

"The band has recently recorded their second full-length album, Picture [Portrait], based off of 350 letters written by Peter’s grandfather to his grandmother while he was stationed in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. Their correspondence inspired Peter to explore themes of family, separation, life, death, and identity in a time of national and personal crisis. The songs communicate complex ideas delivered with pop-sensible charm. His grandmother loves this album. You just might too."

In an email letter I just wrote to the band, I stated, "Being from Wisconsin (Lake Geneva then Madison) allows me that extra level of connection with your work; there's something melancholic-yet-wholesomely Midwestern in the way you spin musical yarns."

Want to watch the video that got Gus and me hooked? You can check out "Dear Ms. Branstner" here:


p.s. Isn't the cover artwork by Emilie Robinson divine?

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Ode to All Souls' Day

Below is a letter I recently wrote to local author Brian Doyle, author of Mink River and other cherished modern classics. As an addendum to this letter, I must mention that Yoko Tanner was one of the caregivers who gave of her love, compassion, time, and skill to Mary Kay during Mary Kay's final days and hours. Yoko has that gift of pure love, an essence of stillness and kindness that runs so deep you stand in awe of her. She's possibly the nicest person on the planet.

Here's my letter to Brian Doyle, posted here in honor of All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day. We miss you, Mary Kay. I've lost you, Luna, and Ollie within the last year -- it seems like an appropriate time to step back and write your names in the skies with my fingertips.


Dear Mr. Doyle,

Yesterday, while representing SMART at the Stumptown Literary Festival, I had the honor of meeting Tom Booth with the Oregon State University Press. During our talk, I brought up a powerful story in which you played a part. Tom encouraged me to write you and share….

For several years I worked at Our House, a residential care facility for people living with HIV/AIDS who live below the poverty line. In my role there, I split my time between the fundraising team and the volunteer management team, and was consistently impressed by the diligence, compassion, and commitment of our steadfast donors and volunteers. My kinship and friendship strengthened with some of the women and men over time as we connected over the organization’s mission as well as interests, passions, and ideals that landed in the more personal realm. One of these individuals was Sister Mary Kay, who for 15 years was our Wednesday morning receptionist on a weekly basis. Mary Kay was an avid reader, and we regularly exchanged books, devouring some, disagreeing on others, and always engaging with each other with an open heart. Sister Mary Kay also loved ice cream, and for her birthday every July we’d head out for double-scoop cones and discuss God. She, the devout, liberal, mischievous Catholic, and me, the once-Catholic gay pagan with an equally mischievous twinkle in my eye. A couple years ago, MK asked me to read your Mink River, which I’d picked up time and again from bookshelves, pondered, and – frankly – set back, saying to myself, “Seems interesting; maybe next time; I have to be in the right mood.” Because she strongly suggested it – and because she selected some favorite passages and read them to me – I decided to borrow her copy and dive into your absorbing, informational, emotional, and spiritual book. Page after page, I kept pausing, my breath caught, my heart jolted. She and I shared favorite passages back and forth after I was finished.

Jump ahead a year or so, to this past summer: Mary Kay got very sick with cancer, and unfortunately, she’d had several battles with it already. She knew her time was coming, and in true MK fashion she absorbed this truth with raw face-it-head-on status, as well as a healthy dollop of humor (probably equaling two ice cream scoops in size). As she got sicker and sicker, as her hair fell out from the chemo, as her memory started going, as she lost weight, she still found solace in words. She started reading The Plover. One of my co-workers, KJo Siess, along with some others at Our House, then started to read to MK; her eyesight was failing; she needed that extra nudge to guide her through the story. Simultaneously, and admittedly on a much smaller scale, I was going through my own tough time, experiencing an existential whirlwind that felt almost luxurious in comparison to MK’s deteriorating health. Still, it was my whirlwind. One July day I decided to hike up on Powell Butte, thankful that my mother had moved there recently. As I wound my way through a large thicket, the most amazing thing happened: a Great Horned Owl swooped down from the trees, flew in a circle around me, landed on a branch, swiveled and stared me in the eyes for a few seconds, then dove off back into the trees. Now, this would be pretty powerful for anyone – a gigantic, majestic owl came to check me out! – but for those whose spirit totem animals are owls, such as myself, that power gets upped several notches. Not often do such intense, direct connections with nature presented themselves to some of us; when they do, we must listen. I believe this is one of the greatest messages in Mink River. I shared this experience with Mary Kay, and she told me that it was indeed a sign, that the Universe was letting me know I was on the right path, and that I should not doubt for a second that the owl felt in tune with me, that it was gifting its grace and power to me to witness. In turn, I told her that I felt as if I were doing something for the owl as well, as if it also needed a sign, and we were both conduits.

A few weeks later, Sister Mary Kay slipped into a coma. Some of us signed up for shifts to come by her home, where she lived with her best friend and fellow Catholic sister, Rosemary. Rosemary graciously allowed us to spend time with Mary Kay, holding her hand, soothing her, reading to her. Our House’s KJo had brought The Plover there, so we could all take turns reading to her, knowing that she was listening on some level, taking in your book. I will always vividly remember plucking up The Plover and reading several pages. Mary Kay passed away later that night. A couple weeks later I received a card in the mail, and Sister Rosemary had written, “I know she was aware of you.” That includes being aware of The Plover, of you in that room with her, offering her comfort through your literary insights as she transitioned to that next elusive realm.

I’m so thankful that Tom asked me share this story with you, Mr. Doyle. I wasn’t sure what would come out. And now I do….

My Warmest Regards,
Nathan Buck