Phenomenal

Named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review, Leigh Ann Henion’s New York Times best-selling book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World is now available in paperback.

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Leigh Ann Henion proves that it is possible and essential to be a wife and mother and still see the world. Her memoir opens with the birth of her son and her honest confession that she “cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t place. I have an inner emptiness — literal and figurative — that I’ve never felt before. It’s as though nourishing his life has built a new chamber in my body that is now cavernous and empty, waiting to be filled…I have never felt more alone.”

It is this voice — unflinching bare bone self-examination —that keeps me hooked through her pilgrimage in search of wonder. Three years before her son is born, Henion witnesses the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico on assignment for the Washington Post Magazine and realizes that she’s missing out on nature’s most spectacular shows. On her first trip after her son is born to see the bioluminescence bay of Puerto Rico, she learns that “nature has the power to completely disarm people.” In the lightning storms of Venezuela: “an admission of human frailty and the perfect magnificence of earth, the universe, time, in a way that removes the masks of humankind’s many religions to reveal their connectivity, the fact that we are — in the end — one.”

And if these revelations don’t strike a chord within, Henion introduces infrasound and indigenous ways of knowing on a burning volcano in Hawai’i. Beneath the Northern Lights of Sweden, Henion asks: “If I want to trust nature, to trust life, I can’t always be trying to control it. Haven’t I learned this by now? Isn’t this, like, a main rule of parenting? Will I ever really be able to just do the best I can and then just let go?”

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On the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania, Henion realizes that if she were not having phenomenal experience after phenomenal experience, she would not be parenting her son in a way that awakens him to using plants, and landmarks, and symbols to make his way in the world. “If I were not being led by wonder, it is not the source from which I would teach.”

It is this parallel journey that Henion has with her son that lies at the core of this book. Henion says in an interview, “My son is seeing trees for the first time and discovering pine cones and rocks and everything was amazing. And I was seeing the solar eclipse, northern lights, and everything was new and amazing…and then we were able to come together and explore together with that sense of wonder.”

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Henion ends her memoir with an unforgettable image of her son wrapped up in a blanket in her arms gazing up at the night sky and whispering something she learned on one of her trips, “We’re stardust.”

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Not only does Henion place her readers in these visceral scenes of experiencing phenomena which she defines as “that which is amazing and that which is observable,” she also introduces us to shamans, indigenous leaders, reindeer herders, phenomenon chasers, people who are happily living what some call the “unconventional life.”

Henion writes in her introduction, “I had no idea there were lay people from all over the world, from all walks of life, already going to great lengths to undertake the sorts of phenomena chases I’d dreamed up. Some took odd jobs to stay under the northern lights. Others left white-collar positions to make time for swimming in glowing, bioluminescent bays. There were people who braved pirates to witness everlasting lightning storms, stood on volcanoes, stared into solar eclipses. They trusted their instincts, followed their passions, willfully shaped their days into the lives they most wanted to lead.”
Humphrey, a guide she meets in Tanzania, says this about his life: “I am free! I can go anywhere I want and look for things. I can move! There’s no stress — not that kind of stress when you are confined. I am never bored. To me, that’s what freedom means.”

A clinical psychologist named Kate, whom Henion meets in Australia, explains that eclipse chasers make choices that allow them to be in the right place at the right time. “I think people put restrictions on their lives. They perceive: I can’t do this because I don’t have the money. I can’t do this because of whatever…But if you’ve got that passion, if you’ve made that choice, it will happen.”

This is ultimately the gem I’ve uncovered rereading this book in times when I doubt the unconventional choices I’ve made in my life. Or worse, I miss out on the freedom that Humphrey speaks about when I decide not to do something because I think I can’t afford it or I’m worried about what other people think.
In particular, Henion bravely addresses what all of us mothers wrestle with: “does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life? Motherhood affects everything, but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?”

As a travel writer and a soon-to-be mother of four kids, I berate myself with these questions all day long. It’s especially heart-wrenching, when well-meaning friends or family tell me that I shouldn’t do something because I’m a mother or that my decision to have so many kids means that I should always prioritize motherhood over my career. A Wisconsin Public Radio interviewer once said to Henion: “The script in our culture tends to have being a mother and being an explorer as mutually exclusive roles. You’re supposed to get your wandering and adventuring done before you have kids and then you’re supposed to nest and settle down.”

Critics have actually asked Henion how she could “abandon” her child or husband for a week, or whether she felt guilty about leaving her son “especially when he was just a baby, to go off on this wonder pilgrimage?” I, too, am asked these questions when I’m on assignment. It makes me wonder how often mothers are asked “what about the kids?” when they have to travel somewhere for work, and how often fathers are asked that question. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked my husband whether he feels guilty abandoning his wife and three kids when he’s out-of-town five days every week?

Here’s her graceful response, which I’ve posted on my wall: “I think a lot of people will look at this journey and think it’s self-indulgent. I had to wrestle with this. All my life I was told that women can do anything. When I became a mother, I felt like that suddenly changed. There seems to be a who-does-she-think-she is to just go chase an eclipse. When we talk about following a script, that doesn’t follow a script. When you’re a new mother and you go to a professional conference for a week, it doesn’t seem like people would talk about that how awful it is that she went to a conference. But if you swim in a bioluminescence bay in Puerto Rico, it seems somehow self-indulgent. It doesn’t follow a script of what you’re supposed to be doing of what’s acceptable. It’s interesting because it is actually my job as a travel writer. I’m on a work trip. That really gets to what it is that you want to do, that you think you can’t because it’s not what you’re supposed to do even though it’s what you feel called to do. When people read Phenomenal, that’s what I hope they will ask themselves.”

So tell me, what do you want to do that you think you’re not supposed to do?

And if traveling and exploring might be your answer, consider Henion’s suggestion to see the next total eclipse which will cross the entire country on August 21, 2017. She says, “The highest number of Americans in a century will be able to easily reach its path. This is something people go out on ocean liners or fly to tiny islands to see, and it’s going to be within driving distance for millions. A great resource is greatamericaneclipse.com. I saw a total eclipse in Australia. It’s a tremendous experience; you’re seeing the face of the sun. And to witness it with other people, you viscerally experience interconnectivity.”

Henion, Leigh Ann. Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. Penguin, 2015.

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The More You Give, the More You Get Back

Cross-posted from Today Parenting Team

In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother’s Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.

At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Yup’ik Elders explain that “those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”

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Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling “mine” at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

Here’s something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she’ll bargain with them. “Okay, I’ll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller.”

Always, I’m patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I’ll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she’ll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.

Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.

Interview with Leigh Newman

Cross posted from  http://49writers.blogspot.com/2015/04/leslie-hsu-oh-interviews-leigh-newman.html
When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising our children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of Oprah.com and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 

The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end, I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours?
Wow! You’re right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence’s reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!
At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened?
I’m working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.

The stories you’re talking about are part of a book I may never write…I ‘m not sure. It’s about very dumb things I did and survived.

 

In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad?

I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we’re going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we’ve gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.

 

One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers?

Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present.  It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.

 

In interviews you shared that the process of writing Still Points North was not easy including a coffee spill right before the manuscript was due that shorted out your computer, “I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.” From the point of time in which you sold Still Points North on a book proposal to publication, what advice can you offer other memoirists on how to navigate the implosion or explosion of a book? When to listen to your gut vs. agents/editors/writers?
I think….that you have the best b.s. meter. Usually when a good editor or agent points out an issue, you already know it’s an issue, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself. It is almost a relief to get rid of the problem. If they point out something that really doesn’t resonate—just don’t do it. I usually sit on edits for 3 days before I say or do anything. The first day I’m furious and weepy and sure they are idiots who just don’t get my vision. Then the second day, they might have a point. The third day, they are so insightful! How could I not have seen it!
We’ve all heard in critiques to avoid the present tense because it complicates what Philip Lopate calls the “double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” And yet, you managed to do this beautifully in Still Points North. Please do share your secret.

 

I don’t know. I wish I did. I had read almost no memoirs when I wrote mine, save A Boy’s Life, which is in past tense. Now, of course, I feel so conflicted. Writing in the present tense is so natural for me. But I read all kinds of criticism about it (see William Gass) and it does rob you of reflecting, as an adult, on the complexity of what happened in your past. You lose out on your own hard won insight . So I wish I could do it differently—I feel very animalistic about writing, very instinctual—but I go back to the present, again and again. The past tense to me is sophisticated, elegant, and I long for it the way rube always long for urbanity, even as a rube knows she is still a rube.