It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments


baileyBy Marie A Bailey

The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.

During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.

Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.

I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.

I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.

By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.

I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”

Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.

Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.

Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.

Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”

I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.

Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:

“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”

I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

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§ 30 Responses to It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Several times in my life I have heard successful older women claim “I’ve never had a problem with” sexism. The first time was when i was 17 and an engineer said this during orientation at the University of Washington. I believed she was lying, either to me or to herself. Perhaps both. I still believe that.

    • Well, Houston didn’t so much make a claim as she brushed away my professor’s question, more like she just didn’t want to talk about it. I’m reaching back almost thirty years so I don’t want to put words in Houston’s mouth. In Deep Creek, Houston makes it very clear that she has definitely experienced sexism.

  • I like Houston’s insight into being over-50. Strange how our emotions seem so present.

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  • Thank you for reviewing not only the book, but Pam’s wonderful personality! You got to the crux of her strength and grit-her love of nature that sustains her through all life throws her way. Pam is one of our finest living nature writers-I have followed her work for many years and will continue to do so.

  • Jean says:

    I discovered Pam Houston last year. Her writing is awesome! Thank you for this inspiring and personal blog post.

  • Susan Keefe says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot and was especially attracted to her last phrase…that over 50 one finds it hard to remember feeling any other way than you feel now. It struck a chord; grief is the only emotion that comes back to me, original strength. I wonder why that is.

    • Thank you, Susan. You pose a good question: why is it that we remember grief but not other emotions? That rings true for me as well. I wonder, is it because grief never quite leaves us? We might integrate in our lives, come to some kind of acceptance, but it never leaves.

  • Janet Banks says:

    I’ve had the good fortune to work with Pam in one-week workshops, twice at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown MA – the first time at age 70 and last summer at age 75. She’s the real deal. And she creates an environment for workshops that bring out the very best in all. If you get the chance to work with her, run, don’t walk to sign up.

    • Thank you for the advice, Janet! I really got that sense of Pam during her reading and discussion at the bookstore. Her love for her students and for teaching was palpable. I have it on my bucket list to attend a workshop with her. Thank you also for sharing your age :). I’m 62 (and 6 months, but who’s counting?), and I worry about “getting too old,” especially when it comes to participating in workshops where the other students are probably a third my age. You’re my evidence that I needn’t worry 🙂

  • Luanne says:

    In the “old days” it was considered dangerous to admit to difficulties related to sexism. I wonder if she was worried how it would make her look. Not strong? Fabulous essay, Marie!

    • Although I hesitate to speak for Pam, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of it. She did exude a kind of tough personality at that conference almost 30 years ago; at least, to me she did. Vaguely I remember some women writers presenting themselves as tough as any guy around, drinking hard, living hard. I’m not saying Pam was part of that group … I’m really thinking about the environment in which I was getting my master’s in English. Whatever was going on, it was less that Pam seemed to deny sexism being a problem for her and more that she brushed off my professor’s question. It got my attention only because I’m hypersensitive and, well, the professor was my favorite professor 😉

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Perhaps because I grew up during Second Wave Feminism and did not change my name when I married in 1975, the “old days” do not seem so old to me. I am 67 year old and have seen it.

      It was not “dangerous” to admit to experiencing sexism in 1992. It was foolish to deny it.

      I certainly would not accuse Pam Houston of this, because, as Marie comments above, it was a long time ago and she has earned the admiration she enjoys today. Her reported response only triggered mine. I read Cowboys Are My Weakness when it was first out, and I have not read this newest memoir.

      However, I have attended too many panel discussions among women who confess to only admiring the men in their families, to wanting to be like men, instead of pursuing humanity in its broader reality or even, as Naomi Shihab Nye did in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1996, acknowledging and admiring women’s life opportunities more than men’s. I am eager to read authors who are not pursuing purely male identity or the masculine ideal, whether that author is male or female.

  • Great review of a memorable book. I would love to hear Houston in person. I just read Deep Creek last week and had some of the same reactions. Mostly I was blown away by her resilience and dedication to her craft. Now, that’s the kind of writer I strive to be.

    • Thank you, Cheryl! She was wonderful to see in person. For this tour, she seemed to be making a point of visiting independent bookstores, so maybe when she publishes again, she’ll come to a bookstore near you 🙂 Her resilience is amazing. And I learned so much about wild fire containment, more than I hope to ever need to know!

  • I always enjoy a review that much more when there’s a link from the author to the reviewer…that said, this is powerful. Will check out Houston for sure…

  • merrildsmith says:

    Wonderful essay, Marie. I liked the way you didn’t simply review the book, or say why you liked it, but connected it to your own life experiences, as well.

  • Thank you, Merril. I was hesitant to include so much of myself in this review, but there it is. I’m grateful that my review found a home here in Brevity.

  • Wonderful one from you, keep it up.

  • nobrain9 says:

    I liked the way your wrote the story.. keep the good writing..

  • ahadtajik34 says:

    Very Nice

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