Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles by Heather Lende
Nonfiction – Memoir
2010 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Finished on 6/9/12
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
After a near-fatal bicycle accident in her tiny Alaskan town, bestselling author Heather Lende has an opportunity to contemplate faith and friendship, observe the breathtaking beauty of the northern wilderness anew, and truly come to appreciate the remarkable inhabitants of Haines, Alaska, without whom she could never have recovered. Lende’s idea of spirituality is rooted in community, and her irrepressible spirit and commitment to living life on the edge of the world deeps our understanding of what links us all. Like her own mother’s last instructions, “Take good care of the garden and the dogs,” Lende’s writing, so honest and unadorned, offers profound lessons to live by. Here she reminds us (courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson) that “the proper response to the world is applause.”
“Lende has a knack for subtly illuminating the remarkable in the commonplace, the transcendence in tragedy… Her voice, which alternates between folksy and formal, playful and prayerful, entertaining and elegiac, is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, Krista Tippett, Tom Bodett, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.” ~ Minneapolis Star Tribune
Heather Lende has contributed to NPR’s Morning Edition, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post, as well as National Geographic Traveler and Country Living magazines. She is a columnist for Woman’s Day magazine and also writes an online column for the Alaska Dispatch.
I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve had Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs for almost exactly one year. That’s not unusual for this bookseller/blogger. (I have hundreds of unread books, many of which I’ve owned for over a decade!) What’s embarrassing is that I accepted Heather Lende’s memoir for review. I received a query email from her publicist on April 29th, 2011. I promptly responded and the book arrived shortly thereafter. On June 20th, 2011, I received a follow-up email, which I planned to answer, but somehow neglected. Looking back at my Google Calendar, I see that we were in Colorado in late May/early June, followed by a trip to California for a 60th birthday celebration and a trip to Oregon shortly thereafter. Of course, that’s no excuse, but it was a busy start to summer. And I did plan to read the book—just not as promptly as I’d hoped. I’m not sure what prompted me to finally pull it from my shelf last month, but it was just the ticket after reading a few intense thrillers. As you can see, I found a lot to note:
On the Arrival of Spring:
The first day of spring was not March 20, and it wasn’t one day but a handful of early April days so bright that the residents of this little seaside Alaskan town crawled blinking out of our snow caves and welcomed it like sleepy bears. Spring fever hit so hard that everyone was smiling and doing their best to push winter out the door. Blankets and pillows were aired, decks were shoveled, and icy walks were chipped off...
As I walked to town, I realized that spring truly was here because no one asked if I wanted a ride. Even casual drivers-by could see it was a fine day for a walk. One pickup truck passed me, slowed down, and then parked at the bottom of Cemetery Hill, where my neighbors hopped out and took a stroll down Mud Bay Road, smiling at the views of the Chilkat Inlet, Pyramid Island, and the snowy mountains that look the way the Alps would, if Switzerland had a beach.
I write a weekly Thursday column for the Anchorage Daily News, in the Family & Life section. I write about anything I want to: Haines, my family, community goings-on. I try to make each piece local, as I figure I’m the only one sharing the news about this town with the world, but also personal and universal—that way you don’t have to live nearby to be interested. I spend more time on them than they are worth, but from the beginning I have felt an obligation to say something valuable. I looked to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance and found the prayer “For those who Influence Public Opinion.” (It’s an Episcopalian thing, these carefully scripted prayers for every possible need.) It says that those of us who write what “many read” (a writer can hope this is true) need to do our part “In making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous.” It sounds corny, and I know I miss the ball more than I hit it out of the park, but at least I’m swinging for the fences. I still say that prayer before I begin every column. Blessing words, like blessing boats, can’t hurt. It may even help.
On Surrendering to the Moment:
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about a man stranded on a mountain (he can’t go up or down) and of another man at an intersection (he is so confused he doesn’t know which way to turn). Both are equally stuck, and the worst choice either man can make is trying to think and plan his way out of it. The only way out of a bad situation for them—and, by extension, for all of us—advises the good monk, is to “surrender to the moment” and not even pretend to know the way out. As Bob Dylan sings, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
I might not like planes, but I love my bicycle. It is a Trek road bike made of carbon fiber and light enough to lift with two fingers. It is nicer than my old Subaru. Riding my bicycle fast may be as close as I’ll come to finding that peace they promise in church, the one that passes all understanding. When I’m riding twenty miles an hour, with a tailwind, drafting behind another rider, I think it must be what nirvana feels like. And, it’s good for me.
On Devotion and Home:
It was after midnight when we said goodbye to Linnus, and I kissed everyone goodnight. Chip tucked me in, and my little dog Phoebe jumped up next to me. The two big dogs thumped their tails at a respectful distance. Chip opened the windows to let the beach air in. The kids had put the screens in for me; they knew I liked the sounds and scents of the beach. In the late spring twilight we call night in Alaska, we listened to the sea lions exhaling, the gulls calling, and the waves meeting the shore. Robert Frost was wrong; there is a greater devotion than the shore to the ocean. It is a husband who will help you with a bedpan and the wiping up, and then say you are beautiful when you look as bad as you ever have in your life. The deep line Chip had been holding in his forehead since the accident softened. There was a lot I wanted to say to him, but all I could manage was “goodnight.” He whistled softly as he made up his bed on the window seat at the other end of our living room, where he’d stay until I got better, so I could call him in the night if I needed to go to the bathroom or to take another pain pill.
“It’s really good to be home,” he said to the house we had built together, to the beams in the ceiling, to the old Turkish rug from his grandmother’s house, to the dogs, to the too many books, to the piano my mother gave us, to our children sleeping upstairs, and beyond the green metal roof and graying shingles to the garden, to the cherry trees and beach roses, to the inlet and Pyramid Island, and to the mountains rising across the way. The grouse in the brush and the bears in the forest and the salmon in the sea, to all of it, he said, “It really is good to be home.”
Lende packs so much local and spiritual information into this gem of a book (including Ten Things to Think about if You Are Hit by a Truck). I could share more about her accident and recovery, or about the traditions and culture of the Tlingit people, the raising of a totem pole, the Blessing of the Fleet, and the beauty of a sung and chanted version of Compline, but then, why spoil your enjoyment, should you choose to read this memoir? And I urge you to do so. It’s quite lovely and one I know I’ll read again.
Final Thoughts: I was raised in the Episcopal church and while it’s been many years since I attended a service, Lende’s spirituality felt familiar and full of nostalgic comfort. And, of course, her bicycle accident has made me even more thankful for all the wonderful bike trails in my community. Not only is Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs a keeper, but it’s a book I plan on sharing with several friends and relatives. Now to make time to read If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. And Lende's blog!
“This book is a wonder. It opens a door to Alaskan living, a world that, for most, will be both surprising and beautiful. As a person of Alaska and a person of faith, it is one of the best books of theology and spirituality that I have read in a long time. But the non-religious or the non-Alaskan shouldn’t be hesitant. They will also be glad to walk through this door to a world that is certainly and recognizably theirs, but will seem to hold much more—maybe things new or maybe things forgotten.” ~ The Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska, now the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop of Canada