Gaithersburg Book Festival 2018

Saturday, May 19, in Gaithersburg, MD was overcast and chilly all day, with regular, periodic rains.  My two sisters from western New York state had driven down the day before and spent the night with my wife and me in nearby Derwood.  We all got up early that Saturday to watch the royal wedding.  The ceremony felt like a welcome celebration of the new multi-racial, multi-ethnic universe that the Obamas had helped usher in ten years ago.  We all reveled in the joyous affirmation of human diversity and human love, embodied in Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.  The clear blue skies and bright, warm sun over Windsor Castle also warmed our hearts on that cold, damp morning.

The previous evening, the three of us had studied the rich program that the GBF was offering this year, with ten tent-covered venues and more than a hundred recently-published authors.  As usual, we marked our preferred authors and sites on our program sheets to best facilitate our experience.

Politics and Prose

All three of us started our participation in the large “Gertrude Stein”” tent near the entrance to the City Hall grounds in Old Town Gaithersburg.  A well-spoken historian, John Binknell, was presenting his new book: “Lincoln’s Pathfinder:  John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856”.

Mr. Binknell prefaced his remarks by saying how often he heard in the media that our current time was the most divisive period in the history of our country.  Binknell strongly disagreed with this, saying that the entire decade leading up to the American Civil War was far more divisive and more violent.  He proceeded to illustrate his point with a litany of foreboding events in the 1850’s that led to the Confederacy and ensuing war.  Things were already so badly divided by 1856 that Binknell asserts unequivocally that had the Republican John Fremont won that presidential election, the Southern states would surely have seceded then.

I stayed on in “Gertrude Stein” for the next author, E.J. Dionne, who is also one of my favorite political columnists for the Washington Post.  The tent was filled to capacity (60 or so) by the time Mr. Dionne arrived, accompanied by his interviewer, Bradley Graham, co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC.  The two had started together as young reporters for the Post many decades earlier and were now good friends.  Mr. Graham introduced E.J. as one of the earliest journalistic voices of the political resistance to articulate a coherent response to the Trump agenda.  Mr. Dionne’s 2017 book is aptly titled: “One Nation after Trump:  A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.”

Dionne was relaxed and at ease as he entered the tent from a steady rain outside.  He joked with familiars in the audience and spoke appreciatively of his friend Mr. Graham’s many years of work in nurturing the Politics and Prose enterprise, which was co-sponsoring the festival.  Dionne reminded us all that “his” book was actually a collaboration among himself, Norman Orenstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Like many of us in the tent that morning, he had been taken off guard by Trump’s victory.  Recovering from the shock of it, he had sketched a way for progressive-minded people to organize and fight back, not losing a sense of historical perspective and a basic faith that the American people and traditional democratic values could eventually regain the upper hand.

For me, the most memorable part of Dionne’s talk that morning had to do with his son deciding to do grass-roots political organizing work in Connecticut after graduating from college last year.  During his year-long tenure, his son’s progressive community organization succeeded in helping multiple towns to flip from Republican to Democratic control in local elections.  Dionne pointed out that thousands of other people, old and young, had been inspired after Trump’s election to work tirelessly for progressive political values. This was a radical new force that Dionne believed could lead to more hopeful election outcomes in 2018 and 2020.

Back from the Brink of Madness

After a welcome snack of coffee and bagel, I walked over to another tent to hear Dr. Barbara Lipska speak about her new book: “The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind – My Tale of Madness and Recovery,” written with the help of journalist Elaine McArdle.  I was late and had to stand in the back, but still got a clear sense of the author’s story.  Dr. Lipska was a leading brain researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) when she herself developed a malignant brain melanoma in 2015.  She described her own descent into both dementia and schizophrenia as the cancer manifested in some 20 tumors on her pre-frontal and parietal lobes.  Dr. Lipska said that her behavior became that of a tantrum-ridden two-year-old, completely lacking in motivation, self-awareness, or human empathy.  She received state-of-the-art brain cancer treatment, including radiation, immunotherapy, steroids, and targeted chemotherapy.  The tumors soon began to shrink and then disappear, and she slowly began to feel and act more like her normal self.

Soon after her recovery, Dr. Lipska gave a famous TED-talk in which she described her ordeal.  The video of that talk soon went viral and she became something of a celebrity.  Dr. Lipska was able to return to work and continues her research today as Director of the Human Brain Collection Core at NIMH.  She is extremely grateful to her family and friends who stood with her through the depths of her illness.  She expressed deep gratitude for her return to sanity and the ability to work and love again.  The lasting price she’s paid is loss of vision in one eye, weaker physical stamina (she’d been a marathoner and tri-athlete), unsteady balance, and slight spacial disorientation. Dr. Lipska’s message to her audience was lucid and uncompromising: that mental illness is a brain disease.

“Somewhere People” Living Anywhere

I joined up with my sisters again for our last author presentation, which they had selected.  It was a panel discussion with a moderator and two Washington-based women novelists:  Aminatta Forna and Adrienne Benson.  Both of their recent novels (Forna’s “Happiness” and Benson’s “The Brightest Sun”) deal broadly with the lasting effects of trauma on mostly third-world people.  The skilled moderator, Susi Wyss, is a counselor and writing coach for women at a local rape crisis center.

Aminatta Forna is a dark-skinned, honey-voiced Afro-British author with a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Scotland.  Her father, a medical doctor, worked for the government of Sierra Leone in the 1970’s but became disillusioned with the blatant corruption and resigned.  He was subsequently imprisoned and executed.  Ms. Forna regards Sierra Leone as her home even though she has lived for long periods in Britain, the States, and elsewhere.  She was deeply affected by the recent wars in her country and has contributed to and written about the ongoing healing required in the aftermath of the many atrocities.

Ms. Forna’s latest novel, “Happiness”, is set in contemporary London and deals with two characters, a Ghanaian male psychotherapist, and an American female anthropologist, coming to terms with the challenges of their private lives and their professions.  One of Ms. Forna’s core beliefs is that life is inherently difficult and challenging but that human beings, more often than not, are able to find an inner resiliency and a desire to connect that can eventually lead to deep healing and peace.  She questions some present-day psychological trends that she believes often serve to pathologize people’s struggles with the inevitable challenges of life.

Adrienne Benson is a self-described “third culture kid” who grew up in Africa where her parents worked a variety of assignments for USAID.  Returning to the States at age 16 was the deepest culture shock of her life.  It took her many years to acclimate here and she has finally found a home in Washington where she works as a lawyer and is a wife and mother of three young children.

Ms. Benson has become something of an expert on ADHD and how it has affected herself, her family, and our greater culture.  This challenging experience has also given her hope that individuals, families, and communities can learn to accept and adapt to behaviors involving loss of focus and of become overwhelmed and mentally scattered.

Ms. Benson’s book is set in a Masai village in Kenya and deals with three women from different backgrounds, all of whom are coming to terms with the core issue of becoming mothers.  As with Ms. Forna’s novel, “The Brightest Sun” describes deep and complex bonds of connection and interaction that enable the characters to eventually make sense of their challenges and move forward.

Both women spoke knowingly and revealingly about the difficult adjustments that many third world people, but especially women, have adapting to modernity.  Ms. Forna spoke her observation that there are “somewhere people” and “anywhere people”.  “Somewhere people” are deeply rooted in a culture and geographical place and feel out of sorts when transplanted.  “Anywhere people” also have a cultural/geographical grounding but are able to better adapt to whatever place they land in.

Both authors’ books include characters who have suffered early traumas that continue to affect them in adult life.  Ms. Forna worked closely with people in Sierra Leone after the horrible brutality of their civil war.  From that experience, she learned just how resilient human beings can be.  For while some people remained physically and emotionally scarred for life, a greater number were able to work through their traumas and pursue lives of purpose and meaning.

Susi Wyss did a masterful job finding common themes between the two authors and giving them both ample time and space to articulate their unique visions.

Afterwards, my sisters and I stopped at a local tavern for a late lunch and local craft beers. It was interesting to share and discuss what we had seen and heard.  We all agreed that this year’s festival was as compelling as any, despite the bad weather.  We participate together in an ongoing family book group and shared possible titles for our group going forward. Once again, the Gaithersburg Book Festival had exceeded our expectations and confirmed our mutual love for good books and the creative lives of the authors who write them.


John Bayerl, 5/28/2018





Friends Meeting

Guardian trees

PHOTO: Guardian trees standing over the Meeting House and cemetery at Sandy Spring Quaker Meeting

My spouse and I participated in the Sandy Springs (MD) Quaker Meeting this morning at their 11am gathering.  Our own church had rented their adjacent Lyceum for two of our own services in recent weeks.  We were taken with the natural beauty of the grounds, the historic nature of the local Quaker community (dating back to 1752), and the sincerity and genuineness of the local Quaker leaders we’d encountered there.

We arrived about ten minutes early and found our way to a pew in the historic old Meeting House.  There were only a handful of others present then, but people continued to flow in in silence until the pews were half full — maybe 80 to 90 attendees all told.  Everyone simply sat in silence and I called on my meditation training to close my eyes, focus on the breath, and allow a deeper level of inner calmness to emerge.

I was struck by the absence of any ritual marking of a start time.  We all simply continued to sit in our pews as new people entered, noticing but not engaging with the sounds of doors opening and new people joining.  There were a dozen or so children with their parents, but the kids all left together after about twenty minutes or so, presumably for Sunday school.

At that point, one of the Meeting elders got up to speak.  I recognized him as the man who had provided a tour of the buildings and grounds when I’d inquired about rentals.  He was a tall, healthily built yet aging man with a ponytail and rustic clothes.  He spoke slowly and deliberately, acknowledging the departing young people, and recognizing the advancing age of most of those of us who remained.  He wove this reality into a natural, organic observation about life’s many comings and goings.  He spoke to the importance of Quaker culture and identity in helping to shape his own young sense of self, and prayed that the young people of this meeting would also find the spiritual nurturance needed to find and maintain a life-sustaining faith.  He acknowledged a longtime meeting member who had passed recently, and ended with a prayer for acceptance and peace with the many comings and goings that marked all of our lives.

This brief talk was followed by another long period of silence which gave me an opportunity to really take in his words.  I reflected on my own spiritual community and on a number of longstanding members and leaders who had recently left us.  James’ words helped me hold a sense of loss and diminishment within a greater reality of life’s ongoing cycles of growth, change, inevitable decline, and yet ongoing perseverance and meaning

After more silence, another late-middle-aged man rose to speak.  He was dressed in a saffron-colored robe and turban though his face was of a ruddy American kind.  He said he was visiting this meeting for a second time while travelling around the country on a book tour.  He practiced a form of yoga meditation that he said was inspired by his initial experience of silent Quaker meetings while he’d attended Earlham College in Indiana.  He remembered how much he valued the sense of deep inner quiet and peace he experienced at those Quaker meetings as a young college student.  He also spoke to the deep commitment to peace and justice that he had found at Earlham, and how that had shaped the rest of his life.  He had spent most of the previous forty years travelling in southeast Asia and South America, teaching yoga meditation and trying to exemplify a selfless devotion to the well-being of all human souls, teaching in schools, hospitals and prisons.

The second man’s sharing also affected me with its genuineness and deep commitment to spiritual values.  He had traveled the world attempting to live out his spiritual vision of peace, service, and social justice.  And he was offering gratitude and appreciation to the Quaker roots which had inspired him.

Another man and then many women also spoke during that hour of heightened presence and attention.  Many of the women testified to various social action projects they were engaged in.  One woman expressed gratitude to her Methodist father for teaching her the value and importance of healthy philanthropy.  Another spoke of her attempt to use Quaker methods of calm listening and attention as she tried to engage productively with a loud group of anti-abortion protesters in downtown DC.

The last part of the meeting began with a spoken invitation to share any immediate human concerns that people were experiencing.  Many people rose to speak short prayers of healing for loved ones and community members, and for those who had recently died.  There were also prayers for people getting married, starting new jobs, moving, or experiencing other major life-changes.

The gathering ended as unceremoniously as it had begun, with people simply getting up to walk over to the Lyceum for coffee and fellowship, talking among themselves as the old friends that many of them clearly were.

After coffee, we were heading back to our car when we ran into the man who had spoken first.  After he shared some about the grand old “guardian” trees standing over the old Meeting House, I expressed my appreciation to him for his talk about “comings and goings”.  I said that my wife and I were longtime practitioners of meditation and appreciated the deep sense of quiet and peace from which his words seemed to emanate.  The man thanked me but also corrected something about my compliment.  As a Quaker, he said, he believed that such “inspirations” came directly from Spirit, and that he couldn’t take personal credit for whatever he had shared.  I took in this correction and my appreciation for the Quaker way increased even more.  I had a distinct sense that I would be returning soon.

John Bayerl, 4/29/18