When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

A warrior and her dog

RightSide_FINAL-397x600It would be easy not to like LeAnne Hogan, the principal character in The Right Side (Atria Books, 2017), a marked departure from Spencer Quinn’s popular Chet and Bernie mysteries. The Army sergeant is recovering at Walter Reed Hospital after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan left her without her right eye and with her face and psyche badly scarred.

You want to thank LeAnne, for whom the Army has been her life, for her service. She would lash out at you for that. Various people offer kindness and assistance, and all she can think about is punching them out. Her only connection to a possibly humane world is her hospital roommate, Marci.

That’s when you realize — if, like me, you have no experience with military service, war, or the kind of injury and betrayal LeAnne has experienced — that you have no clue and just need to keep reading. Especially since you already know from the cover and description that there’s a dog in this story.

The dog doesn’t enter the picture until later, after Marci has suddenly died and LeAnne has made a cross-country drive, winding up in Marci’s home town in Washington state. As animals do, the big black canine turns up at a critical moment. Later named Goody, she annoys the hell out of LeAnne, but the two begin to find a way forward.

LeAnne tried running again. The dog helped, partly by pulling her along, but after what must have been a few hundred yards — meaning much farther than her first attempt — LeAnne began to suspect there was more than that to this little resurgence. Something the dog had deep inside was making its way down the leash and sharing itself with her. How was that possible? Did life run on some sort of magic rules that she’d missed the whole time? All LeAnne knew was that strength from the dog had passed into her own legs, and although she didn’t come close to running the way she used to run — and this performance wasn’t even respectable — she was doing better.

Turns out Goody was just getting started, and so was LeAnne.

It’s worth noting that Quinn, in the acknowledgments, thanks two Army veterans for reading and critiquing the manuscript for the novel. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but authenticity never hurt a good story.

 

 

A symphony of empowerment

Our-Symphony-With-Animals-Cover-Two-Thirds-Original-SizeAysha Akhtar was only five when a close family friend began molesting her. The abuse continued for five years and across two continents, after her family moved from London to Virginia. She told no one.

Then came Sylvester, a German shepherd mix technically belonging to a relative, but basically her dog. They shared friendship, kinship, walks in the woods … and abuse, as Sylvester’s owner’s idea of training was throwing him against a wall.

Akhtar, now a neurologist and public health specialist, recounts their journey and much more in Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies (Pegasus Books, 2019).

Writing this book took Akhtar into not only her own history, but into a slaughterhouse, an animal sanctuary, a prison, and a forensic necropsy by an ASPCA veterinarian. She even corresponded with and visited an imprisoned serial killer who’d also abused animals. Akhtar does this both as an accomplished physician and scholar and as a human being who is deeply affected by what she sees and hears.

Through it all, she challenges us to examine the ways we break with and join with animals in our actions and attitudes. The effect one life can have on another, even and especially across species lines, is profound. It was Sylvester who helped the young Akhtar find the strength to stand up first for him, then for herself.

The stories here range from inspiring to devastating, but you can visit the author’s website for suggestions on how to make a difference. That one starfish is counting on it.