"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



Due to some quirky calendar alignment this year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day (first time since 1945); and Easter coincides with April Fools Day (first time since 1956)! That's what happens when the moveable feasts intersect with the fixed feasts. Scheduling intrigue ensues!

Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have also overlapped in 1923 and 1934 and will do so again in 2024 and 2029.

Easter has fallen on April Fools Day many times: 1584, 1646, 1657, 1668, 1714, 1725, 1736, 1804, 1866, 1877, 1888, 1923, 1934, 1945, 1956, 2018, 2029, 2040, 2108, 2170, 2181, 2192, 2238, 2249, 2260, 2306, 2317, 2328, 2401, 2412, 2485, 2496, 2553, 2564, 2610, 2621, 2632, 2700, 2762, 2773, 2784, 2857, 2863, 2868, 2925, 2936.

The last time the dual overlap (both Ash Wednesday / Valentines and Easter / April Fools) occurred was 1945; and the next time will be 2029 -- only 11 years to wait! On the other hand, maybe it's better when the special occasions are not combined. After all, why reduce 4 days of significance down to 2 when we mere mortals need all the holidays and Holy Days that we can get, right?

Still, I like the coincidence of the doubled up occasions and, even better, the double - double years such as 1945, 2018, and 2029. Perhaps if the cosmic insistence is powerful enough, we will be swayed to once again privilege nature over commerce -- as observed above in connection with Demuth's "Spring" collage: "By titling his painting Spring, Demuth wryly highlighted the new reality of American life, in which the changing of seasons was heralded not by nature but by commerce."

Demuth has another painting (also in the Art Institute of Chicago) that illustrates what happens when the days become too much the same:

Here's to the novelty of our lunar / liturgical calendar for 2018, and to celebrating, observing, and distinguishing one day from another to the best of our ability! In addition to the connections, this year will also come with its own peculiar set of contradictions: receiving chocolates for Valentine's Day and immediately giving them up for Lent; or the troubling juxtaposition of "Christ is Risen -- April Fools"!
My introspective friend Diane opened the season with a facebook query: "Any creative approaches to Lent this year?"

Her witty friend Stone replied: "I am doing the same thing I do every year for Lent. I just give up for Lent. I will start trying again in 40 days."

To which Diane responded: "Give up. Give in. Give over. Not a bad strategy!"

And I shared: "This answer reminds of the year that I gave up going to church for Lent. I resumed after Easter."

In recent years, my husband Gerry and I have come up with the crazy, perhaps indulgent idea of adding something on instead of giving something up. We rarely remember to enjoy even a glass of red wine with dinner, let alone experiment with any novelty cocktails. So, during Lent, in the interest of giving up monotony, we have been searching inside our liquor cabinet, and trying a new mixed drink of some kind before dinner each evening. To name a few, we have sampled the Delta Sunset, the Sazerac, the Brass Monkey, and the slightly unsafe but extremely dramatic Goblet of Fire:

Having spiced things up a bit before dinner, we next addressed the monotony / consistency of our after - dinner rut / routine: Tetley Tea, round bags only! Lent is the time that we steer away from our tried and true favorite and brew up some of the other fine flavors that have made their way into our tea caddy: green cafs and decafs, mints and peppermints, raspberry and other berries, chamomiles and assorted organics. A nearly endless variety, yet none so delicious as that first cup of Tetley Round on Easter Morning!

Moving a step beyond tea bags and cocktails, I also have some more serious answers to Diane's question. First, there's taking down the Christmas tree on Ash Wednesday, putting away all the ornaments, and giving up Christmas for Lent. The saddest day of the year. Truly a Lenten pall is cast over my heart the first few days, learning to live again with the bare front window. In place of a few hundred twinkle lights there is now only the pale blue glow of my light - up globe, a mere speck in "the vast expanse of interstellar space"!

Second, for the past 20 years or so, my primary Lenten discipline has been to give up ordering from amazon. I should be able to live for 6 weeks without clicking "place order"!

Back in the pre - amazon days, I started this particular self - restraint by giving up mail order & 1 - 800 shopping. One day my West Philly neighbor Cate was out on the front porch with me when the mailman came by and I reached out to take my mail for the day, which included -- as always -- a stack of mail - order catalogs. She said,"Oh no you don't; I'll take these and put them straight in the recycling for you." I insisted that I wasn't going to order anything -- just look. She insisted that giving up shopping meant not looking as well as not purchasing. Her view made me take my "sacrifice" a step further and take it more seriously.

Third, a few years ago, in addition to amazon -- since I'm used to that one by now -- I decided give up "stuff" for Lent. My goal was one garbage bag full every week: old clothes to Goodwill, old books to the library sale, wherever the "stuff" needed to go in order to be out of my house forever! Even throwing out just plain old trash counts.

I've mentioned this strategy before, but this year I want to try harder to make some visible progress in the war against clutter. I want to commit to the big black garbage bag (or at least a regular brown grocery bag). In addition to the clothes, books, and trash, we're taking DIY leftovers to Habitat for Humanity, over-saved packing materials and plastic food containers to the recycle center, re-gifts to friends, relatives, or neighbors who might enjoy the surprise or be able to use the items creatively.

The re - gifting idea comes from a couple of my favorite advice ladies: The Slob Sisters, Pam & Peggy I can't find the exact quote right now, but their advice was that you have to set yourself free from hanging on to every gift you ever receive, that the gift exchange is in the joy of giving and receiving and expressing thanks; after that, it's okay to let the physical gift go out of your life if it doesn't fit in or is just taking up space. (And vice - versa, you can free yourself from any expectation that everyone else must keep the gifts you have given them.)

As you can see, The Slob Sisters were well ahead of the current trend for down - sizing, de - cluttering, and minimalizing. I also appreciate their advice that "it's okay to make a mistake" -- in reference to buying things that you end up dis - liking: clothing, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, knick - knacks. If you simply can't stand the scent of the new hand lotion, you're not required to use up the whole bottle in order to avoid waste, and so forth. Gather up all the unwanted, never - to - be - used - again items and give them away. Or throw them away -- it's okay to make a mistake!

I found that very freeing! It seems so simple, but I don't think we are commonly taught that we can let ourselves off the hook or that it's okay to make a mistake -- even a small one. More often, the vocabulary is about punishing ourselves, or paying the price, or getting what we deserve, or learning to live with our mistakes. How wonderful it would be if we could give up those negative messages -- for Lent and Forever!

How good of the Slob Sisters to give us permission! In their book Get Your Act Together, at the conclusion of a chapter specifically about eating better and exercising -- but also generally applicable to being more organized and kinder to yourself -- Pam and Peggy advise: "Remember, though, you didn't get out of shape in a week, and you're not going to get back into shape in a week. Also, one of your traits is a childlike nature, so be gentle with yourself or you'll rebel" (119).

For additional Lenten reading, about cutting back but also cutting yourself some slack, try Ann Patchett's recent article about giving up stuff, not just for Lent but for twelve months: "My Year of No Shopping." I could see right away why my friend Cate had shared the article with me: because it reminded her of that long ago day when she insisted that I give up browsing through mail order catalogs! Patchett, likewise, has decided that if she's not going to purchase, then she's not even going to look -- no catalogs, no websites, no window shopping. She remembers her parents telling her: "If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass." The way I learned it: "Want something long enough and you don't," an odd little proverb that confused me at first but eventually made perfect sense.

Patchett's year of no - shopping -- except at grocery stores and bookstores -- reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's strategy for making it through the year in Animal Vegetable Miracle, when each member of the family is allowed to make one exception to the rule of "buy local eat seasonal." Remember? I think one of the children keeps bananas, or maybe it's dried fruit; and one of them keeps chocolate; the adults hang on to coffee and exotic spices (35).

Patchett's exceptions to the discipline:
"I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books . . .

"My first few months of no shopping were full of gleeful discoveries. I ran out of lip balm early on and before making a decision about whether lip balm constituted a need, I looked in my desk drawers and coat pockets. I found five lip balms. Once I started digging around under the bathroom sink I realized I could probably run this experiment for three more years before using up all the lotion, soap and dental floss. It turns out I hadn’t thrown away the hair products and face creams I’d bought over the years and didn’t like; I’d just tossed them all under the sink. I’m using them now, and they’re fine."
I couldn't help noticing the coincidence that Ann, as well as Pam and Peggy, encountered an array of forgotten products under the sink -- all those impulse buys and good intentions! It's also worth noting that they took two different approaches: the Slob Sisters say, "if you can't stand that stuff, throw it out," whereas Patchett says, "use that stuff up!"

I was entertained by Patchett's successful quest for so many stray lip balms, in order to avoid making an unnecessary purchase. However, I would like to gently observe that a simple, or even fancy, chapstick can be found at the grocery store, so the good news is that she could have bought more without violating her no - shopping rule! And as to whether or not lip balm constitutes a need? Indeed it does! In fact, the topic of lip balm has provided an odd little recurring theme to my first week of Lent.

In started when Cate sent a list of things that the well - prepared woman keeps in her handbag -- protein drinks and energy bars, a revolver, a distributor cap, a rosary -- that kind of thing. I wrote back that my purse contents pale by comparison -- mostly kleenex (Swankies!) and chapstick! So boring. Yet, as Cate pointed out: "Well, we all know that chapstick is powerful stuff!" Then a few days later, another friend posted a survey: "If you could pick only one make - up item to wear everyday, what would it be?" Naturally, for me it has to be lip balm -- otherwise, I can't even eat or smile or move my mouth! Please don't ever ask me to give it up!

Whatever you choose to part with -- after six weeks (or a year!) of less shopping, less stuff, less commerce, and more nature -- you are bound to feel so much lighter! Wishing everyone a tidier space, a fulfilling and introspective forty days, and a heart lighter than a feather! All in preparation for the Moveable Feast!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, February 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Robert Burns, The Man's the Gold


From Find a Tartan ~ Top: McCartney Day / McCartney Night ~
Bottom: Carrick Day / Carrick Hunting
Don't worry, I realize that "Carrick" is not the same as "Carriker"
and that aside from some of the dark classic plaids, such as
Black Watch, the rest are latter day tourist inventions --
but still, they are fun, right? And mostly harmless!

If you want to see a lot of Scottish plaid, in the form of elaborate kilts and scarves, then you might want to attend a Robert Burns Birthday Dinner, which is what Gerry and I did last night, along with our friends Jack and Leta. These events are held annually throughout the UK and USA around this time of year in honor of the favored and favorite Scottish poet, who was born in 1759 on 25 January (British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf was born on the same day, 123 years later: 25 January 1882). Sadly, Burns died young on 21 July 1796.

The 259th birthday celebration of Burns' birthday that we attended -- our first time ever! -- was being hosted for the 35th time by ~

The 42nd Royal Highlanders of Lafayette, Indiana
Band of Music ~ Bagpipes, Fifes and Drums

My favorite lines from Burns have always been the last two stanzas from his poem To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough (1785). During my teaching years, I would print these verses at the conclusion of every syllabus, not only as a way of introducing the Scottish English dialect of Robert Burns but also as a reminder to the students that, control being but an illusion, we were likely to deviate from the syllabus at any time:
But, Mousie, thou art
no thy lane, [not alone]

In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, [go oft astray]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
At the Burns Supper, however, the tone was lighter and more joyful. Never mind the existential angst of all creatures great and small! Instead, the opening poem is an ode to a haggis. Should you be unfamiliar with this unusually named menu item, think of a cross between a meatloaf and a pâté. Not necessarily your typical subject of introspective poetry, but here goes:

Address to the Haggis [click title for original Scots version]

All hail your honest rounded face
Great chieftain of the pudding race;
Above them all you take your place,
Beef, tripe, or lamb:
You're worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your sides are like a distant hill
Your pin would help to mend a mill,
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distil,
Like amber bead.

His knife the rustic goodman wipes,
To cut you through with all his might,
Revealing your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, what a glorious sight,
Warm, welcome, rich.

Then plate for plate they stretch and strive,
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all the bloated stomachs by and by,
Are tight as drums.
The rustic goodman with a sigh,
His thanks he hums.

Let them that o'er his French ragout,
Or hotchpotch fit only for a sow,
Or fricassee that'll make you spew,
And with no wonder;
Look down with sneering scornful view,
On such a dinner.

Poor devil, see him eat his trash,
As feckless as a withered rush,
His spindly legs and good whip-lash,
His little feet
Through floods or over fields to dash,
O how unfit.

But, mark the rustic, haggis-fed;
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Grasp in his ample hands a flail
He'll make it whistle,
Stout legs and arms that never fail,
Proud as the thistle.

You powers that make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare.
Old Scotland wants no stinking ware,
That slops in dishes;
But if you grant her grateful prayer,
Give her a haggis

According to tradition, the dinner continues with more feasting, more poetry, and various other readings. The conventional "Toast to the Lassies" and "Toast to the Laddies" may vary from venue to venue, depending on who has been nominated to deliver the address. I like the idea of choosing a poem by Burns to fill these slots on the program. How could you go wrong with this tender tribute, especially when sung by Andreas Scholl:

A Red, Red Rose

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

The next poem, a fitting toast for lads and lasses alike, was written during the French Revolution and exemplifies the rising tide of democracy that informed the poetry of the time. Burns' words continue to inspire and express what we all crave -- to be known for our own worth:

A Man's A Man For A' That [click title for original Scots version]

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and all that?
The coward slave, we pass him by -
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that,
Our toils obscure, and all that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gold for all that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear rough grey tweed, and all that?
Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man is a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.

You see that fellow called 'a lord',
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a dolt for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribboned, star, and all that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might -
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall take the prize and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

It's only right that an evening - long tribute to the enduring legacy of Robert Burns should conclude with a rousing group rendition of his most beloved poem. Anyone who missed out in the early moments of the New Year is granted another chance here at the end of the month to sing -- for old time's sake -- of forgiveness for the past and congenial commitment to a kinder, gentler future:

Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind
Should old acquaintance be forgot
for the days of old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear
for auld lang syne
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

And surely you'll buy your pint cup
and surely I'll buy mine
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne,

And here's a hand my trusty friend
And put your hand in mine
We'll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear
for auld lang syne
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

"Jack Frost" on the Garage Floor

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, February 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Charming Pudding Pictures

Photo credit: thanks to Peter Bunder!
And thanks to Catherine R. DeLong for the vintage lidded pudding tin!
Catherine says: "So glad the mold is used!
Think how many families might have used it."
[You can also order a new one from amazon.]

It's never too late in the Season
to make a Figgy Pudding & wear your reindeer sweater!

Pudding Decorations, including mini - felt stocking

Pudding Gift Tag & Gift Bag

Beautiful Gisela Graham Pudding Ornament from Tina
and Sterling Silver Pudding ~ Charms from Catherine
This explanation for the charms comes from
The Jolly Hallowe'en Book by Dorothy Middlebrook Shipman

The Lucky Cake
A cake [or pudding] that's full of charms can be made on Hallowe'en
[or Christmas or Twelfth Night or Mardi Gras or Wedding Cake]
And it causes lots of fun as is very quickly seen.
Choose one that's quick to bake, made of any simple batter,
Let each girl help blend and stir in a merry din and chatter;
Trinkets wrapped in papers oiled must be stirred in at the last,
And whoever cuts one out, will her future find forecast.
She who finds the wedding ring will soon be a happy wife,
She who finds the wheel will wander far and wide through - out her life.
She who cuts the dime, cuts wealth, and the key unlocks all hearts,
But the thimble means the spinster from whom romance swift departs.
For the others naught is stated, but at least they have a treat
In a cake they have constructed that is very good to eat.


Previous Pudding Posts

"the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy"

Love, the Gift, is On the Way

Fairy Tale

Happy Boxing Day

Twelfth Day ~ Twelfth Night

Christmas Quiz

Comfort & Joy Food

Magic Everyday

Santa Lucia

English Cottage Tea Cosy

Three Soups & Thirteen Desserts

One Morning, One Evening

Saying the Old Town's Name

Figgy Pudding

Christmas Cake


More ornaments from Gisela Graham / Tina
New this year, carried home safely across the Atlantic!

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, January 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Magi & Fruitcake" ~ Mince Pies & Mistletoe"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST ~ "Everything by Kent Haruf"
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun


Before the year ends, I want to say something about the eclipse of the decade, which I witnessed -- partially; in Las Vegas -- on Monday, August 21, 2017. Although we were nowhere near the path of totality, we did wake up to a double rainbow -- a lucky omen on Total Solar Eclipse Day!

At the time of the eclipse, Gerry was indoors, delivering a hugely successful presentation at the Cisco Global Sales Conference in the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He began his speech with a humorous nod to both the eclipse and his schedule for the day, which had allotted 15 minutes for hair styling, quite a bit more than would be needed to perfect his Uncle Fester coiffure:
"In those 15 minutes, the stylists have brought my updo to such an astonishing state of perfection that I feel compelled to advise you on this day of the solar eclipse not to look directly at my head." An appreciative audience totally enjoyed his "Total Eclipse of the Hair" joke as well as the more serious presentation that he gave on the working relationship between Cisco and Purdue.
Gerry at the MGM Grand
Click for a brief video &
click again on "2 Shares"
for additional comments

As for what was happening outside under the beating sun, I was fascinated to read the many firsthand accounts of those who traveled great distances so as to witness not just what was on offer locally but the actual totality. David Pogue's account of "What I learned from my first total solar eclipse" is the one that convinced me to try to go next time; and Annie Dillard's description from last time is astounding and awe - inspiring:
"You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky."
In addition to Dillard's Pulitzer Prize winning narrative, I am equally honored to share these accounts from two writers somewhat closer to home:

1. My friend, The Rev. Ed Tourangeau
And so Day 5 comes to an end. No more states traversed today, in fact we only drove about 80 miles: to Tryon and back. Got there +/- 10, found good seats on a bit of a terrace near the "necessaries" and not far from lunch (the brisket was superb!). Chatted with/ neighbors (mostly from Colorado) and watched the last of the fog burn off to reveal good skies w/ a few fluffy clouds of no real impedance. PSAs announced critical points in the entire show: first contact, advances in occlusion, notice the temperature drop (it certainly did), "watch for the shadow approaching" (couldn't discern it), "watch for Bailey's beads .... watch for the diamond ring" (I think I saw the ring), and then "you may remove your glasses now." What struck me was the noise difference of the crowd before, and during, the process. Totality was "reverential", or at least attentive. We never went midnight black but did have two minutes plus of refreshingly cool heavy twilight. The corona was amazing and totally worth it - I encourage my readership to catch the next one, in 2024. Finally, the population of this Nebraska county where Tryon is located is about 580 souls. I expect at least 575 pitched in to host and serve us. They tried to anticipate our every need, including bratwurst, if you don't care for BBQ. Guys in little four wheeler dune buggies offered rides, and no one was too busy to chat. The entire day was part of what is meant by "Totality".
2. My friend, musician and scientist Jay Mermoud
Obligatory Eclipse Post: I was out on a sales call in Indianapolis today and was not sure if I was going to be on the road or in the city for the eclipse. I was a bit daunted by the fact it was so overcast on the drive down, but when I stopped at a restaurant minutes before the eclipse hit, several people were stepping outside the restaurant with their glasses and a perfect window opened in the clouds. I had somehow managed not to ever get around to buying eclipse glasses, but some very kind people standing in the parking lot were passing theirs around to anyone who wanted to take a look. So I did. And for a brief moment six or eight of us who really didn't know each other shared a common moment in our lives, awestruck by what we were witnessing, and extraordinairily grateful for the perfect timing of the clouds opening and generous souls willing to share their glasses. Many grateful thank yous followed, each of us a bit changed for the better by the experience. Hard not to think our creator was speaking to all of us in that moment.

My brother Bruce and friends expressed a variety of mixed emotions and opinions in response to an article that asked, "Are solar eclipses proof of God?", while all I could think of were these lyrics from our upbringing:

Oh Lord my God
When I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds
Thy hands have made
I see the stars
I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout
The universe displayed

Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee
How great thou art . . .


In the stars His handiwork I see,
On the wind He speaks with majesty,

Though He ruleth over land and sea,
What is that to me?
I will celebrate Nativity,
For it has a place in history,
Sure, He came to set His people free,
What is that to me?

Till by faith I met Him face to face . . .

Bruce and I also too a moment to reminisce about sitting out in the yard with our eldest brother Dave on an early autumn night, watching the total eclipse of the 2015 Harvest Supermoon from start to finish and back again. Its hard to beat that!

The best eclipse video of the day
came from the Sioux Falls Area Humane Society

This compilation of seven eclipse moments in popular culture is also excellent, featuring, among others, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and Little Shop of Horrors:

" . . . I was just about to, ya know, walk on by,
when suddenly, and without warning,
there was this total eclipse of the sun

It got very dark and there was this strange
sound like something from another world.
And when the light came back
this weird plant was just sitting there . . . "

I would also include a couple of personal favorites, both by Janis Ian:
"I believe in mystery and your sincerity . . . "

"Might as well be living on the other side of the sun . . . "

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, January 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "All The Frosty Ages" & "Crystallized Happiness"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST ~ "Everything by Kent Haruf"
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Not the Husband, Not the Father

Salida, Colorado ~ known in Kent Haruf's fiction as Holt
I took this photo on 23 September 2017
at the Kent Haruf Literary Celebration,
where I presented the following paper:

"They were not the husband . . . they were not the father":
Nativity Play in the Novels of Kent Haruf

My first reading of Plainsong and Eventide happened to be during the Christmas season, a coincidence of timing that has indelibly informed my understanding of the connections shared by Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage girl with nowhere to stay, and the noble McPheron brothers -- Harold and Raymond, who, to everyone's surprise, including their own, take her in on their farm. The community at large find the relationship difficult to comprehend. As the post - delivery nurse In Plainsong points out ". . . they were not the husband, were they, they were not the father . . . " (289); and as Victoria has to explain with some exasperation to her curious apartment manager in Eventide, the McPherons are neither grandfathers nor uncles nor preachers: "But they did save me . . . when I needed help so badly (7 - 8).

In their generosity, Harold and Raymond step up to meet whatever needs they can for this young expectant stranger. No matter how confused and uncertain Victoria may be, the kindly elderly brothers radiate calm and stability. If you like to think, as I do, that the true message of Christmas is ~ "Be nice to pregnant women, no matter who the father of the baby is and regardless of their legal marital status; and to babies no matter who their parents are; and don't ask questions that are none of your business" ~ then the McPherons are the embodiment of the Spirit of Christmas. As Raymond says a few years later, looking back on the early days of Victoria's pregnancy: "I didn't much care for it myself. The way people talked. I couldn't see how it was much of anybody else's business" (Eventide, 247).

Moving from Holt County to long - ago Bethlehem, the McPherons are Wisemen, Shepherds, and Innkeepers, all rolled into one, doing the best they can to care for the pregnant virgin. When they first agree to take Victoria in, Harold confides in Raymond, "This ain't going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic," and Raymond responds, "No, it ain't . . . But I don't recall you ever attending Sunday school either" (Plainsong, 113). In this paper, instead of a Sunday school picnic, it's going to be a Nativity play (or perhaps a medieval pageant, 69)! An annunciation of sorts takes place when Maggie Jones arrives at the McPheron farm to inform Harold and Raymond that "I want something improbable" (109). Remember what the Angel Gabriel says to Mary: "For with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37). The stage is set for a miracle play.

Standing at the center of this living nativity are three dramatic figures, Victoria, naive and apprehensive, and the two gruff farmers, somewhat careworn but well - intentioned. Imagine Harold and Raymond as creche figures, standing in the manger scene. When Maggie first drives out to request their assistance, "They . . . approached her slowly, calmly, as deliberately as church deacons" (106); and when Maggie brings Victoria out to meet them for the first time: "They came out of the house at once onto the little screened porch and stood waiting . . . like two lifelike statues of minor saints" (125). Now imagine Victoria as a stand - in for the Virgin Mary, troubled and vulnerable. Her morning sickness notwithstanding, she still appears virginal, wearing a white sleeping shirt by night and a white tee shirt by day (whereas her harsh unyielding mother wears a "stained blue satin robe" 8 - 10).

As the day begins, Victoria's mother, Betty, who has been broken by the world and has her own problems, displays a heart - breaking lack of compassion. Even when Victoria pleads: “Help me, Mama. I need you to help me” (10), Betty Roubideaux (not to be confused with Betty June Wallace in Eventide) remains unmoved. To Victoria's credit, she possesses an understated determination that carries her through the unfolding crisis. After the early morning altercation with her mother, she pulls herself together and "walked to school in a kind of dream . . . past the display windows of the stores, watching her reflection, how she walked and carried her body, and as yet she could see no change. There was nothing she could discern outwardly" (10 - 11). The pregnancy is still a secret that she carries within herself, as she seems to float, dreamily down the street. She makes it through the day, attending classes, warding off unwelcome advances from an older boy, working hard at her after - school job, and finally drifting home in the early autumn night: " . . . the air was turning sharp, with a fall feeling of loneliness coming. Something unaccountable pending in the air " (31).

Sadly, the day ends, as it began, in conflict. Victoria is once again at odds with Betty, who has hardened her heart and locked her daughter out of the house. Victoria implores in vain: “Mama. Let me in now. Do you hear me? . . . I'm sorry, Mama. Please. Can't you hear me?” But the inside lights go out. Now what? In a scene right out of "The Little Match Girl," Victoria sits waif - like on the front step: "She seemed to fade away, to drift and wander in a kind of daze of sorrow and disbelief. She sobbed a little. She stared out at the silent trees and the dark street and the houses across the street where people were moving about reasonably in the bright rooms beyond the windows . . . She sat staring out, not moving. Later she came out of that" (31 - 32).

This is Victoria, just like Mary, pondering her condition in her heart and deciding what to do next. Yes, she feels abandoned and betrayed, but she will soon be a mother and must come up with a plan. Seeing the more "reasonable" family over the road has given her an idea. Just as the newly pregnant young Virgin Mary struck out on her own to visit her older Cousin Elisabeth, so the temporarily homeless Victoria sets out alone, through the chilly night, following the streets of Holt to the house of her teacher Maggie Jones. Though not with child herself, Maggie's role is similar to that of the biblical Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist when Mary learns of her own pregnancy: "And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth."

Maggie has the benefit of life experience to share with Victoria, who arrives on foot at bedtime to confide in a trusted adult. Victoria appears on Maggie’s doorstep, with nowhere else to go, the pregnant virgin in search of a safe place to rest. Maggie's first gesture is to offer comfort and adorn her unexpected visitor as one might a nativity statuette: she "took up a throw blanket from the couch and draped it around the girl’s shoulders. . . .The girl looked tired and sad, the blanket wrapped about her shoulders as though she were some survivor of a train wreck or flood." Maggie is very gentle with Victoria but also direct: “For God’s sake. Did you not know any better . . . did you not use any protection at all?” Victoria, in return, answers frankly about her romantic encounters with the boy who told her that her "beautiful eyes . . . were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night" (33, 35, 36).

The conception of her baby was not immaculate, but it may as well have been, for all that Victoria reveals about the father. When Maggie asks, "But who was he?" Victoria answers, "A boy. . . . I don't want to say . . . He won't claim it. . . . He's not the fathering kind. . . . I don't think you would know him" (34). She keeps his name a secret; and his whereabouts are a mystery: "He's from another town . . . he doesn't live here. He lives somewhere else." Harold refers to the absent boyfriend as if he were a breeding animal, asking Maggie, "What about the sire . . . Where does he come into this?" Maggie is thrown off at first by the breeding lingo, but suddenly realizes, "Who? . . . Oh. You mean the baby's father" (109).

In dealing with the situation, Maggie reveals an intuitive wisdom similar to that of the Virgin Mary's cousin Elisabeth: "And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. . . . And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord" (Luke 1: 39 - 42, 45). As Elisabeth prophesies, so does Maggie, providing a latter day Magnificat of cynicism and challenge. First, to Victoria, Maggie predicts: “Oh, honey . . . I do feel sorry for you. You’re going to have such a hard time. You just don’t know it yet” (37). Second, to the McPherons, as she persuades them to take Victoria in, Maggie points out: “You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance” (110).

The McPheron's are tempted, as we all are, to buy their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, if possible. Is Maggie asking for a donation of money for Victoria? They would gladly contribute, but "No. She needs a lot more than that." After listening to Maggie's proposal, Harold says, "Hell, Maggie . . . Let's go back to the money part. Money'd be a lot easier." However, after some consideration, both Harold and Raymond are willing to do this huge favor for Maggie and Victoria, to alter their life-long routines and embrace the unknown possibilities of the good deed at hand. Victoria has already been rejected by her mother, turned away from her own home, locked out of the house. Maggie’s place serves for a time but does not prove to be a safe haven, as Maggie is dealing also with her unwell elderly father. Truly there has been no room at the inn for Victoria, but with her introduction to Harold and Raymond McPheron, that is about to change. The way they see it, the unexpected pregnancy needn't be a negative turn of events for this solitary mother - to - be, bereft of friends and relatives.

As Innkeepers, they open their home to Victoria. They tidy up, carefully attempting to see each room through the eyes of a girl. They anticipate Victoria's need not only for physical shelter but for emotional comfort and privacy as well. Their domestic skills include a sense of tradition, as they search out old treasures from their own mother's household effects and personal collections. On Maggie's first night at the farm, Harold checks on her before bedtime and sees what might easily be taken for a portrait of the Madonna, complete with heavenly halo: Victoria “was sitting up in bed in a square – necked winter nightgown with a sweater pulled over her shoulders, a schoolbook and a blue notepad propped up in her lap, while the lamp beside the bed cast yellow light onto her clear face and her shining hair” (132).

As Wisemen, Raymond and Harold can read the stars in the sky at night. There are so many beautiful examples to choose from, but perhaps the most mystical occurs in Eventide when Raymond observes ". . . the sky overhead clear of any cloud, the stars as clean and bright as if they were no more distant than the next barbed - wire fence post . . . everything all around him distinct and unhidden. He loved how it all looked, except he would never have said it that way. He might have said that this was just how it was supposed to look, out on the high plains at the end of winter, on a clear fresh night" (Eventide, 206). This is the mystical Colorado sky as Raymond reads it, as Haruf shares it with us through every feast and season.

Furthermore, like the Wisemen of yore, Harold and Raymond come bearing gifts! Surely there is no scene more delightful than the excursion to the department store, in search of nursery furniture. This is a new venue for the brothers, but they are equal to the task of choosing the best baby crib available, and all of the accessories. When they call Maggie for advice about buying a crib, she teases them, "I'm to understand that you don't mean a corn crib." Victoria is overcome with emotion at their generosity. Like the Virgin Mary, she would be only too pleased with a humble manger. But the way Harold and Raymond see it, nothing is too good for this first - time mother and her coming child, plus they are enjoying the shopping trip: "We're having us some fun here. . . . It's all right . . . It is. You'll just have to believe that" (Plainsong, 176, 182).

As Shepherds, their understanding of fertility and birth on the farm enables them to help Victoria at this crucial and vulnerable time. Raymond scolds Harold for comparing Victoria's pre-natal habits to those of a young heifer. "She's not a cow!" Raymond insists. " She's not a heifer!" But Harold persists in his analogy, drawing on familiar knowledge to improve his understanding of the unfamiliar: "Both of them is young. Both of them's out in the country with only us here to watch out for em. Both is carrying a baby for the first time. Just think about it" (174).

They take admirable care of their "flock" -- the many head of cattle who depend upon them for a good, safe existence. When the birthing season begins and the first heifer goes into labor, Harold and Raymond carry a lantern out to the calf shed, just as we might envision the biblical shepherds on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth. It is a hard delivery -- a struggle for heifer, calf, and ranchers -- but successful in the end. As the heifer settles in to clean and feed her newborn calf, the brothers return to the house in a reverie drawn from a Christmas carol: "By now it was after midnight. It was cold and bleak outside the shed and utterly quiet. Overhead, the stars in the unclouded sky looked as cold and arctic as ice" (Plainsong, 204).

No, they are not the husband, father, grandfather, uncle, or preacher. Maybe deacons, saints, innkeepers, wisemen, or shepherds. Cattle farmers certainly. Guardians of youth and innocence. Realistic to a fault, romantic in spite of themselves. Friends indeed. Most importantly they rise to the occasion of befriending Victoria, never judging, always advocating on her behalf, bringing the light of Christmas to the community of Holt.

Thanks to the Kent Haruf ~ Literary Celebration

Previously on FN

Christmas Star at the Palace Hotel

Stairs Going Up

Stairs Going Down

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, December 28

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Haruf (Rhymes with Sheriff)"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST ~ "Everything by Kent Haruf"
my running list of recent reading

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Cyber Monday

Gorgeous hand - crafted card from
my multi - talented sister - in - law Tina

A week ago, I had one of those life - affirming Monday - morning coincidences. You know. The kind that makes you believe in the whole Universe at once . . . that amazes and surprises and suggests a pattern. I was looking at my pre - Thanksgiving "to do" list and decided that even more importantly than grocery shopping and housecleaning, I should finally look up the poem that had been recommended to me several months ago when I was having lunch with a few friends. I googled what I had scribbled on a post - it and discovered this truly transporting poem:

What To Remember When Waking
~by David Whyte (Dec 30, 2013)

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?

At first, I was feeling bad that it had taken me over three months to finally follow - up on this reading suggestion; but then, when I thought about what a perfect poem it was for a Monday morning, and what a perfect poem for Thanksgiving week, it seemed that the delay was meant to be and the poem had come into my life at exactly the right moment.

I knew I should write a note that instant to thank all my lunch companions -- since I couldn't remember which one had recommended the poem back in August. But first I went to run some errands -- and who should I run into but one of those very friends, in the greeting card aisle at CVS! I told her the whole story about the poem, but she was unfamiliar with the author and said she couldn't take credit for the suggestion but would, of course, love to see it. So, as soon as I got home, I sent an email of thanksgiving, including the poem, to the entire group.

As an added bonus coincidence, another friend wrote a week later (yesterday, to be exact) with the perfect message to conclude this anecdote:
"For some reason I’m only seeing this tonight. This is a lovely poem to choose as my Cyber Monday gift for those special to me this season. No deep discounts; just deep gratitude for all my loved ones."
What a beautiful sentiment! And yet another timely coincidence that her viewing was delayed -- as mine had been -- until the very day that she needed to discover this poem!

I particularly love this line for Thanksgiving:

"You are not a troubled guest on this earth . . .
you were invited . . . "

Whyte writes similarly, in his Letter From the House: Autumn/Winter 2017 - 2018:
We are invited into the great sense of the now to understand that we are a living conversation between what we thought was the past and what we could only imagine as the future. We are creatures made to live in all three tenses at once, to hold past, present and future together . . ."
And how about this line for any morning, such as the Monday before Thanksgiving or the Monday after Thanksgiving, when you wake up with a "to - do" list that is already out of control before you even open your eyes:

" . . . there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live. . . . "

Thankfully, Whyte reminds us that relinquishing all -- or at least some -- of our big plans might allow us to intuit the even bigger and better plan that the world has in store for us on any given day.

" . . . a small opening into the new day . . . "

Previously from Tina

My friend Katie also recommended John O'Donohue's interview, "The Inner Landscape of Beauty." Some favorite passages:

Well, I think it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.

But I do think, though, that it’s not just a matter of the outer presence of the landscape. I mean the dawn goes up, and the twilight comes, even in the most roughest inner-city place. And I think that connecting to the elemental can be a way of coming into rhythm with the universe. And I do think that there is a way in which the outer presence, even through memory or imagination, can be brought inward as a sustaining thing.

. . . the world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach. And that’s the mystery of poetry. Poetry tries to draw alongside the mystery as it’s emerging and somehow bring it into presence and into birth.

. . . everyone is involved, whether they like it or not, in the construction of their world. So it’s never as given as it actually looks. You are always shaping it and building it. And I feel that from that perspective, that each of us is an artist.

. . . every night when we sleep, we dream. And a dream is a sophisticated, imaginative text full of figures and drama that we send to ourselves.

. . . there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you.

And the trouble is, though, for so many of us, is that we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential.

. . . there is an evacuation of interiority going on in our times . . . there is very little time or attention given to what you could almost call learning the art of inwardness, or a pedagogy of interiority.

[See also "The Wire Brush of Doubt"]

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, December 14

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading