"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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fast Away The Old Year Passes


"And now let us welcome the new year,
full of things that have never been."
--Rainer Maria Rilke

Why is it that the world seems to spin a bit faster with every passing year? At midnight on Halloween, I crossed my fingers in hopes of some magic that would make the calendar still say "October" when I turned the page over. The golden days had flown by so quickly, I could have used another go at the entire month! But, no, November it was! And no sooner had the rush toward Thanksgiving begun than we had overtaken yet another feast day and finished off another month. Any chance that we could repeat November? None whatsoever. It was December! It was Christmas! It's almost New Year's Eve! Time not only to turn the calendar over, but to hang up a brand new one.

One great thing about our neighborhood (probably yours too) is the talent that our neighbors have for keeping up with the rapid succession of holidays, no matter how quickly each arrives and departs. What a seasonal thrill it was to drive down the block the day after Halloween and spy the houses already illuminated for Christmas -- houses which only hours before had been festooned with spider webs and scarecrows! By Thanksgiving, it was possible to take the family on an evening drive and admire the winter wonderland of wreaths and trees and reindeer that our celebratory neighbors had devised for our viewing pleasure.

You can't say we weren't ready! Does anyone really wish that the decorations went up later and came down sooner? I certainly don't! In fact, I like to make a game of predicting which lights will last the longest . . . and with so many possible conclusions to the season, it's anybody's guess: The Twelfth Day of Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, Ground Hog Day, Valentine's Day, The Ides of March. Can anyone hold out until Palm Sunday?

January is a time of new beginnings, promising many more holidays to come, but like the slowly fading decorations on our front doors, it contains a lingering echo of the month and year just past. It's good to remember that this month is named after the old two - headed, two - faced Roman god, Janus, who possessed knowledge of the future and wisdom of the past. Conveniently, he could see forward into the New Year and backward into the Old. It was customary to place his image, maybe a small statue or amulet, at the front entrance of every home where he could look outward at the passersby as well as inward toward the home dwellers.

So, indulge in a few contemplative hours this month, gazing forward and glancing back. When you take that wreath down and put those cards away, think of the words of Malcolm S. Forbes, think of your friends, think of your neighbors:

"I hate these days immediately following the holidays. Emptying the house of Christmas trees, decorations and children is like emptying a home of warmth. But at least there’s the pile of Christmas cards to be looked through again before you do whatever you do when done with them. They serve as a cheerful handshake during the uncheerful letdown after Christmas. Don't stop sending them. Christmas cards are worth all the bother. In fact, the bother’s a good part of the pleasure."
--Malcolm S. Forbes (1967)
Christmas Cards In My Kitchen

Next post will be on Thursday, January 14th, 2010!
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(British Holiday Recipes:
Christmas Cake,
Figgy Pudding,
Mince Pies;
& More!)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Three Passions

Winter Solstice Sunrise, 2004

British philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) co-authored Principia Mathematica (published 1910 - 1913), wrote A History of Western Philosophy (1945), and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. At age 84, Russell added a prologue entitled What I Have Lived For to his autobiography.

Some excerpts:

"Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy . . . because it relieves loneliness . . . because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of heaven that saints and poets have imagined. . . .

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men . . . to know why the stars shine . . . to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth . . . the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."

Okay, here are mine:

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
--1 Corinthians 13: 9 - 13 (King James Version)

First is the hopeless one--trying to create order out of chaos. I will never give up this losing battle! It has governed my child rearing, my housekeeping, my quest for information, my struggle against urban decay in West Philadelphia and neighborhood blight in West Lafayette, my hope for the afterlife that one day we really shall "know as we are known," that the whole confusing scheme of life will fall into place. One day my partial (i.e.,"imperfect") knowledge of this chaotic puzzling universe shall be made whole (i.e., "perfected") and that will be the reward of a passionate existence.

Second--sometimes known as the I'm talking and I can't shut up syndrome!-- is participating in "The Great Conversation," contributing to the "Dialogue of Ideas." This passion governs my friendships, my correspondence, my teaching, my understanding of history, my love of literature and movies -- and talking about them after I read / see them. This blog. It informs my quest for truth and beauty, my pursuit of knowledge. "Faith, Hope, and Love" have long been the popular favorites, but it is the "Knowledge" part that has always appealed to me.

My third and favorite passion is Christmas, the most comprehensive celebration of all celebrations! Every year, we hear the complaints about the relentless commercialization, the laments that Christmas is no longer a religious holiday but has become a religion in and of itself. Well, if you ask me, that's The Good News; that's something I can believe in!

As is so often the case, the third passion really draws on the best of the other two. I love reading about all of the old traditions--even the ones that we don't specifically incorporate into our own 21st Century observances. Surely some of the best contributions to the Great Conversation were made on behalf of Christmas; and surely the light shining out of darkness symbolizes our best hope for order out of chaos. If there is ever a time when we are inclined to treat each other well, to acknowledge each other's humanity, surely it is Christmas. The embodiment of spirituality, the first principle on which all other passions are based -- that's Christmas!

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice . . .
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
~T.S. Eliot
from "Little Gidding"(II, V)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nothing To Live Against

Philadelphia: Ginkgo Branch & View from 3rd Floor ~ Autumn 2000

Josef In The Windowsill: So Placid and Self - Contained!
(Same Window, Same Ginkgo Branch ~ Summer 1994)

In The Little Book of Letting Go, Hugh Prather questions why we wear the seams of our socks against the skin, so that they look smooth on the outside but feel bad on the inside. Wouldn't inside out make more sense? Interior vs Exterior.

Circumstances vs State of Mind. Which matters more? Prather says don't let circumstances become more important than your mental state: "If it were possible to summarize all mystical teachings in a single sentence, this one would come close: Make your state of mind more important that what you are doing" (7, 76).

I don't know why Hugh Prather calls his book "Little" since it is really just a normal - sized book. However, if you're familiar with author Susan Jeffers, she really does have a couple of tiny books containing advice similar to Prather's. Prather says we have two minds -- one that is whole and peaceful; another that is always conflicted, fragmented and busy. Susan Jeffers calls these two minds The Higher Self and the Lower Self. The Higher Self holds inner peace, strength, wisdom and spiritual dimension, whereas the Lower Self is a "place of struggle, lack, fear, and pain" (The Little Book of Peace of Mind, 4).

I have long been aware that when I get upset it is due to circumstances (missed appointment, messed up recipe, items lost or misplaced). This awareness, however, has not yet prevented me from feeling irritated, even though I tell myself over and over that these details are insignificant and have nothing to do with my Higher Self; they are merely circumstances that I needn't react to. As Jeffers says, "Your inner peace has nothing to do with the dramas of your life" (LBPM, 9). But, guess what? I react anyway, giving those annoying little details and missteps the power to determine my mood and the way I feel about and act toward others. It's all small stuff? Oh, really?

As you may have noticed not long ago on the Quotidian Kit, one of my favorite lines of fiction is actually about this same idea. In one of Margaret Atwood's "True Romances," a character is lamenting that her bad boyfriend has left her, and now she has "nothing to live for." Her level - headed friend asks, "Were you living for him when he was here?" And the distressed one says, "No . . . I was living in spite of him, I was living against him." The wise friend concludes, "Then you should say, I have nothing to live against."

I do recall applying this lesson during my early Philadelphia years, back when I was trying to improve my urban attitude. Thinking of Atwood's story, I said to myself, "You need to give up living against the city! You have nothing to live against." But it's such a bad habit with me, it seems that I will try to live against almost anything! The weather, the grocery store, the holiday season, organized religion, centuries of misogynism -- you name it; unless I consciously stop myself, I will try to live against it. And how does one little person live against an entire city or an entire cosmos or an entire family? Not only is it impossible, it is just not necessary to do so, even if it does feel so at times.

Nothing to live against. Brian Andreas makes a similar suggestion in his story, "Western Mysticism": "It's much easier, he told me, if you like the parts you like & you like the parts you don't like. Is that some Eastern thing? I said & he said not really since he was from Idaho & it worked there just fine" (from StoryPeople).

Still I wonder, how do you really learn to "like the parts you don't like"? How do you learn to say, "Oh well," if that's what the occasion calls for, to be dismissive, remain impassive, impersonal, detached? Easy to know these ideas so well yet remain painfully inept at living them out. Oh, Great Buddha (misogynist though you were), Oh, Mother Theresa, tell us: how ON EARTH does one "let go"; how draw the line between "circumstance" and "state of mind"? For a Doubting Thomasina, a Daughter of Descartes, a Western Girl With Glasses, it's not always easy.

Honestly now, what kind of person are you if your circumstances don't impact your state of mind? Isn't that kind of like Oliver singing, "If you don't mind taking it like it turns out / it's a fine life"? But that's not what we believe, is it? What if you do mind? Despite the song, it was not a fine life for Oliver, nor for Charles Dickens. Was Dickens any more Eastern than I?

Was Walt Whitman?

I think I could turn and live with animals,
they're so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied,
not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.
(from Song of Myself, #32)

I loved this stanza as a student and for a very long time afterward, even now I guess. Yet I have to agree with the critic who said that Whitman probably didn't mean it -- maybe about the animals he did; but surely not about himself. After all, he lived a life of highly refined intellect, not possible (as far as we know) for cows or cats.

When reading Hugh Prather's book, I couldn't help but notice how often his examples were about puppies. Very appealing and touching, but hello we are not dogs or cats or cows. We are humans with baggage and memory and very complicated brains and the need for discourse. On the more useful side, however, Prather says that progress matters more than achievement, direction more than perfection. We can choose, we can decide. In the best interest of inner peace, we can wear our socks inside out.

P.S. Christmas is coming!
Next post will be on Monday, December 14th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(Ginkgo trees, leafless trees, Christmas trees)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Through A Glass Brightly

Stained Glass Design in Fireman's Hall Museum, Philadelphia


Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Experience" (written in 1844)
is full of great observations:

"The years teach much which the days never know."

"From the mountain you see the mountain."

"People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon."

"Five minutes of today are worth as much to me,
as five minutes in the next millennium."

"Let us treat the men and women well:
treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are."

"The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway."


Stained Glass Windows in Wells Cathedral, England

"Experience" also contains many beautiful descriptions of color and light. For Emerson, uncertainty and brightness go hand in hand. We live our lives almost not knowing what is happening to us: "Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes . . . All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception" (141). It is not lack of light, however, that impairs our inner vision; it is not through a glass darkly that we try to see. Instead, our distorted vision causes all to "glitter." Distortion, but not gloom, not dullness. We are in the light not in the dark.

Emerson unites illusion, perception, and limitation: "Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus" (144). We hold beads of experience to the light, watching them become prisms, deciding which of the many colors we feel most moved by, which bead, which color we will choose. To choose but one hue is to choose a dream, an illusion, but such is our inability to perceive experience in more than one way at a time.

Writing in France a few years later (1857), Gustave Flaubert -- in a section sadly omitted from the final version of his novel -- would picture Madame Bovary standing before the colored windows at Vaubyessard. She looks out at the countryside through variously colored window panes in a passage strangely reminiscent of Emerson's colored beads and lenses. Moving as from dream to dream, Emma Bovary looks at the illusion offered by each pane. Through the blue pane, all seems sad; through the yellow pane everything grows smaller, lighter, and warmer; through the green pane everything she sees appears leaden and frozen. She remains longest in front of the red glass, looking at a landscape that frightens her, until she averts her eyes to the ordinary daylight of a transparent pane. [Continued below, in "Comments."]

Like Emerson's image of the many - colored beads, this picture of Madame Bovary offers both variation and restriction. In an expansive description of light and brightness, Emerson illustrates our limited ability to fully understand experience and offers Surprise as a method of perceiving life. He talks of both the uncertainty and the blessedness of Surprise. Our perception may be obscured, and we may be isolated from comprehension of a grand design, but it is, as Emerson portrays it, a panoramic isolation:

"Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness God draws down an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. You will not remember, God seems to say, and you will not expect." (152)

The reader cannot help but see this "pure" sky as one of the clearest, brightest blue. Despite isolation and limitation, this is not a vision of darkness or despair. It is a climactic image of color and light that dispels the gloom of our imperfect understanding. Emerson offers hope and affirmation amidst uncertainty and fragmentation. A human being, says Emerson, "is a golden impossibility" (152). Through our sleep - filled eyes we can glimpse the truth of our experience, glittering through a colored lens, on the horizon where small but distinct we see something as beautiful as our own natures.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry, 2nd Edition, Ed. Reginald L. Cook, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) 141 - 161.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Norton Critical Edition), Ed. and Trans. Paul de Man, (New York: Norton, 1965), 269 - 70.

Next post will be on Saturday, November 28th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Bill Bryson, autumnal poetry, etc.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Candy and Poison

My Victorian Lace House Ghost: Constance Chauncey

Halloween Haiku
Such little steps
In love of candy
Knocking at my door!

by student,
Patrick McDonough
Community College
of Philadelphia
Fall 1997

Sam's Post - Trick - or - Treat Inventory, 2002


[Okay, forgive me. Here's some literary criticism.]

In the Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, French critic Julia Kristeva says that apocalyptic laughter is neither jovial nor joyful: " . . . laughter bursts out, facing abjection, and always originating at the same source, of which Freud had caught a glimpse: the gushing forth of the unconscious the repressed, suppressed pleasure, be it sex or death" (Kristeva 205-06).

This is the kind of laughter in Margaret Atwood's collection of very short stories, Murder in the Dark. One of the opening sketches, "Horror Comics," describes the darkly humorous after-school activities of two twelve-year-old girls. For instance, they like taking comic books from drugstores and reading them on the way home, "dramatizing the different parts, in radio voices with sound effects to show we were above it." Or on winter nights they enjoy throwing snowballs at unsuspecting grownups, "being careful to miss, doubling up with laughter because they didn't even know they were being aimed at" (Atwood 13).*

When they accidentally hit a woman, they experience not the contrived horror of the lurid comic books but the true horror of abjection. Though they do not have the vocabulary to express what they have witnessed, the threatening glare of their angry victim does not escape them: "We ran away, shrieking with guilty laughter, and threw ourselves backwards into a snowbank around the corner, holding our stomachs. . . . But we were terrified. It was the look on her face, pure hatred, real after all" (Atwood 13). Theirs is the laughter of fear and abjection, neither "trustful, nor sublime, nor enraptured by preexisting harmony. It is bare, anguished, and as fascinated as it is frightened" (Kristeva 206).

Likewise, the hilarity in these unsettling stories is bare, anguished, fascinating. It turns out that life is not all Tom, Betty, and Susan after all. I wonder if Dick and Jane would ever make poison, like the brother and sister in Atwood's story about "Making Poison"? Even Atwood wonders:

"Why did we make the poison in the first place? I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything" (Atwood 10).

[Now, was that so bad?]

*A similar passage appears in Julie Myerson's book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House (see my post "Our Island Home"). Myerson recalls "The Ghost Club":

"We used to creep up on suspicious - looking people,
anyone we didn't like the look of."

"And then?"

"And then report back. We had meetings -- with biscuits.
We made badges." (148)

Myerson doesn't mention making any poison . . . but . . . same idea!

Next post will be on Saturday, November 14th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Margaret Atwood, Bill Bryson, Halloween, etc.)


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tom, Betty & Susan In The Autumn


From My Little Blue Story Book, 1953
It's that neighborhood time of year again, as anyone who was raised on Little Red, Blue, and Green Story Books can tell you. For some it may have been Dick, Jane, and Sally; for others it was Tom, Betty, and Susan. You know who I mean! And you know who you are! Can we ever really forget that mesmerizing presentation of the post - World War II American Dream?

Trick - or - treating, picking apples, raking leaves: our little reading group pals did all these things in a safe, orderly autumnal world. Every autumn it seems that our neighborhood becomes a page right out of those nostalgic Little Books, complete with big old trees, sidewalks, harvest - time flower beds, and pumpkins on the porches. Remember how it was nearly always fall in those stories? Certainly never winter, rarely spring or summer.

When I started first grade back in 1963 (at the romantically named "Eugene Field Elementary"), the school was in the process of upgrading from the 1940s reading series to the newly published 1960s imprints. Already absurdly nostalgic at the age of 6, I somehow discovered the old worn out books from 1948, '53, and '57 -- lying unused on a dusty classroom shelf. I was irresistibly drawn to these old old copies and wanted nothing to do with the new series. However magical the updated editions were, the older books were even more so! I relentlessly implored my teacher to let me use them instead of the newer set. Sensing their artistic appeal to a little girl's imagination, she kindly rescued an entire set from the discard pile just for me.

Oh how I loved those images and that glimpse into the perfect life. What I admired most about Mother was her set of glass (we always had plastic or aluminum) mixing bowls, one in each color: green, yellow, blue, red! Wow! Where did she get those? I always wondered what was wrong with our family that we didn't measure up to those flawless Americans. Betty and Susan always had matching coats and dresses, sweater sets, or a new set of play clothes, whereas we were always wearing hand me down corduroys from our cousins. It was like Robert Frost and the Garden of Eden and Norman Rockwell all rolled into one, except that I was standing just outside the bubble. I was envious but incredibly intrigued.

How could I ever get inside? I would need a mother who didn't go out to work and a father who wore a hat!

Ah well.

Now, of course, no one uses the hopelessly simplistic and outdated "Readers" any more (though collectors can find used copies on the web). Still, a trace of those good old days lingers whenever Halloween rolls around, with plenty of unique costumes, trick - or - treating and all the whimsical trappings your heart desires -- pumpkin soap by the kitchen sink and little pumpkin candles in the window sills, miniature candies, stickers, cookie cutters, spider webs, jack - o - lanterns, even orange twinkle lights! Dick, Jane, and Sally may have gone down in history; yet the ghosts of Tom, Betty, and Susan come each year on the autumn wind to walk home after school and play in the leaves along the way.


All Illustrations by Ruth Steed
Bowls, Towels, Blue Car & Pumpkin Stand, above
from My Little Green Story Book, 1957

See also: "Dick, Jane & Bill (Bryson)"

Monday, September 28, 2009

Superstitions for the Fall: Whiskers, Eyelashes, Dreams, and Wishes

Ceremonious Pine:
"Dream of a Tortoiseshell Tabby
and You Shall be Lucky in Love"

Ceremonious Marcus,
A Cat Of Amazing Whiskers

If you have the Agnes Browne soundtrack, today would be a good day to set your CD player to "repeat" and listen to Laura Smith's sad, sad version of "My Bonnie," over and over again (as in over the ocean, over the sea). It is so perfect for this time of year when the mornings are cold and yellow leaves drift down onto the driveway, one or two at a time, confirming autumn's inevitability.

I never tire of listening:

The leaves haven't even started falling
Already there's such a chill in the air
Someone's got a kite on the wind . . .
Well, I've got a tramp's whisker that tells me you still care

I had been puzzling for some time over that mysterious "tramp's whisker" in Smith's song, when I came across a seemingly similar reference in KT Tunstall's "Through the Darkness" (on her CD Eye to the Telescope). Somehow, the time - honored custom of blowing a fallen eyelash off your little finger was unknown to me until I heard Tunstall singing the words "wishes on eyelashes fail." Then, as so often happens when something new enters your frame of reference, I began encountering the eyelash motif everywhere I turned! But the tramp's whisker? No luck. My thought, however, is that it may be a bit of folklore along the same lines of wishing on an eyelash (?).

I found some helpful explanations on The Mudcat Cafe . One writer thought the Tramp's Whisker might be the name of a flower; another claims that it's the real whisker of a lighthouse keeper. There's also the childhood pet theory: that the whisker once belonged to a dear old dog named Tramp or is perhaps a keepsake from a long lost cat. Another contributor writes that "tramp's whisker" is an old expression for some very slight, yet worrying little thing that just won't go away. Most importantly, no matter what the objective correlative, the tramp's whisker remains a homely image of loss and separation.

Another wishful superstition that I was unacquainted with until recently is described by contemporary Scottish poet, Helen Lamb in her poem "Spell of the Bridge." It seems that you should keep quiet when walking over a bridge; otherwise, the bridge might hear your secrets and let them fall into the water:

. . . For the river would carry
Your hopes to the sea
To the net of a stranger
To the silt bed of dreams

Hold the wish on your tongue
As you cross
And on the far side
Let the wish go first

From The Thing That Mattered Most
(Black & White/Scottish Poetry Library, 2006)

I like to read these words and hear these songs on the first cloudy days when the summer goes. Give them a try. They won't exactly cheer you up, but as the seasons change, these wistful figures will enter your heart. Moving hopefully into a misty future, Lamb's character crosses the bridge guarding her wish with care; Tunstall's voice travels through darkness, as she looks over her shoulder, "To see what I'm leaving behind." And Smith's "My Bonnie" is ready to move on, into an icy world of global freezing:

Soon there'll be no difference between the land and the water
I can walk out on the ice to places I've never been
When I get as far as I can go
Oh, I'm gonna turn and throw my cares over my shoulder
Along with your memory
I'll just let it all float down the Gulf Stream

And I'll walk home singing
My bonny lies over the ocean
My bonny lies over the sea
My bonny lies over the ocean
C'mon bring back, bring back my bonny to me

[see related post]

P.S. Yes, it's true, I'm so old - fashioned that I still listen to actual CDs on an actual CD player right here in my kitchen!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Not a Memo, A Mission Statement

"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."

Back in February, when I clicked on "Create Blog," I picked this self - explanatory comment from Goethe to appear continuously as part of the header above. At the start I didn't think to explicate it any further, but now that my literary blog is six months old, perhaps I should.

When I designed this page, the space I had in mind was one where readers would encounter everything on Goethe's list: selections from all the wonderful poetry that I have been reading and collecting ever since forever, the song lyrics that make up the soundtrack of my life, and a few reasonable words of my own (or so I'd like to think!), tying it all together with the perfect visuals into an image that you won't forget.

Goethe makes it sound so simple, I thought I'd give it a try. For a title, I decided to start with my name. That would be easy enough: Kitti Carriker: A Fortnightly Literary Blog of Connection & Coincidence.

Fortnightly: Well, that just sounds so cool and literary, plus I felt pretty sure I could commit to an essay every two weeks.

Connection: I wanted, if possible, to create a place of connections, in the spirit of E. M. Forster, who implores us in Howards End to connect: "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect . . . ."

Coincidence: As I wrote in an earlier blog post: "Sometimes life is so full of coincidences that I think my head will split open trying to take them all in! It's enough to make me believe in the whole Universe at once!" I stand by that. I want to capture all the unexpected connections that amaze and surprise and suggest a pattern.

Back in college when I worked on the literary magazine, I was known as the editor with "a poem for every poem" because no matter what I read, I was always reminded of something else -- kind of like that "Scooby-Doo" episode when Daphne asks Velma: "Do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma answers, "Actually, yes."

A poem for every poem, and a book for every book! Those are the literary connections and coincidences that I am always on the lookout for, not that they require much tracking down, since they usually find me before I find them.

In addition, I wanted the blog to include my favorite passage from Yeats' poem "A Prayer For My Daughter." Naturally, he wants so many things for her, but chiefly a heart full of "radical innocence" and a life "Rooted in one dear perpetual place . . . a house / Where all's accustomed, ceremonious."

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

From childhood -- perhaps impressed upon me when I first read The Little Red Story Book (more on that later), anyway long before I ever read Yeats -- one of my goals was to organize the kind of home described in his poem, where order would triumph over chaos and no holiday would ever go unremarked: accustomed and ceremonious, familiar yet celebratory.

Thus the line from "A Prayer For My Daughter" has became the perpetual caption for the pictures that change with every post. I hope that in some way (though not always in the same way) these photographs and illustrations portray "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." Sometimes it's my own house (or former houses), other times, a cathedral, a log cabin, a playground, an historical custom house, a neighborhood mural, a village mosaic, a medieval tapestry. I admit, these last two were not created by me, though I take most (not all) of the photographs and did help paint the mural!

And those raspberry parfaits you see up there? I didn't make them myself either (the credit goes to my dessert specialists, Ben and Karen . . . and to Gerry for growing the fruit). But I did line them up on the windowsill and photograph them. And I did eat one a little while later -- delicious!

So that's what's happening on this page every couple of weeks! Oops, I mean, every fortnight! Maybe it all made sense before. If it didn't, I hope it does now, perfect sense!

New Paint Colors: Silver Lace Vine and Raspberry Parfait

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Mind of God

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?
-- every, every minute?"

This is the question Emily Webb asks in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, when she comes back from the underworld to visit Grover's Corners and sees that all the living people are too busy about the minutiae of the day even to make eye contact with the loved ones right around them.

I chose Emily's question as the header for my life-is-just-so-daily blog, The Quotidian Kit, because it so accurately captures the sense of dailyness that I want to convey in those every-other-day-or-so entries. (Please visit: www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com)

My friends and I fell in love with Our Town when it was produced by our highschool drama club in 1973, and my twin brother Bruce played the part of George Gibbs. One of our favorite scenes occurs at the end of Act I, when Rebecca (George's little sister, played by my friend Joni), reads out the mind-boggling address that she saw on an envelope:

Jane Crofut
The Crofut Farm
Grover's Corners
Sutton County
New Hampshire
United States of America
Continent of North America
Western Hemisphere
The Earth
The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God

Suddenly in awe of our own cosmic identity, we spent a lot of time recopying this long address, inserting our own names and addresses, and passing our versions around to each other in geometry class. (Sorry, Mr. Anderson!) Not that any mysteries, either universal or local, were revealed; but it sort of felt that way.

In the recent novel, Octavian Nothing (see my commentary below, August 14, 2009), I encountered a hauntingly reminiscent passage, equally cosmic but rather more sinister. The young scholar Octavian is somewhat intimidated by his tutor who has him stand against the wall in a very dark room on a dark summer night:

The silence of the house was enormous.

He stood me with my back to the wall, one inch from the paneling. He stood next to me. We faced the same way. . . .

For a long while, we stared straight forwards, side by side,
in the empty room. . . .

"Do you feel it child?" he asked. "The wall is gone. Space is gone from behind us."

I could feel nothing.

He said, "All that is there now is the eye of God." He shivered. "The pupil is black, and as large as a world." (60 - 61)

The Eye of God. I wonder if that line should come before or after The Mind of God in the address sequence? It certainly shifts the reader's focus from the known to the unknown. I'm reminded again of Emily's descent to the afterlife, when she sees simultaneously the Dead, now her companions, as well as her own funeral, taking place back on Earth:

Live people don't understand , do they?

No, dear -- not very much.

They're sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they? I feel as though I knew them last a thousand years ago . . . (ellipses in original)

Similarly, in Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, the kindly Beasts look down from their planet and wonder about human beings:

How strange it is that they can't tell us what they themselves seem to know . . . And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space. . . . Aren't they lonely? (191)

So here we are, in our little boxes, unable to communicate very well; revolving about on our Mostly Harmless, Swiftly Tilting planet; transfixed by the black pupil of the Eye of God, large as the World, the Solar System, the Universe. Known, perhaps, even in our loneliness, to the Mind of God.

Mosaics at Crosby Station
Great Britain
The United Kingdom
The British Isles
The Western Hemisphere,
The Earth, The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God

Friday, August 14, 2009

Birds of Pray


Above: These 3 buildings at the Pier Head on the Mersey River are called the "Three Graces" of Liverpool. Look closely (above & left)for the mythical Liver Birds atop the Liver Building. As legend goes, these symbolic birds once haunted the local shoreline, guarding the waterfront and awaiting the safe return of seafarers.

(Pronunciation quirk: "Liver" rhymes with "diver" -- not with "giver" as in "Liverpool")

Not until recently would I have identified the image of a one - legged seagull as a recurring motif in literature, but a surprising reading coincidence has caused me to think otherwise.

Not long ago, I was reading volume one of M. T. Anderson's historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian has been brought from Africa as a child, in the 1700s, to participate in an elaborate American educational experiment, funded from England by an eccentric benefactor. When this Lord Cheldthorpe dies, his nephew, the new "Lord Cheldthorpe of the New Creation," as he insists on being called, travels to America to visit the College of Lucidity.

Upon his arrival, he reveals his ignorance of the natural world with an urgent question for his hosts. Speaking of himself in third person, he elaborates: "One had, a kind of pet aboard the ship, a one-legged seagull. One was charmed by its sense of balance when the ship rocked. Would there be a way that one could attract it to this house? It specifically?"

Rather than treating Cheldthorpe's request as ridiculous, the polite and beholden American scientists attempt to let the Lord down easy, speculating, "Were we to . . . spread garbage upon the roof, we would likely attract quite a number of . . . seagulls . . . but there is no guarantee . . . My Lord . . . that one should be your especial friend" (ellipses in original, 80).

The seagull comes to represent those who must suffer from Cheldthorpe's cruelty and his arrogant belief that the world revolves around him. His treatment of the gull prefigures the patronizing harshness in store for his unwitting subjects: "We tried to knock it over by throwing lead-shot and failed. . . . The bird was nimble. . . . Could one attract it to one's side, one could keep it upon one's shoulder, and call it Hector, and it would be a fine, fine thing" (my ellipses, 80 - 81).

"Indeed, My Lord," concludes the host. "My very thought. . . . Perhaps you might give me some time to consider a solution?" (80 - 81). In fact, the issue never arises again, and I probably wouldn't have given it much more thought if I had not soon encountered a similar image in Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey. In this memoir, British / Danish writer Sandi Toksvig describes her travels across the United States, as she catches up with old friends that she knew years before when attending school in America.

She starts on the East Coast and finds herself at last in California, standing on the deck of the Queen Mary, reminiscing of the trips she took on it years before, back and forth across the Atlantic with her parents. As she recalls fondly, though sadly, a final conversation she shared with her father, she spies a seagull who seems to embody both her grief and her determination. But this is not just any seagull:

"Then, on the farthest railing I saw a one-legged gull standing watching me. What could happen, I wondered, to a gull that might cause it to lose a foot? Did it affect take-offs and landings? What did the other gulls think? Was the one-legged fellow an object of gull ridicule? Did all gulls really come from California?" (299)

A seagull with one leg? I had to stop and think a minute. Oh yes, Octavian Nothing and crazy Lord Cheldthorpe a week or so before. Two one-legged seagulls in two weeks? And in two books so widely differing from each other. What's the odds?

Of course the quintessential seagull, that "one-in-a-million bird" who taught us the meaning of life back in 1970 is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One leg? Broken wing? Jonathan knows how to overcome all such earthly stumbling blocks, how to achieve freedom and perfection:
"Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think we might see other once or twice?" (61, 87).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Afternoon,
Summer Afternoon


"Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." ~ Henry James

And those most be nineteen of the most beautiful words that Henry James ever wrote.

If you ask me, what is one of the most beautiful things to do on a sunny summer afternoon? Why, go to the pool, of course! A hidden gem of our neighborhood, the pool is nestled in a small valley at the foot of a big hill. Lucky for me, it's only a few blocks from my house, close enough to bike. On a hot July day, nothing feels better than floating lazily or doing a leisurely backstroke while gazing above at a big blue bowl of sky and all around at a big green basket of grass.

Peace and the "Sounds of Silence." That's what the pool provides for The Graduate-- Benjamin Braddock / Dustin Hoffman. The desultory pace of his summer is measured in the movie by a succession of swimming scenarios. While he sits on the bottom of the pool in his scuba gear, his head is filled with the echo of his own breathing. Avoiding the reality of "plastics," he rests listlessly in the sun on his air mattress, "drifting, just drifting," to the strains of Simon & Garfunkle. I can't sit underwater like Benjamin, but when I swim laps I can go inside my head, think about what I'd like to read and write, and hear nothing but the sound of rhythmic breathing until the whistle blows.

No summer day feels complete without those laps. Some days I have the pool to myself; other times it's a perfect microcosm of the entire community: little kids, big kids, young adults, old adults, experts, amateurs, and many beginners -- of all ages; some who swim fast, others who take it slow; some treading, some diving; some taking lessons, some working out with serious purpose and some just having a good time! It can occasionally feel like a big old human soup pot, on the very hottest, busiest days, but I try to work around that slightly stewed sensation and keep my focus. Despite the heat, with just a month of summer afternoons left, we have to enjoy every one!

"Lap swim -- lap swim."

To me those are two of the most beautiful words on any summer afternoon between Memorial Day and Labor Day!

" . . . there is no end, believe me! to the inventions of summer, to the happiness your body is willing to bear." --Mary Oliver

Neighborhood Kiddies: Molly, Ben, Emily, 1991

Neighborhood Cheers: My Swimming Buddies, 1992

If you have to choose between straight hair & swimming, don't fight the curl: CHOOSE SWIMMING!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hominy, Horseradish, and Buffalo Bill

Summer Squash and Black Currants

Here I am with my Grandpa Lindsey,
ready to ride the train to Kansas City
to visit his sister, my Great Aunt Mabel
These were the old days, when you could actually go places on trains in this country, and we -- just the two of us-- were taking a day trip from Grandpa's little town in Kansas up to see his older sister in Kansas City. Even though we would not be spending the night, I insisted on taking my little suitcase, just barely visible in the corner of the photograph. To this day, I can tell you exactly what was in there: my little white Easter gloves (remember when we wore those?) and a six - pack of Butterfinger candy bars!

Without knowing this photograph or the story behind it, my dear friend Lisa sent me the following birthday card a few years ago:
When I read the caption -- "in their purses were candy bars" -- I knew it was true! You can see why I was reminded of myself at age 9, holding hands with my grand-dad at the train station.
Our Train Schedule
See -- my grandfather has written: "Mabel's Phone"


In 1976, seven years before he died, my Grandpa Paul Lindsey, wrote an autobiographical essay entitled “A Look at Caney, Kansas: What I Saw From the Wagon Seat as a Child.” He begins with a description of his mother’s perseverance:

My mother, like all those dear old souls who settled this country, could have lived on a rock. I mean, you could not have starved them. They believed they were citizens of a free country and were determined to live and stay free.

“My mother started a good-sized patch of horseradish and prepared to make hominy. She established a line of customers, including several hotels and boarding houses. By the time I was five, she would take me along to hold the team—old Dolly and Lucy—while she delivered hominy and horseradish, ready to serve, at twenty-five cents per quart.”

The Lindsey farm wagons were a familiar sight on Caney streets, marketing—in addition to Sally’s farm fresh hominy and horseradish—water from the bubbling hillside springs, melons and sweet potatoes grown in the loose sandy soil, and potted plants or bouquets of flowers in season. As my grandfather grew older, the area covered by the delivery trips widened to include nearby towns and cities. On one of these trips, he and his father were privileged to eat lunch at the private table of Buffalo Bill Cody when the Lindseys delivered sweet potatoes to the exhibition’s commissary while the Wild West Show was performing in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

When I was little, how I loved to hear my grandfather tell this story! In vivid detail, he would recall how Buffalo Bill regaled the assembled diners with tales of adventure and wore on his finger a diamond “the size of egg.” Even now, whenever I see an image of Buffalo Bill on a postage stamp or on my cowgirl dress -- or read the ironic "Portrait" by e.e. cummings -- I am reminded of my Grandpa Lindsey’s brush with greatness and that incredible diamond ring!

Buffalo Bill's
who used to
ride a water-smooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

(poem by e. e. cummings)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Time to Write a Letter


Little House on the Prairie Historic Site
Indpenedence, Kansas

Samuel Gordon Lindsey
My grandfather's brother, in 1913; age 20.

In 1888 my great-grandparents moved from Illinois to settle a homestead in Nebraska. By 1893, they had erected not a one-room but, proudly, a two-room home on the prairie, where my great-grandmother Sally (Sarah Elisabeth Hartman Lindsey) sat one summer day writing a long letter to her niece, enchantingly named Eyrie. What I especially like is that Sally explains how the babies are napping while she writes. So many times when my children were small, my own letters began: “The boys are now asleep, so I have a moment to answer your letter.”

Some things never change! Sally begins:

Dear Eyrie

I am (nearly) alone this afternoon, with my babies Beatrice and Gordon both asleep. Jimmie went 5 miles away to see a sick horse this morning, taking Wayne with him. Mabel and Jim are at Sunday School 3 ½ miles distant since dinner. And I have a quiet time in which to write. You know, Eyrie, few of the homesteaders have another room where they can go and read or write undisturbed.

Sally goes on to describe a summer of severe drought, punctuated by a few severe thunderstorms. During one of these storms, her husband Jimmie was struck by lightning. While he was recuperating, some old friends

who used to live in J’s native town in Ohio, came eight miles to see him. They are well-to-do people spending a few months here for their health. They brought him some oranges, a can of peaches, and Gordon a new dress. After Wayne had eaten of the peaches, his papa was telling him we would move east where fruit grows and then we could have some. I was out, and when I came in, Wayne said, “And Mama don't you think they grow on trees”! It has only been a year since he learned there was such a thing as a tree. He scarcely ever sees one, they usually die in the first year.

In fact, Wayne, who was four at the time, did grow up to see many trees; and indeed, the Lindseys did move east, eventually settling in Kansas in 1895—the year that my grandfather, Paul Jones Lindsey, was born in a covered wagon as the family was traveling in search of their permanent home. It is sad and strange for me to think that my great-grandmother long outlived the two babies who lay napping that day while she wrote to Eyrie. Samuel Gordon Lindsey (after whom my own little Sam is named) died in France, 31 July 1918, at the Battle of the Aisne-Marne. And Edna Beatrice Lindsey Smith died in 1922, aged 31; though so young, she was already the mother of six.

Thinking of them all -- Sally, Eyrie, Beatrice, her children -- brings to mind the following tender-hearted poem that I have loved since girlhood:


Throb of my heart, throb of my heart,
How did you get here, where did you start?

Ages ago in some lowly thing,
Pulsating since with unceasing spring?

Through countless lifetimes, from mother to young,
Heart throb, heart throb, a rhythm has sung.

Once in a queen, twice in a slave,
Wife of prince, wife of a knave.

Mother to daughter, down through the years,
Some heirs to gladness, some heirs to tears.

Defended by vassal, seized by a lord,
Sentenced to death but saved by a word.

Women of virtue, women of shame,
Women of desert, women of slum,

Down to my grandmere, sweet and demure,
Down to my mother, patient and pure.

Why was I forged as a link in this chain?
What of the past shall I break or maintain?

Heart throb, heart throb, wonder past knowing,
Where did you come from, where are you going?

by Edith M. Roberts

Roberts's poem can be found in the well - loved
anthology from my formative years:
The American Album of Poetry
compiled by American radio personality
Ted Malone, 1908 - 1989

Monday, June 15, 2009

Child Beheads Mannequin

Neighborhood Mural, West Philadelphia


"Sometimes a mannequin's blue summer dress
can make the window like a dream . . . "
(iphoto created by Karen Shen)

Yearning for an off-beat summer movie? Watch Francis Ford's Coppola's dreamy, magical, musical One From The Heart. Teri Garr portrays a heroine who works after hours, wistfully dressing the storefront mannequins to the pensive strains of "Old Boyfriends" (below). What is it about those mannequins? So odd, so beckoning.

I was lured by the mannequins long ago, on a shopping trip to the town square in Neosho, Missouri (where our family lived from 1962 - 67). Many of the stores were quaint and old-fashioned, including clothing stores with wooden floors and display windows that were wide open into the store interior and could be reached from inside the store simply by walking up a few wooden steps, kind of like walking up on to a stage.

One Saturday morning, I had wandered away from my parents and siblings (not exactly sure who else was along that day, or even what we were shopping for), irresistibly intrigued by the sight of some child-sized mannequins up in that tempting front window. I had never before seen--or at least had never been so close to--a mannequin that was exactly my size! I glanced over my shoulder at my parents, and, on the hunch that they wouldn't miss me for a little while, gingerly mounted those few steps, and in an instant became part of the window display!

I was not what you would call an audacious child, but I just had to investigate those little creatures and could not keep my hands off of them. Destruction was the furthest thing from my mind when I reached out to touch the child mannequin's hair. Imagine my mortification (or the 7 - 8 yr old's equivalent of mortification) when my innocent pat resulted in the head rolling right off the mannequin's shoulders and landing on the floor with a plunk!

I stood there paralyzed, in shock over what I had just done, and pretty certain that my life must be near its end. Now I was REALLY glancing over my shoulder; but, even though luck was with me and my parents were not yet paying attention to what I was doing, I could not fathom how to get out of this fearful situation. My cheeks were burning (mostly in apprehension of what kind of trouble I was going to be in) and I was on the verge of crying--but not yet.

At precisely that miraculous moment, some shoppers happened to stroll past on the sidewalk right outside the window! Now children are notoriously bad at guessing the age of adults, but I remember this kindly elderly couple (a man and a woman) as seeming older than my parents yet younger than my grandparents. What they thought at the sight that met their eyes I can only guess, but they clearly read my distress and with great gentleness motioned to me to kneel down, pick up the head, and place it back atop the mannequin. I've often wondered how that head was fastened on, but I just can't remember. Somehow, though, I managed to balance it in place and high-tail it back down the steps as those sweet, patient strangers waved me off the stage and mutely promised that they would keep my secret.

As guilty as you please and flooded with relief that apparently no one had witnessed my mischief, I skedaddled across the store quick as a wink. I sidled right up to my unsuspecting parents and loitered there just as if I had never wandered off at all. I can't really guess how long my escapade had taken, but it's one of those occasions that seemed like an eternity to me, despite the fact the others apparently hadn't missed me at all. Could it really be true that I was going to get off this easy?

As for my omniscient parents, they had no idea, not until I broke the news to them many years later, sometime when I was in highschool or college and the whole family was sitting around recounting anecdotes from the good old days. I asked if they had been aware of my guest appearance in the window glass. Maybe those people on the sidewalk were friends of theirs who had later told them about the beheading? But no, it was all news to them! Luckily I had waited to make my confession until the statute of limitations for childhood misdemeanors was up!

Sadly, even now none of us have any idea who those Good Samaritans were; but what a lucky girl I was that they walked by when they did! How I'd love to go back in time and stand as an adult on the sidewalk, looking in on that astonished little child who had climbed right into the storefront window to see what life was like among the mannequins.

Here are the song lyrics:

Old Boyfriends
from the soundtrack, One From the Heart
written by Tom Waits, sung by Crystal Gale

Old boyfriends

Lost in the pocket
of your overcoat
Like burned out light bulbs
on a Ferris Wheel

Old boyfriends

You remember the kinds
of cars they drove
Parking in an orange grove
He fell in love, you see
With someone that I used to be

Though I very seldom think of him
sometimes a mannequin's
Blue summer dress
can make the window like a dream

Ah, but now those dreams
belong to someone else
Now they talk in their sleep
In a drawer where I keep all my

Old boyfriends

Remember when you
were burning for them
Why do you keep turning them into

Old boyfriends

They look you up
when they're in town
To see if they can still
burn you down
He fell in love, you see
With someone that I used to be

Though I very seldom think of him
sometimes a mannequin's
Blue summer dress
can make the window like a dream

Ah, but now those dreams
belong to someone else
Now they talk in their sleep
In a drawer where I keep all my

Old boyfriends

Turn up every time it rains
Fall out of the pages
in a magazine

Old boyfriends

Girls fill up the bars
every spring
Dark places
for remembering

Old boyfriends
All my old boyfriends
Old boyfriends

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Joyce Maynard Treasure Hunt

Neosho, Missouri: Where I Grew Up in the 60s

The works of Joyce Maynard entered my life a couple of years ago through one of those uncanny paths of literary coincidence, shaping themselves before my eyes into a fortuitously designed mini - course: "The Life of Joyce Maynard & Family." The path began in May 2007 when I finally read Catcher in the Rye for the first time in my life, something I probably should done twenty - five years earlier, but better late than never. At that time, I also read some background material on J. D. Salinger, learned a bit about his life, then moved on to other things.

A few months after I finished the novel, a fellow reader gave me a magazine featuring an interview / article about the two Maynard sisters, Joyce & Rona. The sisters both make a few passing references to Joyce's early, distressing connection to J. D. Salinger. Trying to recall why that sounded vaguely familiar to me, I reviewed the Salinger info. and, this time, looked up Joyce Maynard, as well.

What an astonishing life! And even more astonishing -- why didn't I ever know about this writer and about her youthful memoir: Looking Back: Growing Up Old In the Sixties? Why didn't anyone ever tell me to read this book, back in 1973? It might have opened my eyes to a few things! I ordered a copy right away, read it in no time, and then started in on her more recent memoir: At Home in the World (1998).

According to her autobiography, as she grows older and has three kids, she starts writing a parenting / family life column in a number of periodicals. Again, I got a feeling of de-ja-vu and went to search through a notebook of things I have enjoyed and saved over the years. Sure enough, there were three essays, torn out of Parenting Magazine during the years when my children were very young. Turns out I had been her fan after all, without even realizing it! Many of these essays are available in Maynard's collection: Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life (1987).

Next coincidence, my son (older now) received a letter from the NCTE concerning the "Achievement Award in Writing" and a list of previous young winners: Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Robert Redford, and . . . Joyce Maynard!

After her first book at age 18, Maynard already had a plan for her next project, in collaboration with a family friend -- a book on doll houses, a subject dear to my heart (see my book, Created in Our Image: The Miniature Body of the Doll). As it turned out, Maynard's writing took off in another direction, and her co-writer completed the project singly (Joan McElroy's Dolls' House Furniture Book, 1976)

Another coincidence concerns the favorite genre of the friend who gave me the magazine in which I learned the story of Joyce Maynard's life -- true crime narratives, which just so happens to be another of Maynard's specialities. Maynard is the author of Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City (2006), and To Die For (2003), which has been turned into the movie starring Nicole Kidman. Maynard wrote the screenplay and has a bit part in the movie, as the attorney.

You can learn more about Joyce Maynard and her very talented family by reading her sister's autobiography: My Mother's Daughter: A Memoir by Rona Maynard (2008); and her mother's observations on child-rearing and family life: Raisins and Almonds (1972) and Guiding Your Child to a More Creative Life (1973) by Fredelle Bruser Maynard.

I have found so much to admire in Looking Back and At Home in the World that it was rather disappointing to come across a magazine article a few months ago in which Maynard explains her decision to spend a windfall inheritance on breast implants, which she describes almost glibly as a life- and self-affirming use of resources. Yet it seems to me an oddly inconsistent choice for a woman so skeptical of medical intervention that she insisted on entirely natural home-births for her children.

I was dismayed that she would respond with anything other than outrage to her unworthy boyfriend's suggestion that she consider cosmetic surgery. How dare he look at her with "a faintly troubled expression"? At times like these, let us not forget Dorothy Parker's sage pronouncement:"Now I know the things I know, and do the things I do; and if you do not like me so, to hell, my love, with you." Surely this advice applies to our anatomy; love me, love my body. How long until we believe that we are beautiful just as we are?

So, I've had to discount Maynard's approach to mid-life crisis; but the honesty of her parenting essays and her youthful insights stay with me. She recalls, for example, hearing the phrase "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off," for the first time, when she was eight or nine. "I remember perfectly...That Stop-the-World phrase, anyway, seemed so familiar, and so telling, struck so deep, it was as if I'd thought it up myself. I knew the feeling, all right -- the frightening, exhausting realization that no matter what, from now till my death, I could not really take a rest" (Looking Back, 54).

For more on Joyce Maynard's Memoirs
check out my "Listmania" on amazon.com:
Joyce Maynard Treasure Hunt

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Horse Is At Least Human


Spring Break in England 2008
Looking Through the Windshield, near Liverpool

Above: Yes, there are still those who trundle to the speed of a different wheel! As Ghandi said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." Left: Here we are heading off to college in our Dodge Dart. Now, just exactly what color is this car? Forest Green, Jungle Green, Pine Green? Tropical Rain Forest? Maybe Asparagus or Fern.
[See my previous post:
"Burnt Sienna"]

Before the Burnt Sienna Omni, there was the Dart (please feel free to pronounce as Click and Clack do: Dartre--to rhyme with Sartre). When my twin brother Bruce and I started our second year of college, our parents got us this car with a standard shift on the column, a nightmare for me since I had failed at every attempt to learn about shifting gears. So one Friday in late September, my brother decided to teach me a lesson. We had lined up a few girls from my dorm to make the four - hour drive home for the weekend with us and chip in for gas. Bruce usually kept the car over at his dorm, so on Friday afternoon, he pulled up at the appointed time to pick us all up.

As we were piling all our stuff in the trunk, he announced, "I think I'll just stay here for the weekend, Kit; you go on home." I had no idea how I was going to drive that car, but I couldn't disappoint those girls at the VERY last moment. So after berating my traitorous brother, who merely shrugged his shoulders and trudged off across campus, the rest of us got in, and I guess my riders hung on to their seats while I ground the gears all the way home. Anyway, I learned. And the old Dartre nearly got us through college.

Dorm Girls, Heading Home for the Weekend, Fall 1976

Going back even further, there was my dad's Station Wagon, the one I crashed when driving home from highschool band practice on a Saturday afternoon, on the county roads out where we lived (lots of accidents out there). I shudder, even now, thinking of how I might have killed myself, my sister, and those two other kids. Sometimes I wonder what on earth our elders were thinking! Couldn't any of them have given us a ride? For some reason, my mom's car, the one that I drove more often, was not available that morning, and I protested when my parents said I should drive the other car, rather than have one of them drive us there and back. Filled with reluctance, not used to power brakes and steering, I was a nervous wreck waiting to happen.

Distracted for a fleeting instant -- when one of the others in the car said, "Why is there a school bus out on a Saturday" and pointed off to the right -- I barely edged off the right side of the road. As soon as I felt that gravel shoulder under my tires, I steered left to get back on the road, over - corrected, and ended up in the left lane, heading straight at another car. I totally panicked, over - corrected again -- back to the right this time, went beyond my lane, across the right shoulder (where I had been the first time), and crashed right into a telephone pole, which broke in half, dangling dangerously over the car.

And that was in broad day - light, stone - cold sober! Yet another scary statistic of a teen-ager driving with other teens in the car. Not good!

As you could probably guess, after surviving the crash, my passengers and I were entirely heedless of any electrical issues, and all jumped right out of the car and ran to the nearest farm house to call my parents. Luckily, we weren't electrocuted, on top of everything else. I know my parents paid for the replacement of that telephone pole, which was NOT covered under our insurance. They were cross for a little while but went easy on me, knowing that I had very specifically, not to mention tearfully, requested a ride from them.

Shortly after the accident, my dad found a cartoonish advertisement for a corny movie entitled "Kitty Can't Help It." The caption read: "She doesn't mean to drive men wild, but Kitty can't help it." Well, my dad cut this ad out of the paper, crossed out the word "men" and changed the "y" to "i" to make it like my name: "She doesn't mean to drive wild, but Kitti can't help it" Hahaha!

I laughed and laughed and so did everyone else. That cartoon must have stayed on our refrigerator for the next ten years. I wish somewhere along the way I had pasted it into my scrapbook for safe keeping, but I'll never forget it anyway, so I guess that's about the same. That was my father's humor! Plus, that's how I knew I was forgiven for my recklessness.

Another way I knew was that a mere seven days after the accident, my parents needed something from the store and told me to go hop in the rental car (that we were using while the station wagon was being prepared) and run and get it. I did NOT want to do this, but they insisted. I was not allowed to refuse or convince myself that it was impossible. No more avoidance. "You can do it," they said. And I did it.

But that doesn't mean I enjoyed it. I share Holden Caulfield's skepticism of the automobile: "Take most people, they're crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake" (from Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 17).

And Holden Caulfied isn't the only one. Although I can't recall a time in my life when I didn't know what a car was, I can understand perfectly the qualms of startled little Chiyo when she is first exposed to the hectic streets of Kyoto: "I'd never seen a car before. I'd seen photographs, but remember being surprised at how...well, cruel, is the way they looked to me in my frightened state, as though they were designed to hurt people more than to help them. All my senses were assaulted" (Memoirs of a Geisha, italics Golden's, 35). Like Chiyo, I've never really overcome the apprehension that when it comes to cars danger is lurking everywhere.

Quiz Time:

I am most afraid of: Losing a loved one in a car accident; even worse, being the cause of that accident.

My favorite car is: One with a driver.

I never really got the hang of: Driving.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Burnt Sienna


Here I am sitting atop my first car, a 1979 Dodge Omni that I purchased while in grad school. It was a stupid little car, probably not very safe, though trustworthy enough. It really didn't have any special qualities to recommend it, but one thing that I grew to appreciate was the paint job--that goofy two-tone, bronze on the top brown on the bottom, that Dodge used for several years on some of its models.

A few weeks after getting the car, I happened to see the terrific movie Heartburn, starring the ever eloquent Meryl Streep and that old coot Jack Nicholson. In an early scene from the happier days, they discuss interior design, color schemes, and childhood crayon choices with some friends. Here's the same passage as it appears in the book (hilarious reading). When asked about the color taupe, Arthur shakes his head:

"I've always been terrible at colors," he said. "It comes from having grown up with the single-row box of crayons instead of the big box. If I'd had the big box, I would now know taupe and cerise and ecru. Instead, all I know is burnt sienna. And what good does it do me? Never once have I heard anything described as burnt sienna. Never once have I heard anyone say, 'Follow that burnt sienna car.'"

"I think there's a column in this," said Mark (135).

Of course, anyone who ever colored anything knows that a box of 8 crayons would never include burnt sienna. In order to get that color, you would need a box of at least 16, maybe even 24! Still, I found the conversation amusing and right then and there decided to be the woman in the burnt sienna Omni. I figured it was a fairly accurate description since the brown and the bronze averaged together might have produced something along the lines of burnt sienna. So that's how I answered anyone who asked about my new car, what I wrote on insurance forms and parking permits that requested the color of the car. It was a fun little private joke while it lasted. I was proud to drive a car that embodied the droll humor of Heartburn, and if you had ever wanted to track me down, you could have been the one to say, "Follow that burnt sienna car."

Yes, I had that car (and now I have the column)!

I still owned the Omni when I met Gerry, but I don't think it was the dual-toned burnt sienna that won him over . . . no, it was my irresistible bread pudding recipe, taken straight from the pages of Nora Ephron's novel. She refers to it as "caramelized mush" (133). Yummy!

Try watching Heartburn if you've never seen it (dated but not hopelessly). The theme song, "Coming Around Again" by Carly Simon is lovely. If you have an hour, read the book. It will make you laugh. You'll find Rachel's recipe for Potatoes Anna easier than you might think and absolutely delicious!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hope of a Nation


The Hope of a Nation
Painted by James Haines in the 1920s

When I was a small girl, this picture, "The Hope of a Nation," hung on the wall in my grandparents' living room. I would stand before it mesmerized by mystery. Where was this place? Where was the river flowing? Where did it end? Then one day, I heard the grown-ups singing the equally (to me) mysterious final stanza of "Battle Hymn of the Republic": "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Ah ha -- that was it! This was the "beauty of the lilies," the place "across the sea." Perhaps it was even the same place that we little kids sometimes sang about:

My body lies over the ocean,
my body lies over the sea;
my body lies over the ocean,
so bring back my body to me.

[see related post]

At the time, of course, I didn't know that the word was Bonnie; I knew nothing of British history or Scottish folksongs; but the transmigration of souls -- now there was something I could get a handle on.

Here's the picture,

hanging in my hallway,

Thanksgiving 2004

"We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel." This sad, beautiful, ironic sentence is one of my favorite in all the New Testament (click for an excellent sermon). It is spoken a few days after the crucifixion when two minor followers of Jesus are walking along the road to a town called Emmaus (even the sound of this place name seems so sadly poetic). They are joined by a stranger who asks them "Why so sad?" In answer, they recount the recent arrest and execution of Jesus, concluding in despair, "But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel." What they don't yet realize is that this stranger is the risen Christ.

That's how the story goes, but for me, this sentence has always seemed so appropriate to any number of our once and future leaders of whom we expected so much and who left us too soon -- King Arthur, Princess Diana, and those four American guys in the song:

"Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John."

~ written by Dick Holler
~ sung by Dion
The Beauty of the Lilies