"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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another Faraway Auld Lang Syne

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Though it is not a holiday piece, there is something about the following story -- maybe it's the foggy weather or the gathering of friends -- that always brings New Year's Eve to mind. Like the Tennessee Williams poem ("The Summer Belvedere") that I posted a few weeks ago, this story by William Saroyan is not easy to locate, so I'll use this fortnight's blog post to pass it on to you.

"The Faraway Night" was first passed on to me thirty years ago by a co-worker, someone I knew for only a short time and never knew well. We never kept in contact; yet, she is memorable to me for adding to my frame of reference this very short story by an author that I had been unfamiliar with until that time. Would I have discovered the story anyway, in some anthology or other, or through some other acquaintance? Perhaps so, but maybe not. I prefer to believe the Fates arranged for our paths to cross so that I might have this sad beautiful story in my life.

The Faraway Night
by William Saroyan

Armenian - American Author, 1908 - 1981
Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1949
Academy Award for Best Original Story, 1943

This was a day of fog and remembrance of old days and old songs. I sat in the house all afternoon listening to the songs. It was darker everywhere than light and I remembered a song I sang to girl on a bus once. For a while there we were in love, but when the bus reached Topeka she got off and I never saw her again. In the middle of the night when I kissed her she began to cry and I got sick with the sickness of love. That was a young night in August, and I was on my way to New York for the first time in my life. I got sick because I was going my way and she was going hers.

All this day of fog I sat in the house remembering the way a man's life goes one way and all the other lives another, each of them going its own way and a certain number of young people dying all the time. A certain number of them going along and dying. If you don't see them again they are dead even if it is a small world: even if you go back and look for each of them and find them you find them dead because any way any of them go is a way that kills.

The bus came to Topeka and she got off and walked around a corner and I never saw her again. I saw many others, many of them as lovely as she, but never another like her, never another with that sadness and loveliness of voice and never another who wept as she wept. There never will be another with her sadness. There never will be an American night like that again. She herself may be lovelier now than then but there will never be another sadness of night like that and never again will she or anyone else weep that way and no man who kisses her will grow sick with the sickness of the love of that night. All of it belongs to a night in America which is lost and can never be found. All of it belongs to the centuries of small accidents, all trivial, all insignificant, which brought her to the seat beside me, and all the small accidents which placed me there, waiting for her.

She came and sat beside me, and I knew the waiting of all the years had been for her, but when she got off the bus in Topeka I stayed on and three days later I reached New York. That's all that happened except that something of myself is still there in that warm, faraway American night.

When the darkness of day became the darkness of night I put on my hat and left the house. I walked through the fog to the city, my heart following me like a big patient dog, and in the city I found some of the dead who are my friends, and in laughter more deathly and grievous than the bitterest weeping we ate and drank and talked and sang and all that I remembered was the loveliness of her weeping because the years of small accidents had brought us together, and the foolishness of my heart telling me to stay with her and go nowhere, telling me there was nowhere to go.


*******************************

It's that line, "A certain number of young people dying all the time," that cuts straight to the quick. He's right, of course. Some do die young; others just die away from our reality: "If you don't see them again they are dead even if it is a small world."

We are fortunate that the world is smaller these days than it was when Saroyan was writing; with email and facebook, people don't slip away quite so easily. And even without technology, there is still the occasional, good old-fashioned coincidence. It could happen in real life, just as it does in Dan Fogelberg's song "Same Auld Lang Syne," old friends meeting unexpectedly in the grocery store on New Year's Eve, picking up last minute party supplies -- paper hats, balloons, eggs, a bottle of champagne. It could happen.

Happy New Year! Auld Lang Syne!

28 December ~ The Fourth Day of Christmas

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
First Fortnightly Post of the New Year
Friday, January 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Fall Reason, A Winter Reason

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Rustic Porch Lanterns, December Dusk

According to the calendar, it's still autumn; but judging by six inches of snow on the ground, it's definitely winter. I like the way my friend Olynn describes it on her recent facebook post: "One week till first day of winter!! Yea!! Love first day of winter cause as soon as it gets here days start getting longer. Hate first day of summer cause when you are finally ready for lots of warm sunny weather...days start getting shorter." It seems so backward, doesn't it?

Miroslav Holub has written a couple of excellent poems for this transitional time of year. First comes the "yellow foliage" when there are still a few leaves to be seen and then at last the "reddish boniness" when it appears that all is lost.

Fingers of the autumn sun
fiddle with yellow foliage
outside. . . .
this year we are
immersed in history
like a web of light.


Miroslav Holub (1923 - 98)
Czech poet and immunologist
from his poem, "Philosophy of Fall"


Autumn
And it is all over.

No more sweetpeas,
no more wide-eyed bunnies
dropping from the sky.

Only
a reddish boniness
under the sun of hoarfrost,
a thievish fog,
an insipid solution of love,
hate
and crowing.

But next year
larches will try
to make the land full of larches again
and larks will try
to make the land full of larks.

And thrushes will try
to make all the trees sing,
and goldfinches will try
to make all the grass golden,

and burying beetles
with their creaky love will try
to make all the corpses
rise from the dead,

Amen.


Both poems translated by Stuart Friebert and Dana Habova;
in Holub's collection,
Intensive Care: Selected and New Poems, 1996

Even as Holub writes of the year's demise, he anticipates the coming cycle of renewed life, a new generation of sweetpeas, bunnies, thrushes, and beetles. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950) looks from the opposite perspective, however, writing in "Sonnet XXXV" that even at the height of summer, she can feel the full weight of love's decline:

If in widening silence you should guess
I read the moment with recording eyes,
Taking your love and all your loveliness
Into a listening body hushed of sighs . . .
Though summer's rife and the warm rose in season,
Rebuke me not: I have a winter reason.


from "Clearly my ruined garden"
in Fatal Interview, 1931

If you have a winter reason, well, now's the time. But keep in mind the larches and the larks! As Olynn observes, just one short week to go before the days start getting longer . . .

Appropriate for any time of year is this beautiful closing thought from Holub's poem "United Flight 412":

" . . . where would we be
if love was not stronger than poetry
and poetry stronger than love?"



The Lanterns, Filled With Snow

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A House Where All's Accustomed, Ceremonious

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUSWho wouldn't want to live in Story, Indiana? Sounds like a place
right out of a book . . . or a place where you could read all the time!

Rustic Hoosier Postcard of Stone Head, Brown County
by photographer Darryl Jones
See also The Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country

As you may have heard me say before, my inspiration for designing this blog came from two writers: Goethe, who hopes that each day might include a song, a poem, some fine art, a few wise words; and Yeats who describes "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." This poem, particularly the closing, has been a favorite of mine for many years, decades:

Prayer For My Daughter
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
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.


William Butler Yeats, 1865 - 1939
Irish poet and dramatist
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1923

The next two poems made their way into my notebook more recently. A few years ago, I discovered Louis Untermeyer's "Prayer For This House" in an poetry anthology that my children brought home from school; and around the same time, a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Family Prayer" was given to me by a neighbor in Philadelphia who told me that her mother read this poem every year before Thanksgiving dinner. Both are similar in tone and purpose to each other, and to Yeats' "Prayer for My Daughter":

Yeats prays for happiness, though "every bellows burst"
Untermeyer - for warmth, "though all the world grow chill"
Stevenson - for loyalty "down to the gates of death"

Yeats invokes "custom" and "ceremony" in the face of howling winds
Untermeyer - faith "to withstand the battering storm"
Stevenson - constancy in "all changes of fortune."

Yeats seeks a refuge from "arrogance and hatred"
Untermeyer - from "the raucous shout" of hate
Stevenson - from peril, tribulation, wrath

Yeats desires reprieve from the scowling face
Untermeyer - from "ill-fortunes," roar and rain
Stevenson - from "the lurking grudge"

Yeats hopes for the triumph of "innocence and beauty"
Untermeyer - for a "shrine" of peace and laughter
Stevenson - for "courage and gaiety and the quiet mind."

May their prayers be answered.

We Give Thanks

Prayer For This House
May nothing evil cross this door.
And may ill-fortunes never pry
about these windows; may the roar
and rains go by.

Strengthened by faith, the rafters will
withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill
will keep you warm.

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching your lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms
into a shrine.

Laughter shall drown the raucous shout
and, though the sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong enough to keep hate out
and hold love in.


Louis Untermeyer, 1885 - 1977
American poet, critic, anthologist
14th United States Poet Laureate, 1961 - 63

Prayers at Breakfast

A Family Prayer
Lord, behold our family here assembled.
We thank you for this place in which we dwell,
for the love that unites us,
for the peace accorded to us this day,
for the hope with which we expect the morrow;
for the health, the work, the food and the bright skies
that make our lives delightful;
for our friends in all parts of the earth.

Let peace abound in our small company.
Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge.
Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere.
Give us the grace to accept and to forgive offenders.
Forgetful ourselves, help us to bear cheerfully
the forgetfulness of others.

Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind.
Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies.
Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors.

If it may not, give us the strength to encounter
that which is to come,
that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation,
temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune,
and, down to the gates of death,
loyal and loving one to another.


Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 - 1894
Scottish poet and novelist

Now you can store these poems somewhere safe, then take them out to share around the table next Thanksgiving!

Autumn Leaves

All paintings above by
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1863 - 1935
American illustrator of magazines and children's books

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT: www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST: www.kittislist.blogspot.com
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Shadowy Feather of an Owl

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
SHADOWY, FEATHERY, CONSTANT:
My Beautiful House Ghost Constance Chauncey


***************

HEXIT
This and all owls below by
American Artist Charley Harper

A list of my "Old Favorites From Way Back" (posted last month on Kitti's List) includes I Heard the Owl Call My Name (by Canadian writer Margaret Craven, 1901 - 1980). This is the story of a terminally ill young vicar, Mark Brian, who spends the last year of his life serving the residents of a remote North American Indian village and becoming familiar with their legend of the revered owl who heralds death: "It was death, reaching out his hand, touching the face gently, even before the owl had called the name" (147). As knowledge of his illness dawns upon him, Mark "heard an owl call--once, and again--and the questions that had been rising all day long reached the door of his mind and opened it." He confides in one of the village elders, "Marta, a strange thing happened tonight. On the banks of the river I heard the owl call my name" (155).

OMNISCIENT OWL

A similar owl, a welcome messenger of release and closure, appears in the following mystical poem by John Haines. The owl in this poem preys upon mice but is friend and silent companion to the narrator. The eerie, prophetic tone is similar to that of "Listening in October" (mentioned recently):

If the Owl Calls Again
at dusk
from the island in the river,
and it's not too cold,

I'll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we'll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts
toward Asia
and the river mutters
in its icy bed.

And when the morning climbs
the limbs
we'll part without a sound,

fulfilled, floating
homeward as
the cold world awakens.


poem by John Haines (b. 1924)
American poet and professor
Poet Laureate of Alaska, 1969 - 1973

"If the Owl Calls Again" and "Listening in October" can both be found in The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems

BETTER MOUSETRAP

In the following poem by Tennessee Williams, the owl appears as an omen of death, leading, at last, not to misfortune but to destiny. The owl is "shadowy" but not sinister. Nearing the end of his struggle with cancer, the narrator anticipates the owl's arrival. I am including this long poem in its entirety, because I'm not sure where else you might find a copy of it. Google yielded no results when I searched for it, so I took a few minutes to type it line by line:

The Summer Belvedere

I
Such icy wounds the city people bear
beneath brown coats enveloping withered members!

I don't want to know of mutilations

nor witness the long-drawn evening debarkation
of warm and liquid cargoes in torn wrappings
the ships of mercy carry back from war.

We live on cliffs above such moaning waters!
Our eyeballs are starred by the vision of burning cities,
our eardrums shattered by cannon.
A blast of the dying,
a thunder of people who cannot catch their breath
is caught in the mortar and molded into the walls.

And I, obsessed with a dread of things corroded,
of rasping faucets, of channels that labor to flow
have no desire to know of morbid tissues,
of cells that begin prodigiously to flower.

There is an hour in which disease will be known
as more than occasion for some dim relative's sorrow.
But still the watcher within my soundless country
assures the pendulum duties of the heart
and asks no reason but keeps a faithful watch

as I keep mine from the height of the belvedere!
And though no eyrie is sacred to wind entirely,

a wall of twigs can build a kind of summer.

II
I asked my kindest friend to guard my sleep.

I said to him, Give me the motionless thicket of summer,
the velvety cul-de-sac, and quiet the drummer.

I said to him, Brush my forehead with a feather,
not with an eagle's feather, nor with a sparrow's,
but with the shadowy feather of an owl.

I said to him, Come to me dressed in a cloak and a cowl,
and bearing a candle whose flame is very still.

Our belvedere looks over a bramble hill.

I said to him, Give me the cool white kernel of summer,
the windless terminal of it, and calm the drummer!

I said to him, Tell the drummer
the rebels have crossed the river and no one is here
but John with the broken drumstick and half-wit Peg
who shot spitballs at the moon from the belvedere.

Tell the feverish drummer no man is here.
But what if he doesn't believe me?
Give him proof!
For there is no lie that contains no part of truth.

And then, with the sort of courage that comes with fever,
the body becoming sticks that blossom with flame,
the flame for a while obscuring what it consumes,
I twisted and craned to peer in the loftier room--

I saw the visitor there, and him I knew
as my waiting ghost.

The belvedere was blue.

III
I said to my kindest friend, The time has come
to hold what is agitated and make it still.

I said to him, Fold your hands upon the drum.

Permit no kind of sudden or sharp disturbance
but move about you constantly, keeping the guard
with fingers whose touch is narcotic, brushing the walls
to quiet the shuddering in them,
drawing your sleeves across the hostile mirrors
and cupping your palms to breathe upon the glass.

After a while anxiety will pass.

The time has come, I said, for purification.

Rub out the lewd inscriptions on the walls,
remove the prisoners' names and maledictions,
for lack of faith has left impurities here,

and whisper faith to the summer belvedere.

Draw back the kites of hysteria from the sky,
those struggling fish draw back from their breathless pool,
and whisper assurances cool
to the watchful corners, and whisper sleep and sleep
along the treads of the stairs, and up the stairwell,

clear to the belvedere, yes, clear up there, where giggling John
stood up in his onionskin of adolescence
to shoot spitballs at the moon from the captain's walk.

And then, at the last, he said, What shall I do?
The sweetest of treasons, I told him. Lean toward my listening ear
and whisper the long word to me,
the longest of all words to me,
the word that divides the sky from the belvedere.

[emphasis added above]

by Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983)
American Playwright
Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Twice awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award

BARK EYES: GREAT HORNED OWL
Click to see more Charley Harper

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, November 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sweet Basil Evermore

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1846
by English Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt (1827 - 1910)

Stanzas #32 and #53
from Isabella, or the Pot of Basil
by John Keats, English Romantic Poet (1795 - 1821)

In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
The breath of Winter comes from far away,
And the sick west continually bereaves
Of some gold tinge, and plays a roundelay
Of death among the bushes and the leaves,
To make all bare before he dares to stray
From his north cavern. So sweet Isabel
By gradual decay from beauty fell,
Because Lorenzo came not. . . .

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.


Lorenzo and Isabella, 1849
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1879
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Melhuish Strudwick (1849 - 1937)

Poor Isabella, left with nothing but a pot of fragrant, flourishing basil to show for her devotion to honest Lorenzo. Wrapped in a fine cloth and buried deep within the skull - embellished urn is the severed head of Isabella's murdered lover. Not only do her heartless, jealous brothers kill Lorenzo, but they further deprive their distraught sister of the pot of basil, her only remaining connection to the love of her life, her sole tenuous link to sanity.

In Millais's portrayal of happier times (except for the presence of that grim waiter who appears to be in cahoots with the conniving brothers), the pot of basil can be seen behind the lovers, blooming on the garden wall. In Strudwick's more somber portrayal, you can see the ornate, but empty plant stand to Isabella's left and the evil brothers outside the window, sneaking off with the morbidly treasured pot of basil.

In this poem, Keats veers away from his lush autumnal imagery of "mellow fruitfulness," focusing instead on the death and decay of the season's end. The breath of winter is sickly and bereaved, rendering the landscape as hopeless as Lorenzo's head, as barren as Isabella's heart. A sad story. A beautiful plant (Ocimum basilicum).

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us - O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads . . .
And make a pale light . . .

Sound mournfully upon the winds and low;
For simple Isabel is soon to be
Among the dead
from Stanzas #55 and #56

**************

The esteemed essayist E. B. White (1899 - 1985) writes admiringly of his aging wife sitting in the autumnal garden:

" . . . hour after hour in the wind and weather . . . the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."

from E. B. White's Introduction (xix)
to Onward and Upward in the Garden
by Katharine S. White (1892 - 1977)
long-time fiction editor for the The New Yorker magazine

Plotting the resurrection.

Or to put it another way:

" A garden is evidence of faith.
It links us with all the misty figures of the past who also
planted and were nourished by the fruits of their planting."


~~Gladys Taber~~
American naturalist and columnist (1899 - 1980)
Author of the Stillmeadow Journals

For us as well, the chilly autumn breezes have begun to blow. The basil needs bringing in. Always one of our more successful crops, half will be hung to dry, the other half processed into pesto for freezing. It's thinning now, after several summer cuttings; but here's how it looked back in mid-July:

"Nothing can replace the shock of pleasure given by a small mountain of fresh basil in the summer kitchen."

~~Eleanor Perenyi~~
American gardener and writer (1918 - 2009)
Author of Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden


SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT: "Isabella & the Pot of Basil"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Capturing the Ginkgo Light

" . . . GOLDEN AND GREEN
LEAVES LITTER THE LAWN TODAY THAT YESTERDAY
HAD SPREAD ALOFT THEIR FLUTTERING FANS OF LIGHT."
~~ HOWARD NEMEROV ~~

Golden paintings, here and above, by Leonard Orr

Artist Leonard Orr says:
"None of my paintings are titled;
most can also be hung in any orientation
(there is no top or bottom, left or right;
I paint turning the painting again and again,
holding it up in the air and tilting the canvases
to let the wet paint flow in different directions;
I have ruined many clothes!)."

Looking at these paintings, I sense the ethereal light of the delicately ribbed, fan-like ginkgo leaf, that changes so suddenly from green to gold. Not only are the colors perfectly autumnal (as in "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"), but the background textures, so much like a palimpsest, remind me of ancient Chinese calligraphy, fitting right in with the Oriental heritage and folklore of the ginkgo tree. Did the trees thrive naturally or were they planted and preserved for many centuries by Chinese monks who later introduced them to Japan?

I have long been an admirer of the Ginkgo biloba [i.e., bi-lobed], this unique species of tree with no living relatives and leaves like no other. Way back in the Spring of 1972, I pasted ginkgo leaves (found on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, Missouri) into the pages of my 9th grade leaf collection.

a page from my scrapbook
38 - year - old ginkgo leaf

page from Goethe's scrapbook
195 - year - old ginkgo leaf

The great Goethe also admired the ginkgo, and preserved yet today in the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf are the above leaves that he himself dried and attached to his love poem "Ginkgo biloba" in 1815. Of the unusual bi - lobed leaves, Goethe has written:

This leaf from a tree in the East . . .

Does it represent One living creature
Which has divided itself?
Or are these Two, which have decided,
That they should be as One?


Wolfgang Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)
Prolific German writer, poet, scientist, botanist, and philosopher

When living in Philadelphia, many years after my leaf collection, I encountered ginkgos at every turn: there were the stately, historical ginkgos on the grounds of Bartram's Garden, Woodlands Cemetery, and University City New School; the middle-aged ginkgos lining Lancaster Avenue; and the younger generation, visible from every window on the south side of our house.

Two Proud Ginkgos on Beaumont Avenue, Philadelphia

Not long ago I mentioned an old childhood classic, The Witch Family on my book blog. This little novel ~~ also an October favorite for Halloween ~~ contains the following descriptive ginkgo passage, which I can appreciate even more, now that I have lived in a tall brick city house, just like Amy's:

"Amy's house was a high red brick one. In front of it there was a tall and graceful ginkgo tree whose roots made the worn red bricks of the sidewalk bulge and whose branches fanned the sky. The ginkgo tree has little leaves shaped like fans that Amy and Clarissa liked to press and give to their dolls. The fruit of this tree is orange, but it is not good for eating. It has an odd fragrance that grownups do not like but that children do not mind, for it makes them think of fall and Halloween" (14, The Witch Family, Eleanor Estes).

Poet Eve Merriam also pays tribute to the urban ginkgo, in "Willow and Ginkgo," her poem of comparison and contrast:

"The ginkgo forces its way through gray concrete;
Like a city child, it grows up in the street.
Thrust against the metal sky,
Somehow it survives and even thrives.
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo."


by Eve Merriam (1916 - 1992)
American Poet
Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, 1946

City Children
(Ben at the wheel / Sam, back seat driver)

Fallen Ginkgo Fruit [seeds, actually]
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

As little Amy observes, the large fleshy seed is indeed malodorous and not well-liked, certainly not something that you want to inadvertently squash and carry into the house on the bottom of your shoe! However, if you can live and let live, the plump, pungent little nuisance has its own peculiar charm and is not all that hard to abide. A common Chinese name for the ginkgo tree elevates the fruity seed to an object of beauty, translating poetically into English as Silver Apricot. How lovely!

In his mystical sonnet, "The Consent," American poet Howard Nemerov writes in wonderment of the quickly turning Ginkgos:

. . . on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.


by Howard Nemerov (1920 - 1991)
American Poet
1978 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Another tribute to the tenacity and longevity of the ginkgo is Arthur Sze's seven - part, evocative poem about existence and endurance, "The Ginkgo Light." Inspired by the half dozen noble ginkgo trees to survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Sze writes:

A 1300-year-old lotus seed germinates; a ginkgo
issues fan-shaped leaves; each hour teems. . . .

love has no near or far

. . . a temple in Hiroshima . . .
disintegrates, while it's ginkgo

buds after the blast. . . .

As light skews across our faces, we are
momentarily blinded, and, directionless,

have every which way to go. . . .

and while we listen to our exhale, inhale,
ephemera become more enduring than concrete.

Ginkgos flare out. . . .

One brisk morning,
we snap to layers of overlapping

fanned leaves scattered on the sidewalk . . .
finger a scar on wrist, scar on abdomen.


by Arthur Sze, Chinese American poet (b. 1950)
from his book The Ginkgo Light


Goethe, Estes, Merriam, Nemerov, Sze -- what do all these writers have in common? Their hearts go out to the ginkgo, the tree of the ages; and so do ours. No wonder paleobotanist Albert Seward once said that the ginkgo "appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasurable past" (British botanist and geologist, 1863 - 1941).

Additional links for more information on this fascinating tree:

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo history


FYI: The standard spelling appears to be GINKGO (with the "k" before the final "g"); but most dictionaries allow -- in fact practically encourage! -- use of the alternative GINGKO (with the second "g" before the "k"). You pick! See dictionary.com

Archived posts for further reading:
29 November 2009: Ginkgo Biloba
3 December 2009: Willow and Ginkgo

And there's always
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Next Fortnightly Post Topic:
Basil:Ocimum basilicum
Coming Thursday, October 28, 2010
See you then!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Scars: Without a Hurt
the Heart is Hollow

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
One of our Black Walnut Trees,
Scarred by Lightning a Few Summers Ago


**********

"Childhood has no forebodings; but then,
it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow
."

quotation from The Mill on the Floss, by English novelist
George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, 1819 - 1880)

[click to enlarge collage from my clip-art phase, 1977]

Not long ago, some of my friends and family were having an ongoing facebook chat about the price of experience and the merit of scars -- what important lessons we might learn from them, what value they add to our lives. A couple of thought-provoking quotations appeared in the conversation chain:

First this, by the late writer and priest, Henri Nouwen (1932 - 96): "When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”

And also this: "Viewed one way, scars are an ugly reminder of what has happened in our past. But, seen through different eyes, scars are our reassurance that healing has occurred" (attributed merely to Unknown).

What I had to contribute was the observation that scars serve also as a reminder of what we have loved. For example, there is the scar across my leg, caused by my little cat Marcus (RIP) one 4th of July when, frightened by some fireworks, he suddenly leapt out my lap, leaving behind a deep scratch (he didn't mean to). On the same leg, I have another long thin scar from the time when I scraped my knee against some rusty wire while helping my dear grandfather burn the trash (remember those days?). One glance at that scar, and I am immediately transported back to that very afternoon, playing around outside by the incinerator in the garden, not even caring that I was hurt. I can remember having so much fun, feeling so loved, secure, and happy to be there; and no doubt thinking myself very important because I was being allowed to play with fire!

In the novel Up From Jericho Tel (by E. L. Konigsburg; mentioned on this blog a few months ago in the post "Butterfly Collection" and also on my book blog), the narrator Jeanmarie describes making up with her best friend Malcolm after an argument. She is surprised to find that she feels closer to Malcolm than ever before and wonders why: "Maybe it was just that we had quarreled and made up, and scar tissue is tough" (144).

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), in one of her saddest sonnets (#IX in The Harp Weaver) captures the anguish of an unhealed heartache -- soothed not by the memory of outlived sorrow, toughened not by durable scar tissue, transformed not from despair to hope:

Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
Being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
But of a love turned ashes and the breath
Gone out of beauty; never again will grow
The grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
Young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
Its friendly weathers down, far underneath
Shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.


Brian Andreas captures a similar sentiment of rawness in one of his StoryPeople stories:

Chill Wind
Wrapped tightly against a chill wind she
just remembered from a long time ago &
no amount of current time & temperature
can help this one.


as well as:

sharp things that hurt for years afterwards
every time you think of them.


However, time does mellow most scars and most wounds do heal, leaving behind those physical and mental reminders of what we have loved and lost. No one explains it better than El Gallo, the suave, debonair bandit from The Fantasticks, who observes that "we all must die a bit / Before we grow again." Despite his worldly cynicism, he understands the human heart: "I hurt them for that reason / And myself a little bit too."

In the perfect song for this time of year, El Gallo sings, "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow."

Try To Remember
[Click song title for music]

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember
And follow.
Follow, follow, follow, follow.


Lyrics by Tom Jones (b. 1928)
Music by Harvey Schmidt (b. 1929)
Sung by Jerry Orbach (1935 - 2005; the original El Gallo, from 1959 - 61, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse)

The Fires of September
Drawing by Eloise Wilkin



















SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, October 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Scarred But Standing"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

9 / 11 Retrospective:
Not A Normal Day

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Small American Flag Made out of Legos
Ben and Sam's Original Idea for a
9 / 11 Tribute in September 2001

See the Little Flag in the Window? ~ November 2001

Back in 2003, on the second anniversary of 9 / 11, French high wire artist, Philippe Petit (b. 1949), wrote a sad and beautiful tribute, "My Towers, Our Towers," in which he tells the story of his daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, on the morning of August 7, 1974, when high above the ground he crossed eight (8!) times between the two towers.

Petit had been in love with these towers even before they were built, awaiting the moment when he could trespass on their air space, and now he had witnessed their collapse: "Where had they gone? Who besides me knew that, despite 200,000 tons of steel, glass, concrete, and aluminum, the towers were made mostly of air . . . air to air . . . ashes to ashes?" (Wall Street Journal, Thursday, September 11, 2003).

Along with his memories of the earlier days of the towers, Petit includes the sad story of the sudden death of his 9 1/2 - year - old daughter, Gypsy, in 1982. In his grief, he was advised by a priest: "Speak of her in the present tense." This advice stayed with him, and he applies it now to the tragedy of the World Trade Center:

"I close my eyes, I remember, I pay my respect to the victims and their families. That dreadful morning, my towers became your towers, our towers.

". . . gone, yet still standing tall, made of thin air, yet gloriously defying the sunset on this warm late summer evening.

Look at them!"
Look at them!

For connections and coincidences, following Petit's eloquent observations, I have decided to simply re-post the essay that I wrote last year on my daily blog for September 11. I am guessing that some did not see it a year ago, and that others won't mind reading it again. The fact is, these very same recollections will always be my story of that shattering day:

NOT A NORMAL DAY







A moment of silence and retrospection on this saddest of anniversaries. As with the assassination of JFK, we all remember where we were. I was in my kitchen, working on some scrapbooks for my children. The new school year had just started, and I was sorting through the previous year's memorabilia. Such a simple pleasure, so mundane. But many days are like that.

Just a few days before, on Sunday the 9th, my husband Gerry had flown to California for a meeting. Monday night, he had taken the redeye home, arriving back in Philadelphia very early Tuesday morning and, naturally, going in to work a couple hours later, after walking our sons across the street to school. He hadn't been on campus very long before calling to ask me if I needed to drive anywhere that day.

"Only to the boys' piano lessons after school."

"Why don't you call and cancel, okay?"

"Okay?"

"Some strange things are happening in New York and Washington."

"You mean the stock market?" Not that finance is my specialty, but that's what came to mind: desperate History Channel images of the Great Crash.

"No," he said. "Some planes have crashed in both cities."

"Are we at war?"

"I don't know. Just don't turn on the TV."

So I called our piano teacher (remember from the other day, scales & Bach). She was fine with the cancellations, as she herself was worried sick, having just heard from her sister who worked in Washington, DC, in a building that was currently locked down with everyone inside until further notice.

Then I called my sister, who also worked in DC. No answer anywhere, but as the day went on, I learned that rather than being locked into her building for the day, she and her husband had been turned away from their parking garage upon arrival that morning and instructed to return home. They spent the long hours in traffic on I-70, very frustrated but safe.

Then I turned on the TV. Then I turned it off again and thought of what to do next. Get milk.

2nd Street, Philadelphia

I opened the front door into the irony of one of the most beautiful days on earth: high of 72, low of 72, not a cloud in the sky. Wondering how it could be true, I walked the few blocks to the nearest 7-Eleven (on 2nd Street). Actually, in Philadelphia, it's not called the 7-Eleven; it's the Wawa, which sounds kind of silly until you notice the flying goose on the store logo and realize that "wawa" is an onomatopoeic Leni - Lenape word for "goose" or "wild goose" or "Land of the Big Goose."

Standing in the dairy aisle, I reached for a gallon of milk, then deliberated about taking a second, though I knew we didn't need it. I reasoned with myself: as an act of faith, lets take only one today. Lets have faith that the store will be here tomorrow, that the milk will be here tomorrow, that there will be enough.

Resolved, I headed home, cutting across the school playground on the way. Everything was very close together -- the house, the Wawa, the church, the school. That was a happy urban time when we were able to live a mostly pedestrian life, sometimes using the car so infrequently that we forgot where we had parked it last.

The teacher out watching the students on their after-lunch recess hailed me to ask if I wanted to take my kids home early. I could see the younger one there playing with his friends, still innocent but wary. They must have sensed that something was up. Hanging on to my moment of faith in the Wawa, I answered the teacher, "No, not yet. Just let them have a normal afternoon."

When Gerry and I went over a couple of hours later to pick them up at the regular time, the older one was ecstatic, exclaiming, "All I could think was, 'When's Daddy getting back?' And then I remembered, you were already home."

Our Fine Front Door on 3rd Street, Philadelphia

***************

Thanks to my friend Jan Donley for suggesting a poetry connection that perfectly captures the mixture of shamefulness and gratefulness one feels for being granted an ordinary day, while at the very same moment others are in despair. How amazing and humbling to feel so secure despite the uncertainty:

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.


X. J. Kennedy (b. 1929)
American poet, translator, editor; and
creator of textbooks for teaching Literature and Poetry

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Talk to Me

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUSGERRY'S HOBBY: GARDENING

No doubt in the last year or so, you've been subjected to way too many get - to - know you quizzes on e-mail and facebook.* They can be silly, but also mildly entertaining. Talking and listening to them, is probably a better way to get to know folks, but occasionally the quizzes are informative, especially if you care to learn various odd facts about your friends and acquaintances . . . such as:

What was your childhood ambition?
To sing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

Do you like your handwriting?
When I can read it.

What is your favorite Crayola Crayon?
Burnt Sienna.

Would you bungee jump?
Are you kidding?

What is your favorite sport?
Is reading a sport?

Chocolate or vanilla?
Duh! Chocolate.

Red or pink?
Red.

Summer or winter?
Summer for swimming; Autumn (THE BEST!)for Halloween;
Winter for Christmas; Spring just for a change.

That kind of thing . . .

I particularly appreciated the rather more innovative quiz that turned Hobbies into a two part question: Stated Hobby (Writing cards & letters) and Secret Hobby (Rewriting history). I also really liked one of the items that my cousin Alicia included in her list of hobbies: "Thinking."

I've always claimed to be the kind of person who doesn't mind standing in line or waiting at the airport -- AS LONG AS I HAVE A BOOK TO READ. Without a book, I would go crazy crazy crazy and start scrambling around desperately for any available reading material: an old map in the glove box, an orthodontia brochure, the nutritional information on a candy wrapper. However, after seeing my cousin's answer, I became a different person. Of course, the best plan is to never leave home without at least two books. I recommend "two," because what if you finish the first one and need another? But if for some reason, I end up stuck somewhere without one, I just say to myself, "Well, it's too bad you can't read right now, but -- look on the bright side -- you can think." Lucky me, getting to spend some time unexpectedly on one of my favorite hobbies!

My friend Milly also gave a perspective - changing answer to the hobby question. She claimed "Talking" as one of her hobbies. Naturally, talking has always been one of my favorite (time - wasting?) activities. After reading Milly's quiz, however, I perceived it anew -- as a hobby! Not time down the drain but a creative endeavor, an artistic pursuit, a cultivated skill. Personally fulfilling, but also leading to knowledge and experience, leisurely but also life - enhancing.

The poets agree:

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French author and aviator, b. 1900 - lost in flight 1944) gives us the mystical Little Prince who wants a friend and learns to listen. He comes to see that it's the time he has spent listening to his rose, even when she is sullen, that makes her so important in his life (The Little Prince 24).

Walt Whitman (great American humanist, transcendentalist, and free verse poet, 1819 - 92) confides, "This hour I tell things in confidence, / I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you ("Song of Myself," 38).

Anne Morrow Lindbergh (American author and aviator, 1906 - 2001) is intense and single-minded: " . . . it is not possible to talk wholeheartedly to more than one person at a time. You can't really talk with a person unless you surrender to them, for the moment (all other talk is futile). You can't surrender to more than one person a moment" (Bring Me a Unicorn, 147).

Dame Rebecca West (prolific British writer, 1892 - 1983) describes a similar certain truth: "There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking and listening to them for hours at a time."

Robert Frost (four-time Pulitzer Prize winning well - loved American poet, 1874 - 1963) has an earnest narrator explain his decision in this wise poem, one of my long - time favorites:

A Time to Talk
by Robert Frost

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.


In connection to the above bits of poetry and prose, the following insistent contemporary lyrics keep echoing through my head:

Here Comes the Rain Again
by Eurythmics: Annie Lennox and David Stewart

Here comes the rain again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion
I want to walk in the open wind
I want to talk like lovers do
I want to dive into your ocean
Is it raining with you

So baby talk to me
Like lovers do
Walk with me
Like lovers do
Talk to me
Like lovers do

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy . . .

So baby talk -- talk talk talk talk -- to me . . .


I know this song is entitled "Here Comes the Rain Again," but what's the most important line? Talk to me!

Here I am in 1973, talking and listening to my friend Joni
. . . for hours at a time!


*If you're not all quizzed out already, here are a few more:

Possible ~ Plausible ~ Improbable

"Christmas Quiz"

"You're Out Walking"

"Take This Quiz!"

"Monday: Pop Quiz"

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Opal: In Love With The World

INDIANA WIND FARM: ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
"The sky sings in blue tones . . .
The clouds go slow across the sky.
No one seems to be in a hurry.
Even the wind walks slow.
I think the wind is dreaming too.
This is a dream day."


~ Opal Whiteley ~

******************

"The sky sings in blue . . . The earth sings in greens"

Morning is glad on the hills.
The sky sings in blue tones.
Little blue fleurs
are early blooming now.
I do so like blue.
It is glad everywhere.
When I grow up
I am going to write a book
about the glad of blues.
The earth sings in greens. . . .

The clouds go slow across the sky.
No one seems to be in a hurry.
Even the wind walks slow.
I think the wind is dreaming too.
This is a dream day.


~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary (92, 151)


















I came to know of the enchanting, mysterious Opal Whiteley (1897 - 1992) a year or so ago when, thanks to the miracle of google, I began following the career of my talented second cousin, Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote the script, music, and lyrics for a play (click to watch) based on the childhood experiences of this remarkable woman. Upon learning of Rob's successful musical, I ordered copies of the book and soundtrack and have taken great delight in reading, listening, and learning more about the heroine, American naturalist Opal Whitely. I look forward to the day when I get to see a performance of the play, Opal: A New Musical Adventure (winner of the Richard Rodgers Award). In the meantime, based on my reading, I feel sure that if you ever liked Our Town or The Fantasticks or A Midsummer Night's Dream, then you will be entranced, even gladdened by this play.

Angel Mother did say,
"Make earth glad, little one--
that is the way to keep
the glad song ever in your heart.
It must not go out."


~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary (85)

Opal spent her youth immersed in the natural world, much like her nature-loving predecessors, Edith Holden (1871 - 1920; Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady) and Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943). Her intense communion with the natural landscape, from sweeping vistas to the tiniest insect, brings to mind the writings of Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Annie Dillard. Opal's musings and journal entries describe the out of doors with such vividness, so much trust and so little fear that you feel you could follow her down any woodland path, as in fact many children did during her days as a teacher of geology and natural history.















One of her earliest projects was to create a hand-illustrated textbook, The Fairyland Around Us, based on her popular nature talks; but it was her childhood diary, published in 1920 as The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart, that led to her fame. Both the authenticity of the diary and the circumstances surrounding Whiteley's birth were disputed during her lifetime, and continue to be so even today. Robert Nassif was Opal's friend and confidant in the last few years of her life, and he finds no difficulty in believing that she was an orphan of noble birth and that she did indeed write the diary as a child.

I appreciate his observation that it's best to take the diary at face value -- as the beautiful, perplexing story of an inquisitive little girl's fascination with language; her creative understanding of our connection to Mother Nature; and her amazing grasp of an astonishing array of flora and fauna. Nassif says, "I have no investment in whether or not the diary is true. [It] has no bearing whatsoever on the value of my play. I do not deal with [the issue] in the play; in fact, The New York Times gave me some credit for wisely avoiding that issue. I deal with the diary . . . on a personal level. . . . If the diary were to turn out to be a hoax, I would only admire the author all the more. What an astonishing accomplishment! . . . It doesn't matter to me. It's a phenomenal work of literature. I love Francoise, and so of course I care that she cares, but I am sophisticated enough to be objective, and it doesn't matter to me if her story is true or false. It was true for her, that's all that matters" (254, 260; all ellipses and brackets in original, as quoted in Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Kathrine Beck).

A few more connections and coincidences:

SIXPENCE HOUSE:
My friend Cate and I have a favorite book by Paul Collins: Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. The town of the title is Hay-on-Wye, and the two of us often fantasize about the trip we will take there someday. So imagine how excited I was to tell Cate about the fate of Opal's vast book collection (I know -- you've already guessed it!): "The rest of the collection was sold in a lot to legendary bookseller Richard Booth, and it ended up in the bookish village of Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border" (242, Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Beck).

BRIT-SPEAK, AMERI-SPEAK: Like me, Robert's sister is married to a Brit, and I had a lot of fun reading her husband's humorous book about life in the Midwest as seen through British eyes. A Brit Among the Hawkeyes, by Richard, Lord Acton, includes an essay "To Live Again in Music: The Riddle of Opal Whiteley," in which he describes his attendance at two poignant events in February 1992: Opal's funeral mass in London; and the New York premiere of Robert's play Opal: A New Musical Adventure."

LAWN CHAIR MAN: The Flight of the Lawnchair Man is another Robert Nassif Lindsey musical; and no sooner had I purchased and listened to the soundtrack than my mother-in-law mailed me a stack of Telegraph clippings from England. She knows that I'm a fan of Chain of Curiosity * expert Sandi Toksvig, and in this particular batch of "Sandies," as we call them, there just happened to be one about the eccentric (and not really well) Larry Walters, also known as Lawnchair Larry or the Lawn Chair Pilot, who was determined to launch himself skyward in a garden chair attached to a few dozen helium balloons. Nassif's fictional plot is inspired by the attempts of several balloon pilots, including the bizarre flying adventures of Lawnchair Larry.

(* Sandi's chains of curiosity are similar to what I mean on this blog by "Connection and Coincidence"!)

ANIMALS ARE PEOPLE TOO: Like St. Francis of Assisi and Beatrix Potter, Opal Whiteley was devoted to animals. All of her pets were grandly named: Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the cow; Peter Paul Rubens was the pig. Opal wrote in her diary:

So many little people live in the woods.
I do have conversations with them.

When the cornflowers
grow in the fields
I do pick them up,
and make a chain of flowers
for Shakespeare's neck.
Then I do talk to him
about the one he was named for.
He is such a beautiful grey horse
and his ways are ways of gentleness.
Too, he does have likings
like the likings I have
for the blue hills beyond the fields.

Today there was greyness everywhere--
grey clouds in the sky
and grey shadows
above the canyon.
And all the voices were grey
And Felix Mendelssohn* was grey
and down the road I did meet a grey horse--
and his greyness was like the greyness
of William Shakespeare.

[*Mendelssohn was her pet mouse;
another mouse was named Mozart]

Euripedes [pet lamb]
did follow after me.
He does follow me manywheres I do go.
I looked for fleurs that I had longs to see.
I lay my ear close to the ground
where the grasses grew close together.
I did listen.
There were voices from out the earth
and the things of their saying
were the gladness of growing. . . .
All the grasses growing there . . .
from the tips of their green arms
to their toe roots in the ground.


~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary
(4, 20, 59, 116)

CHICKENSHED: Opal liked to be called "Francoise" and referred to as "Princess." I can't help thinking of her whenever I listen to the inspiring, all-embracing song by the British theatre company Chickenshed that appears on the "Diana Princes of Wales Tribute" CD. It seems an equally fitting tribute to the Princess Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orleans. As I have learned from Robert Nassif's dedication to preserving and presenting the story of Opal's life, Opal was in love with the world, even when the world was not entirely on her side. Thank you Opal! Thank you Rob!

I AM IN LOVE WITH THE WORLD
I am in love with the world
With its fires and its seas and its pain
I am in love with the world
As it spins round my soul again

CHORUS
I fell in love with the world
When it gave me a place to be
You cannot fall out of love
With your world shining through
Let your world fall in love with you

You think you're lost to the world
With your life lived in shadows of fear
Days lost without you too long
No-one close no-one kind no-one near

You try to hide when your world dies inside
Never fade away
Dreams turn to stars so you don't
Lose the end of your day
Let your world fall in love with you
With you

I felt your feelings before
And the world tried to pull me through
Through all its time and its space
It is speaking to you

Words and Music by Collins / Morrall


Young Opal Whiteley: In Love With The World!

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, August 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading,
including all the titles by and about
Opal Whiteley mentioned in this post
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Little Door

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Carriage House in University City, West Philadelphia

Here is the Little Door
Lift up the latch; O lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift . . . "
~ Chesterton

"Strive to enter through
the narrow door:
for many, I tell you,
will try to enter
and will not be able."
~ Luke 13: 22

[L: The Cutest Playhouse
in all of Philadelphia!]



There are numerous symbolic doors in literature: opening, closing, revolving, inviting, forbidding, remaining locked forever. As I read on a poster once, "There are as many doors as there are desires." Here are four of the most meaningful doors that I have come across in my reading:

1. In Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird,
a door representing one's own humanity:


"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in the rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words -- not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

"You can't do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can't find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. . . .

"'Why, though?' my students ask, staring at me intently. 'Why are we supposed to open all these doors? Why are we supposed to tell the truth in our own voice?'

. . . And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home"
(198 - 200).

2. In Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet "Bluebeard,"
a door representing privacy:


This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed…. Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see…. Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.


Lamott's words give me courage when my self - editor starts taking over. Her metaphor reminds the writer that keeping a lock on the door does not guarantee safety. Any more than opening it wide insures disaster. In fact, opening up may well put you in less danger, not more. So go ahead and grant yourself the freedom of self - acceptance. However, as Millay warns, just don't go bashing down doors that aren't yours to open. That's not the path to authenticity or humanity.

3. In Franz Kafka's parable, "Before the Law,"
a door representing the Law:


"Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. . . . the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but . . . he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for waiting for days and years."

Nearing the end of his life, the man asks the gatekeeper, "so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” And the gatekeeper answers: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.” Can it be true? Following the parable, a discussion of its meaning takes place between K and a priest. The priest points out that perhaps the Door Before the Law can never be shut, and he reminds K that when the man "sits down on the stool by the side the door and stays there for the rest of his life, he does it of his own free will."

Of course my sympathy always lies with the Man Before the Law, never with the bossy, small-minded gatekeeper. Yet I can't shake my mixed feelings about the man's predicament. Yes, the Law can be contrary; we all know that. But how can he allow himself to sit so quietly, never growing impatient at the waiting, the impotence, the lack of useful information? Why doesn't his reach exceed his grasp? It should.

4. In E. B. White's essay, "The Door,"
a door representing (in)sanity:


"First they would teach you the prayers and the Psalms, and that would be the right door(the one with the circle) and the long sweet words with the holy sound, and that would be the one to jump at to get where the food was. Then one day you jumped and it didn't give way, so that all you got was the bump on the nose, and the first bewilderment, the first young bewilderment. . . .

"You wouldn't want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, 'My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name'? (It had the circle on it.) And like many poets, although few so beloved, he is gone. It killed him, the jumping. First, of course, there were the preliminary bouts, the convulsions, and the calm and the willingness.

"I remember the door with the picture of the girl on it (only it was spring), her arms outstretched in loveliness, her dress (it was the one with the circle on it) uncaught, beginning the slow, clear, blinding cascade-and I guess we would all like to try that door again, for it seemed like the way and for a while it was the way, the door would open and you would go through winged and exalted (like any rat) and the food would be there, the way the Professor had it arranged, everything O.K., and you had chosen the right door for the world was young. The time they changed that door on me, my nose bled for a hundred hours--how do you like that, Madam? Or would you prefer to show me further through this so strange house, or you could take my name and send it to me, for although my heart has followed all my days something I cannot name, I am tired of the jumping and I do not know which way to go, Madam, and I am not even sure that I am not tired beyond the endurance of man (rat, if you will) and have taken leave of sanity. What are you following these days, old friend, after your recovery from the last bump? What is the name, or is it something you cannot name?"


If you have a moment, to read the entire essay, you'll find an eerily broken-hearted description of the disjunction between perception and reality. I have kept it in my folder of favorites for many years, something to reread periodically as I follow my own heart's quest for something I cannot name. As radio / telvision personality Clifton Fadiman summed it up, "E. B. White [better known as the author of Charlotte's Web] never again wrote anything like 'The Door.' Nobody has done so."

To conclude, I'll tag on a couple of German vocabulary words whose connection you will appreciate: the first, weltschmerz, particularly in relation to E. B. White's essay of pain and distortion; the second, torschlusspanik, to Kafka's Man Before the Law whose doomed life illustrates the very concept:

weltschmerz (VELT-shmerts) noun meaning world-pain or world weariness; pessimism, apathy, or sadness felt at the difference between physical reality and the ideal state.

torschlusspanik (TOR - schluss - panic) noun describing the door-shutting panic experienced at the thought that a door between oneself and life's opportunities is closing forever.

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