"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

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Saying The Old Town's Name

from One Morning by Yohji Izawa and Canna Funakoshi

January: rainy one day, snowy the next; sometimes both on the same day. For a delightful depiction of the changeable wintry weather, take a look at this trio of simply beautiful picture books, filled with succinct, sensory, haiku - like text by Canna Funakoshi, and vivid, magical collage - like illustrations by Yohji Izawa:

One Morning (1985)
Winner: First Prize for Graphics
at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair
Selected by New York Times:
Ten Best Children's Books of 1987

One Evening (1988)

One Christmas (1989).

[All three titles from Picture Book Studios]

"Homeward" from One Evening

The books feature a nameless, faceless man and his saucy, loyal little cat. One Day moves gently through an early morning routine, concluding with a charming sequence of the man leaving for work, then returning a few seconds later to pick up his umbrella. In One Evening (later that same day? maybe another day) it has just begun to snow as the man is catching the 5 p.m. trolley home from the office, knowing that his little friend is waiting there to welcome him and help at the typewriter: "Play? Letter."

One Christmas includes among its illustrations two collages in black, white, and gray, representing old memories of Christmas stockings and plum puddings. Later in the book, similar scenes are portrayed, but now in color, in the present day: the same bed post where the stocking was hung, the same table by the dining room window, the same candle stick. My favorite line occurs, when the man is at the railway station purchasing his train ticket and "Saying the old town's name."

Saying the old town's name. The old town. Is there really a hometown for everybody? Somewhere like "that place Just over the Brooklyn Bridge" that Art Garfunkel sings about:

A world of its own,
The streets where we played,
The friends on every corner were the best we ever made.
The backyards, and the school yards
And the trees that watched us grow,
The days of love when dinner time was all you had to know.
Whenever I think of yesterday,
I close my eyes and see,
That place Just Over The Brooklyn Bridge
That will always be home to me.
It'll always be home to me.

--music by Marvin Hamlisch
--lyrics by Marilyn & Alan Bergman

I guess when I close my eyes and think of yesterday, I see the small Missouri town where I lived between the ages of 5 and 10. As a matter of fact, my parents helped us kids plant a tiny little evergreen in the yard there, back in 1965; and when I drove past the house 25 years later, I missed it, crying out in dismay, "Where is the little tree?" Towering high above the house, that's where it was! But I hadn't even thought to glance up; I was searching at eye-level. I suppose if we had continued on in that house, that would have been the tree "that watched us grow."

A few summers ago, my dear obliging family indulged me with a visit to this old town, Neosho, Missouri. I wanted them to see my house and school, the town square and the park, all the places I had been allowed to walk and roam and wander. I loved showing them the house, which, gratefully, was not run down but still in good shape. It looked newly painted and very quaint; and I lingered longingly at the edge of the yard for several minutes, trying to envision every room.

Sadly, the town was more rundown than I had remembered it, the center square, alas, sacrificed to the Walmart Strip on the edge of town. Inevitably, as soon as Walmart appears on the horizon, the entire landscape of the town begins to change. The bulk of my happy memories of growing up in Neosho have to do with being able to walk around all day, wherever I wanted to go.

In her memoir, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard describes the joyful independence of such an upbringing, the sense of pride in navigating successfully and making one's own way:

I walked. My mother had given me the freedom of the streets as soon as I could say our telephone number. I walked and memorized the neighborhood. I made a mental map and located myself upon it. At night in bed I rehearsed the small world's scheme and set challenges: Find the store using backyards only. Imagine a route to my friend's house. I mastered chunks of town . . . Walking was my project before reading. The text I read was the town; the book I made up was a map. . . . What is a house but a bigger skin, and a neighborhood map but the world's skin ever expanding" (42, 44).

A walking childhood hardly seems possible now, not in Neosho. We kids used to walk to the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 Cent Store , but you can never walk to a Walmart! If you've read much Bill Bryson, you'll recall that he writes a lot about this kind of unsatisfying, pedestrian - unfriendly commercial development. It didn't take me long after moving to downtown Philadelphia to realize that, ironically, the best place to find the small town life in America just so happens to be in the middle of a big city. When living there, I could walk and walk to my heart's content. But that's another story, another town.

Coincidentally, not long before our trip to Southwest Missouri, I had encountered a new poem that kept swirling around in my head every time I heard myself "saying the old town's name." Although it is a poem about interiors, it captures precisely how I felt touring around Neosho, looking at the stony exterior of all those old remembered buildings and boarded up, empty storefronts:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

by Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985)

Five years after the bittersweet visit to Neosho, I tried taking the family to another small town, this time in Southeast Kansas, where I had spent many days as a girl, visiting my grandparents.

Running through my mind during this visit were the opening stanzas of a lovely Judy Collins song, introduced to me only shortly before by my friend Eve. Amazing how just the right poem or song can suddenly appear in one's life in so timely a fashion:

Secret Gardens
Words and Music by Judy Collins

My grandmother's house is still there
But it isn't the same
A plain wooden cottage
A patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing
And sighing in the Seattle rain

I drive by with strangers
And wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds
Flying in sunlight
A forest of lilies
An orchard of apricot trees . . .

Great grandfather's farm is still there
But it isn't the same
The barn is torn down
And the fences are gone
The Idaho wind blows
The topsoil away every Spring

I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh . . .

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter . . .

"Just As I Remember" from One Christmas

These nostalgic lyrics from Judy Collins describe exactly how I felt that Thanksgiving, driving down the old brick streets to see the former houses of my mom's parents & my dad's parents. If only my children could have seen what I saw: the old porch swing, the rocking chairs, the flower beds, the lilac bush, the rhubarb cobbler cooling on the window sill, my grandma on the front step waving hello / goodbye . . . but they could see only a couple of incredibly humble, patched - up, tumble - down, little old houses. Even when I tried to describe what was in my mind's eye, all they could say was, "Oh." Nor could I blame them. I would not have seen it either, had it not been for that Secret Garden in my heart!

So sad, so sweet . . . saying the old town's name.

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, February 14th

Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Emmanuel, God With Us

"~ Look for a lovely thing and you will find it ~
~ it is not far ~ it never will be far ~"
~ Sara Teasdale ~


"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
Hebrews 13:2

A couple of months ago, on this blog, I listed a few of the illuminating observations that appear in Emerson's essay, "Experience, including one of my favorites:

There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. . . . I had fancied that the value of life lay in its inscrutable possibilities; in the fact that I never know, in addressing myself to a new individual, what may befall me. I carry the keys of my castle in my hand, ready to throw them at the feet of my lord, whenever and in what disguise so ever he shall appear. I know he is in my neighborhood hidden among vagabonds. . . . Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are (from "Experience" written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1844).

Yes indeed! One of them might be King! Or the Peacemaker. Or an Angel, unawares! As poet Sara Teasdale says, "Look for a lovely thing and you will find it; it is not far -- it never will be far."

Brian Andreas (a messiah for the New Age, if ever there was one*) draws a similar conclusion in his story of the "Purple Madonna":

One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it's not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case. (from StoryPeople)

Madonna with us. Child with us. God with us. Angels with us.

Jeff Smith (1939 - 2004; aka The Frugal Gourmet and onetime chaplain) gives an excellent etymological breakdown of this very concept, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He provides a definition of The Messiah, The Holy One of Israel that encompasses the lord among the vagabonds and the Christ Child on the street corner:

The Holy One = "one who is so far above man and womankind, so distant and beyond our understanding, so heavenly and unapproachable, beyond the beyond, never near us."

Of Israel = "right here in town."

"That is to say, The Most Distant One is here in town with us, always. I love that!" (see The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas, 3)

In our neighborhood. Hidden among vagabonds. On the Boulevard. Here in town. With us.

Emerson, Andreas, and Smith all convey the importance of persistently acknowledging the humanity of others, at all times, just in case. "A golden impossibility" -- that's what Emerson says we are, but also an "inscrutable possibility."

Smith's book, The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas is the best holiday cookbook I know of. More than a collection of recipes, it is also a fascinating narrative of cultural history and seasonal tradition, ingeniously illustrated and creatively organized. Each chapter presents a dish for a different character from the traditional manger scene: angel hair pasta for the angels, green olive soup for the shepherds (I tried this recipe one year -- odd), lamb chops for the tax collector, Persian meatballs for the Magi, right down to milk and honey for the Baby Jesus.

In addition to the tempting recipes (both my latkes and my mincemeat are taken from here), this book beautifully achieves the author's stated mission of bringing "the Manger and the Donkey, the Angels, and the Blessed Mother with Child into your Christmas," thus helping the reader to "better understand this profound and joyous holiday" (xviii, xx).

An ordained minister as well as a chef, Smith recalls an epiphany of sorts that occurred one Christmas during his graduate school years when he and a group of fellow theology students were singing "O Come All Ye Faithful":

I realized it was the first time in my life that I understood the words: 'Word of the Father, Now in Flesh Appearing.' The fact that God had to go to such extremes to explain the meaning of our place together. God declares Himself / Herself to us by becoming a baby in our midst. The greatest sign of weakness, 'living flesh' in its most vulnerable state, a tiny baby, becomes the greatest sign of the strength of the Holy One, a strength born out of love beyond our furthest imaginings, a strength that, I suppose, still looks to many of us like weakness. (xvi - xvii)

After reading Smith's unforgettable explanation, the song took on a whole new meaning for me. Every time I hear it now, I listen a bit more closely than I ever did before:

Light from Light eternal . . .

we too will thither, bend our joyful footsteps . . .

who would not love thee, loving us so dearly . . .

I love that!

*Brian Andreas: "We're already in the new age, she said. What does that mean? I said. It means we can stop waiting & start living, she said but after she left, I still waited a little while more just to be safe."



On this blog, look for my next Fortnightly
post on Thursday, January 28th

Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on