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

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Every Chocolate Flake

Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl, 1780
by Scottish painter and illustrator of historical subjects,
David Allan, 1744 - 96
[learn more about this painting and the ceilidh dance]

This Fortnight's chain of connections began ten days ago when my friend Tammy came across a back - to - school quotation on my book blog:

"It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions
about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming
an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able
to be caught up into the world of thought -- that is to be educated."

Edith Hamilton

Tammy wrote to tell me that she had recently re-bought for herself copy of Hamilton's book [where I first learned about Echo & Narcissus] that so many of us loved back in high school:

She went on the say that "All the back to school vibes, plus a few stories relayed to me of summer travel and study abroad have brought to the surface my own memories of Scotland, where I studied for a year about a million years ago. I had to write about it. . . . Yes, I wrote this weekend, for some reason the words decided to burst forth as I drove my car and then tried desperately to catch them, remember them for my keyboard. . . . You will get some of the UK references, and even when you don't, I think you will get the sense of joy in being able to just go LEARN."

[click to hear samples on amazon]

strip the willow

I keep going back
to Scotland
which I can only always describe
if people know and care to ask
as Magic

Here’s how you get there:

Journey many hours in the air
then more on a train
where people speak your language
and if you listen hard
you can almost understand

Ride your train through towns
with ancient names
that bloom on your tongue
as you try to roll Glaswegian R’s

Pass sheep inside a stacked stone fence
sometimes a dog running herd
or a shepherd with a staff
and Scottish temper
hurling the staff at fast cars who spook the flock

Other men on this trip nod and tip their hats
like Texas cowboys at the VFW,
wanting nothing but to help you
find your way

The air smells of peat and hops
but you won’t know that yet

You arrive in the dark and sleep late
waking up to a gardener whistling
“Cracklin’ Rosie”
happy tune to welcome
a bright new day

Your clean your teeth
with water so icy it must be pure
and take breakfast
with a lovely girl,
your first Louise

You call home at a decent hour
from a plexiglass phone booth
repeating the numbers twice
distracted by the purring Irish accent
in the booth next door
assuring your parent-loves that you are safe and happy
and you are

You are here to LIVE
to dig in, drink deep
soak up every scrap of knowledge from class
and country and Meadowlark
(even the pub name sounds pretty)

What will happen next?

You cross a small bridge
with other students travelling
one single path to class,
swans swim on the loch below
a castle shimmers beyond

You search their faces
want to know them, their accent and fashion
and you open yourself like a daisy
bringing all you can to the surface
to be shared straight away
so you can meet them, eat them all

You ride horses with Norwegians
study marketing with the French,
opera with the English,
and share coffee with the professor
who turns out to have a different idea
of cultural exchange
well, that’s experience, too

You walk in the drizzle
noticing patterns,
join the old women limping their way
to worship in an old stone kirk
kneel to strolling Westies
who pause a moment before trotting
back to their master

You take a job on Thursdays
noticing rhythms,
serving single malt to blokes
who take squinting measure of their glass
and American-you
discussing their politics and futbol
and once, the mystical power to heal

Finally convinced of successful outreach
you let in some other Yanks
just a few
who prove as interesting and layered
as Mumford & Sons
modern gospel
yearning, jubilant
triumphant horns over bluegrass over bass;
their family stories and characters
draw you in,
warm your belly
and inspire

They teach you the accent and fashion
of your home country
that magnificent, arrogant one
that you alternately hold tight and apologize for

And some teach you by learning with you
jumping in to Strip the Willow
whirling ceilidh dance of
laughter in a big wide barn
celebration of freedom and joy and youth

Tall and rangy Montana
gathers you up like hay
gives you a greater sense of yourself
of your power and insecurity
the way a mirror reflects the beauty and the flaws

A person can do this
just like a place

So in Scotland, you meet
music from voices past
ideas of future film
all of which you somehow already know;
a boy climbs through your window with the moon
stretches his long limbs over yours and
helps you weave a blanket of duvet, wool, and sky

When I remember who I am sometimes
it’s that girl in Scotland
that long-walk every day girl who sought out the wonder,
the soul behind the eyes
who was blessed to have beginner’s mind
come easily

I still see all the shades of mist
and I’m never ever certain of any one thing, for sure
except for love and magic

In Scotland
there were vignettes of simple, stunning beauty
all the time
I climbed Dumyat and
took communion with a lab,
found the heather
and tasted every chocolate Flake;
I knew ‘rapture from an orange
and ecstasy from a blade of grass’*
and it never went away

Why does it happen when it happens?
How’d I get a gift like that?

Is it a specific place we must find,
a person we must know, or
the ripening of our own body inside our skin?
all those things, or none of them
and a commitment to saying yes

I heard bagpipes in the distance
and was completed,
or transformed,
or maybe just returned with gentle magic
to myself.

tammy l. knox sandel, 8/17/13

* Leo Buscaglia, who is (also) not Scottish

Part memoir, part travelogue, part reflection. The magical year that Tammy describes in "strip the willow" reminds me so much of the summer that I was in Oxford (1979), with the exception, as I confessed to Tammy, that my coming of age sojourn included no dance partners or cowboys or amorous scholars of any nationality. Always a slow starter, I was just a little too dull and backward for an off - shore romance. Sweetly, Tammy offered a more generous reinterpretation of my girlish dullness: "No! Of course you were never a dull girl. . . . You just weren't there long enough." Ah - ha! Maybe that was it!

Romance notwithstanding, Tammy's poem brought back all the exhilaration of that summer abroad -- the currency and the accents; the planes, trains and tour buses; the dorms, dining halls, and quadrangles; the china shops and bookstores; the occasional crabby strangers, more than offset by the unexpected friendliness; the cathedrals and literary landmarks.

Another connection that intensified my reading of "strip the willow" was that only a couple of days before reading it, I had re - connected for the first time in ten years or so with my friend Kathy whom I met on that first trip to England back in 1979. We shared many adventures, including getting lost more than once -- as you can see in this old photo (disregard stray marks of red ink). "Folly Lane" -- the name on that road sign pretty much says it all! But we survived and learned as much from each misstep as we did from each successful outing. As Tammy says in her poem, it's all experience! Right?

Even Tammy's reference to "every chocolate Flake" spoke to my heart. I was not in 1979 a fan of the Flake, though I have since become one, as it is a favorite of my English relatives, including my husband and sons. Back then, however, what Kathy and I loved to buy at the British Rail newsstands were Twix Bars and Mini Babybel cheeses, two novelty snacks not widely available in the United States at the time. Somehow I knew exactly what Tammy meant about the memory of a chocolate treat that comes to symbolize everything new and unique and untried about "a specific place we must find." Or perhaps a place that we have actually found; or an old, exciting time when there was just so much to learn!

Tammy's poem led to a day spent thinking about Flakes and Twix; old friends, new friends, children of friends, and young womanhood. At the close of that day, I was looking in the pantry for some chocolate chips to add to a batch of zucchini bread ('tis the season), and -- to perfectly round out a series of connections and coincidences -- what did I discover and use instead? A package of very crumbly (even more so than usual) Flake Bars, no doubt left over from Gerry's parents' last visit.

Believe it or not, Tammy is not the first author I know to have incorporated a reference to Flakes in her writing! In Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey, Sandi Toksvig -- herself a master of the literary coincidence -- describes bringing a friend in the United States a package of Flakes from England:

I had brought her a gift of Cadbury's Flake -- a chocolate bar
that crumbles the minute you unwrap it. She was thrilled.
'We don't have it here. Your mom actually turned me on to them.
The first time, I said, "It comes like this?" It's a mess.
You have to work at them. Great when you're cooking.'

(109; see also
"Birds of Pray" and "Opal: In Love with the World")

Turns out I'm not the only one who uses Flakes when baking! I like it that Sandi's friend had the same idea; and she's right -- they do make a mess and you have to "work at them." Yet, Tammy's advice is undoubtedly the best of all: forget the mess, go for the experience, learn all you can, jump in to "strip the willow" and taste "every chocolate Flake." Just say Yes!

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, September 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts: "Two Gazed Into a Pool:
Echo & Narcissus"


Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading: "Girls of Summer"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

At Least Eleven

"The Long Road Home"
Painting by my talented cousin and mixed media artist
Pam Carriker
who lives art at the speed of life and vice versa!
Thanks Pam!

I can't say I was ever a huge fan of The Divine Secrets of the Ya - Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, but I always smile in sympathy when recalling Sidda's trip home (at age thirty - something) to introduce her fiance to her mother. As they pull into the driveway and her mother comes out, Sidda "tried not to feel five years old. She tried to feel at least eleven" (336).

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I first read those words back in 1999, yet they are still ringing true! How accurately that phrase -- "at least eleven" -- captures my own experience of trying to feel (and act) like an adult when the family gathers and it suddenly becomes so difficult to feel twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty. Just ask my oldest brother Dave or my younger sister Di, who heard me quoting the phrase more than once this past weekend.

Family Reunion
with my sister Di (left) and cousin Alicia (center)
Girls Together ~ Women Together

When my oldest brother referred to himself as "a sixty year old man just trying to stand up and say enough," I couldn't help thinking of my favorite story -- "The Third and Final Continent" -- in Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies. In this story, a young, twenty - something, male student from India comes to work at MIT and rents an upstairs room in the home of a very elderly woman. After a few days, the landlady's daughter, also elderly, comes by to check that everything is okay for the new renter.

Here's what happens:

On Sunday there was a knock on my door. An elderly woman introduced herself: she was Mrs. Croft's daughter, Helen. She walked into the room and looked at each of the walls as if for signs of change, glancing at the shirts that hung in the closet, the neckties draped over the doorknob, the box of cornflakes on the chest of drawers, the dirty bowl and spoon in the basin. She was short and thickwaisted, with cropped silver hair and bright pink lipstick. She wore a sleeveless summer dress, a necklace of white plastic beads, and spectacles on a chain that hung like a swing against her chest. The backs of her legs were mapped with dark-blue veins, and her upper arms sagged like the flesh of a roasted eggplant. She told me she lived in Arlington, a town farther up Massachusetts Avenue. "I come once a week to bring Mother groceries. Has she sent you packing yet?"

"It is very well, Madam."

"Some of the boys run screaming. But I think she likes you. You're the first boarder she's ever referred to as a gentleman.

"She looked at me, noticing my bare feet. (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and always removed them before entering my room.) "Are you new to Boston?"

"New to America, Madam."

"From?" She raised her eyebrows.

"I am from Calcutta, India."

"Is that right? We had a Brazilian fellow, about a year ago. You'll find Cambridge a very international city."

I nodded, and began to wonder how long our conversation would last. But at that moment we heard Mrs. Croft's electrifying voice rising up the stairs.

"You are to come downstairs immediately!"

"What is it?" Helen cried back.


I put on my shoes. Helen sighed.

I followed Helen down the staircase. She seemed to be in no hurry, and complained at one point that she had a bad knee. "Have you been walking without your cane?" Helen called out. "You know you're not supposed to walk without that cane." She paused, resting her hand on the bannister, and looked back at me. "She slips sometimes."

For the first time Mrs. Croft seemed vulnerable. I pictured her on the floor in front of the bench, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, her feet pointing in opposite directions. But when we reached the bottom of the staircase she was sitting there as usual, her hands folded together in her lap. Two grocery bags were at her feet. She did not slap the bench, or ask us to sit down. She glared.

"What is it, Mother?"

"It's improper!"

"What's improper?"

"It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!"

Helen said she was sixty-eight years old, old enough to be my mother, but Mrs. Croft insisted that Helen and I speak to each other downstairs, in the parlor. She added that it was also improper for a lady of Helen's station to reveal her age, and to wear a dress so high above the ankle.

"For your information, Mother, it's 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?"

Mrs. Croft sniffed. "I'd have her arrested."

Helen shook her head . . .


Even after sixty - eight years, poor Helen is still struggling to feel "at least eleven" in the presence of her mother. I don't want that to be my fate; and I understand exactly what my brother meant when he wrote that sixty years old is old enough!
~ Additional Connections ~

1. My dear friend Cate provided me with this excellent mantra to carry in my heart and in my head when traveling to see the family (or anyone else for that matter):
No appointments; no disapppointments.
C. K. Ramaswamy Gounder, 1914 - 2002
aka, Swami Satchidananda Saraswati

2. Words of Wisdom from Brian Andreas at StoryPeople:

Why do they treat us like children? they said
& I said why do you treat them like adults?
& their eyes opened wide
& they began to laugh & talk all at once
& suddenly everything looked possible again

Sign up for Story of the Day

3. Favorite dialogue from The Office:

Michael: This is where I belong.
This is my home,
and home is where the hardest.
Oscar: Home is where the heart is.
Michael: Heart is. That makes a lot more sense.

Actually, as is so often the case, I think Michael might have had it right the first time; for indeed, so / too many times, "Home is where the hardest."

Home for Christmas Card from Pam

4. As I wrote earlier in the summer about my "Ancestors":

"We have all rejected our beginnings and
become something our parents could not have foreseen."

from the novel Fifth Business (248)
by Robertson Davies

5. Apparently, even the gods must struggle at times to feel "at least eleven":

I wonder now about Demeter and Persephone. Maybe Persephone was glad to run off with the king of death to his underground realm, maybe it was the only way she could break away from her mother, maybe Demeter was a bad parent the way Lear was a bad parent, denying nature, including the nature of children to leave their parents. Maybe Persephone thought Hades was the infinitely cool older man who held the knowledge she sought, maybe she loved the darkness, the six months of winter, the sharp taste of pomegranates, the freedom from her mother, maybe she knew that to be truly alive death had to be part of the picture just as winter must. It was as the queen of hell that she became an adult and came into power. Hades’s realm is called the underworld, and so are the urban realms of everything outside the law. And as in Hopi creation myths, where humans and other beings emerge from underground, so it’s from the underground that culture emerges in this civilization.
from A Field Guide to Getting Lost
by Rebecca Solnit

The Return of Persephone, 1891
(Hermes helping Persephone to return to her mother
Demeter after Zeus forced Hades to return Persepone.)
by English artist, Frederic Leighton, 1830 - 1896

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, August 28th

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

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading: "Girls of Summer"