"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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ruby Slippers and Red Shoes


Last time, I was writing about the Wizard of Oz; this time it's Ruby Slippers! Coincidence? Or merely inadvertent Connection? Whichever it may be, I ordered these little red shoes from the Lillian Vernon Catalog back in the earliest days of my Christmas tree ornament collecting. They have always been among my favorites, so much so that I would often leave them out all year, hanging in a special spot. Oddly enough, when I moved from Indiana to Philadelphia in 1993, I totally forgot that instead of putting them away after the holidays I had hung them on a little hook above the guest room mirror. They had already been in my life for a decade, yet despite my attachment to them, I managed to overlook them amidst the chaos and stress of packing and moving.

Luckily, the new owners were kind enough to package them up and mail them to our new address. Every year as I take them out and hang them on the tree, I am reminded of their surprising reappearance in my life -- before I had ever even realized that they were missing -- and of the kindness of strangers who took the time to realize their sentimental value and send them back into my life. There's no place like home, right? Or as Emmylou Harris sings: "Wear your ruby shoes when you’re far away / so you’ll always stay home in your heart."

Gerry and I began the Christmas Season early this year, attending the French Quarter tree lighting and St. Louis Cathedral Choral Concert in New Orleans, on November 20th. Even better, guess where we ate:

Thus, I've had it in my mind ever since that day -- way back before Thanksgiving! -- to write about "The Christmas Shoes" on my December blog. I knew for sure it was the right choice when I went to church on Christmas Eve, only to hear the priest say that the one song that was really getting to him this season was "The Christmas Shoes." Holy Connection and Coincidence! Weren't both the CD and the DVD propped right beside my laptop, waiting for my attention? Yes! I went straight home, listened carefully to the song a few times and then watched the movie on New Year's Day.

I couldn't help thinking of the picture books that I have loved since childhood: Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Red Shoes. Though the mother is not sick, and it happens to be her birthday rather than Christmas, the three brothers -- just like the boy in "The Christmas Shoes" -- do all they can to obtain red shoes as a surprise for her. Another book in the series, Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and The Yellow Sled combines similar themes: it is once again Mother's birthday, the triplets are once again completing chores and saving money for a major purchase -- the yellow sled for themselves. However, like the "Christmas Shoes" narrator, they realize, even as the cashier is ringing up the sale, that it is better to give than to receive.

It is a popular assessment to accuse this contemporary song of being sappy and sentimental, but oh well! After all, it's an emotional season, and you just never know what holiday song, old (e.g. Scarlet Ribbons -- yet another Christmas Miracle!) or new, might speak to your heart:

The Christmas Shoes

It was almost Christmas time
There I stood in another line
Tryin' to buy that last gift or two
Not really in the Christmas mood

Standing right in front of me was
A little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes

And his clothes were worn and old
He was dirty from head to toe
And when it came his time to pay
I couldn't believe what I heard him say

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my mama, please
It's Christmas eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful, if Mama meets Jesus tonight

He counted pennies for what seemed like years
Then the cashier said, "Son, there's not enough here"
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me

He said, "Mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me sir, what am I going to do
Somehow I've got to buy her these Christmas shoes"

So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out
And I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
"Mama's gonna look so great"

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my mama, please
It's Christmas eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful, if Mama meets Jesus tonight

I knew I'd caught a glimpse of heaven's love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me what Christmas is all about

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my mama, please
It's Christmas eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful, if Mama meets Jesus tonight

I want her to look beautiful
If Mama meets Jesus tonight

by Eddie Carswell & Leonard Ahlstrom of NewSong

Book, written by by Donna VanLiere
Movie, starring Rob Lowe
Song, also performed by John McNicholl
[Click to hear a few other versions.]

My Red Christmas Shoes
Thanks Vickie!

. . . and also a fun game for the family
from Auntie Wickie!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, January 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Christmas Sermons"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST, currently featuring
"The Girl Who Just Loved Christmas"

Thanks Natasha!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Dream of Christmas

Christmas Cross Stitch
by my friend Cate DeLong


I love thee . . . with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.

from sonnet 43
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Three years ago, when I quoted from Salman Rushdie's "Out of Kansas," in my Christmas essay on "Divine Homesickness," I knew that I wanted to return to this passage someday and look at it in greater depth. Coincidentally, Rushdie's essay comes to mind just in time for yet another Christmas essay. Rushdie's theme is The Wizard of Oz, and I don't think anyone really considers either the book or the movie to be a Christmas story; however, the literature of Christmas and the tale of Dorothy's quest share an important motif -- the journey home, where the heart is.

[Another coincidence worth noting: L. Frank Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, soon to be adapted for the stage by my friend Steven La Vigne, who writes, "Have you read it? It's just lovely, and will provide a lot of opportunity for puppets."]

As for Rushdie, without even intending to write about The Spirit of Christmas, he manages to invoke its antithesis with his description of the fraudulent Wizard as a "humbug." Even worse, the fall from innocence to experience renders us "humbugs" ourselves, despite our best intentions to remain true to our "childhood's faith" and our "lost saints," who may well include Professor Marvel, The Wizard of Oz, Father Christmas, and Good Saint Nick:
“So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that "there's no place like home," but rather that there is no longer such a place as home: except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz, which is anywhere and everywhere, except the place from which we began.

"In the place from which I began, after all, I watched the film from the child's - Dorothy's point of view. I experienced, with her, the frustration of being brushed aside by Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, busy with their dull grown-up counting. Like all adults, they couldn't focus on what was really important to Dorothy: namely, the threat to Toto. I ran away with Dorothy and then ran back. Even the shock of discovering that the Wizard was a humbug was a shock I felt as a child, a shock to the child's faith in adults. Perhaps, too, I felt something deeper, something I couldn't articulate; perhaps some half-formed suspicion about grown-ups was being confirmed.

"Now, as I look at the movie again, I have become the fallible adult. Now I am a member of the tribe of imperfect parents who cannot listen to their children's voices. I, who no longer have a father, have become a father instead, and now it is my fate to be unable to satisfy the longings of a child. This is the last and most terrible lesson of the film: that there is one final, unexpected rite of passage. In the end, ceasing to be children, we all become magicians without magic, exposed conjurers, with only our simply humanity to get us through.

We are the humbugs now.”
from Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002,
Essay #1: "Out of Kansas"
by Salman Rushdie
[see also Goodreads]

Sharing Rushdie's sense of loss and cynicism, Greg Lake recalls the ultimate test of his childhood's faith in this haunting carol:

I Believe in Father Christmas

They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin Birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
'til I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
'til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
Hallelujah Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve

by Greg Lake

Lake's song, Rushdie's essay, and Barrett Browning's sonnet all remind me of the convincing theory that the house you consider "home" is the one you lived in when you believed in Santa Claus. In his holiday reminiscence, my brother Bruce writes:
"Of all the places we lived, Neosho still draws me like nowhere else. . . . When we were kids, Christmas didn't start till Thanksgiving, but from Thanksgiving to Christmas, it was all Christmas, all the time. There were TV specials almost every night -- or so it seemed. I"m just thinking of those titles, wondering if they were the ones you remember from when we were kids. It's a Wonderful Life. A Charlie Brown Christmas. When Linus recites the birth narrative from Luke 2, that's just classic. It grabs my heart every single time I hear it.

"Has it changed so much since we were kids, or do we just remember it selectively? Sometimes I think I remember it the way I wanted it to be, and miss the fantasy more than I miss the reality. But I miss us kids putting up the tree . . . each taking a turn to put an ornament on. Do you remember that? I miss cocoa made on the stove from a Hershey's square tin, rather than from a Swiss Miss envelope in the microwave. I miss putting on the Christmas albums and listening too them all during Christmas vacation. Ah, but time waits for no one, right?"
I also appreciated the recollections of my grade school friend Brent Green: "I would say proudly and without hesitation that Neosho was one of the most egalitarian towns in which I have ever lived. I did not appreciate it at the time (from 1961 to 1975), but it was a great place to grow up! The schools were good. Neighbors and playmates were great!"

It's true that despite the fact that we moved away in 1967 and have never once been back inside, this has always been and remains to this day my family's favorite house. I often wish we had never moved away. This picture from 2012 is not quite as I remember, but the changes are all for the good: an entire wrap around porch and an expanded second story, including two gables over the side door. One loss: it would appear that the huge pine tree, which we planted in 1965 as a tiny Christmas tree, may have been removed in the midst of all the renovation. The last time I drove past, in 2002, I kept looking at eye - level, but I finally realized that it was way above my head. Turns out it had just kept growing and growing into a giant Norwegian Spruce, taller than any of us had every imagined:

704 Baxter Street ~ Where We Believed!
Photograph by Mitzi Smith

A beautiful song for restoring your childhood's faith:
"There's Still My Joy"
by The Indigo Girls

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, December 28th

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

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST, currently featuring
"The Girl Who Just Loved Christmas"

See Previous Post ~ December 2011
"Home is where the heart is, and Christmas lives there too."

Friday, November 28, 2014

An Interstellar Thanksgiving

Ancient Space Travel
" . . . the vast expanse of interstellar space . . . "

Our family's day - after - Thanksgiving activity was going to see the new movie Interstellar, then coming home to expand our knowledge of interstellar space with a few episodes of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey:
"Deeper Deeper Deeper Still"
"Hiding in the Light"
"A Sky Full of Ghosts."
I thought of that old favorite by Walt Whitman and wondered if only he had heard de Grasse Tyson or Carl Sagan, he might have been mesmerized rather than unaccountably "tired and sick":

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer,
where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

~ from "By the Roadside" (Book XX) in Leaves of Grass

Coincidentally, although we didn't think of this before going to see it, Interstellar fit right in with a couple of things that we had watched earlier in the week: the movie About Time, with its somewhat under - utilized subplot of traveling back in time to re-direct the course of personal events; and Bob's Burgers, particularly the episode in which Bob gets stuck in the crawl space and communicates with his family from behind the wall.

November Moon & Millennium Sundial
On the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge
between Lafayette & West Lafayette, Indiana

Later in the day, with thoughts turning toward Christmas, I made an additional connection -- not stars and perfect silence, but stars and a sky full of "the sweetest music":

A Spaceman Came Traveling
[Click to listen]

A spaceman came traveling on his ship from afar,
'Twas light years of time since his mission did start,
And over a village he halted his craft,
And it hung in the sky like a star, just like a star.

He followed a light and came down to a shed,
Where a mother and a child were lying there on a bed,
A bright light of silver shone round his head,
And he had the face of an angel, and they were afraid.

Then the stranger spoke, he said, "Do not fear,
I come from a planet a long way from here,
And I bring a message for mankind to hear,"
And suddenly the sweetest music filled the air --

And it went la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . .
Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . .
Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child.

This lovely music went trembling through the ground,
And many were wakened on hearing that sound,
And travelers on the road, the village they found,
By the light of that ship in the sky, which shone all round.

And just before dawn at the paling of the sky,
The stranger returned and said, "Now I must fly,
When two thousand years of your time has gone by,
This song will begin once again, to a baby's cry."

And it went la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . .
Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child.

Oh the whole world is waiting, waiting to hear that song again,
There are thousands standing on the edge of the world,
And a star is moving somewhere, the time is nearly here,
This song will begin once again, to a baby's cry.

~ Chris De Burgh

This mystical song always arouses my curiosity. The spaceman halts his craft, that seems to become the Star of Bethlehem; yet he himself "followed a light" -- the light from his own ship which others are following? Or a different light? He seems to become the Christmas Angel who says "Do not fear" and brings glad tidings; but what is the source for the "lovely music" filling the air and "trembling through the ground"? More angels? Or the Spaceman?

He flies away, bidding farewell to the mother and child and other assembled Earthlings, promising the song again and "a baby's cry" in two thousand years' time. Does this mean a new baby Messiah? The Spaceman doesn't promise his own return, though the song's haunting conclusion suggests it. Is the Spaceman the baby, all grown up (like Jesus or Mad Max or Dad / Joseph Cooper / Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar)?

So that bright start might be some kind of complicated spaceship from the past or the future; but equally appealing is the possibility described in The Littlest Angel. The star could be a treasure box containing the smallest items -- two white stones, three blue eggs, a butterfly orange and a black, a feather -- insignificant in every way aside from the fact that they are dear to our hearts. The little time traveler leaves Eternity for a short visit Earth, where only mere seconds have elapsed since his departure. But days have passed in the afterlife, and he misses his wooden treasure chest:
"All these things I love best I have kept in this old chest.
Sorted and counted hundreds of nights,
they all have have given me a thousand delights.
Who can say how much they are worth?
They are the miracles of the Earth."

[click to hear Johnny Whitaker sing: @ 57:15]

Story by Charles Tazewell, Illustrated by Sergio Leone

More space time continuum holiday viewing:
Ghost of Star Trek Christmas ~ Primer ~ Ink

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, December 14th

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

First Snow In Indiana

~ Garage Lights ~
Waiting for Gerry's return from the Indianapolis Airport

When it snowed two weeks ago, on Halloween, I could have sworn it was the first time in my life that I've ever seen snow in October. Having lived in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Indiana -- well, those are not the States where one sees snow in October, not even on the last day!

Snow on Halloween? In Indiana?
When half the backyard is still green? Well, I never!

Then along came yesterday's snow, on my sister Peggy's birthday, and even that seemed too early. Have I ever seen snow on her birthday before? I don't think so! I don't care if it is the second week of November, that's just too soon! I decided to check out the Indiana Climate Archives, which informed me that there had indeed been "measurable" snowfall in Indiana on October 18, 1989. What?! I actually lived in Indiana on that day, but I have no memory of such! Oh, if only I'd been recording weather lore in my journal back then. But alas. Well, this time, I took plenty of pictures:

I love my friend Dana Hall's description of this eerie, early snow:
"Exciting but a little surreal and scary, right?"
The pumpkins are an added bonus!

Several friends noted how much we might have enjoyed this snow back when we were seven years old! But at fifty - seven, it's a mixed blessing. On their Christmas Portrait, the Carpenters provide a light - hearted reminiscence:
Oh the first snowfall of the winter
Was a day that we all waited for . . .

Oh the first snowfall of the winter
What a joy for a boy to behold . . .

It's the good old sentimental season . . .
When a man becomes a boy once again . . .

Music by Joseph F. "Sonny" Burke (1914 - 80)
Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster (1907 - 84)
With Veterans Day so recently past, my thoughts turned to the snowy battle scene depicted by poet Richard Wilbur in "First Snow in Alsace." The World War II night guard in Wilbur's poem "becomes a boy once again," in more somber circumstances than the Carpenter tune describes, but with equal joy. He boasts warmly that "He was the first to see the snow." Seen through through "the new air white and fine," even the war - torn surroundings have been magically transformed by the first snow that falls indiscriminately, innocently, neutrally.

In fact, it hasn't been all that long ago since the young soldier was a child himself, playing in the snow. His daydreams of youthful winters take him -- not fifty years -- but a mere "Ten first - snows back in thought":
First Snow in Alsace
The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.

Richard Wilbur (b. 1921)

Addional Connections

1. Here is another poem that takes the reader on an absolutely beautiful walk in newly fallen snow. Whereas Wilbur is crossing Alsace, "Walking the new air white and fine," Wylie walks elegantly "In a soundless space . . . through the still town / In a windless space":
Velvet Shoes
Let us walk in the white snow
In a soundless space;
With footsteps quiet and slow,
At a tranquil pace,
Under veils of white lace.

I shall go shod in silk,
And you in wool,
White as white cow's milk,
More beautiful
Than the breast of a gull.

We shall walk through the still town
In a windless peace;
We shall step upon white down,
Upon silver fleece,
Upon softer than these.

We shall walk in velvet shoes:
Wherever we go
Silence will fall like dews
On white silence below.
We shall walk in the snow.

Elinor Morton Wylie (1885 - 1928)
2. In "The Arrested Artistry of Elinor Wylie," editor John G. Rodwan, Jr. observes that Wylie's poetry has been compared to that of Richard Wilbur and that she was devoted to the life and work of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

3. I don't know if this poem about the mutability of art and love was one of Wylie's favorites, but it's one of mine. It lacks the hope of Wilbur's "First Snow in Alsace," but shares a similar sense of human frailty, endurance, and irrevocable loss, complete with seasonal imagery of falling leaves, and cold wind:

When the Lamp is Shattered
When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead-
When the cloud is scattered,
The rainbow's glory is shed.
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken,
Loved accents are soon forgot.

As music and splendour
Survive not the lamp and the lute,
The heart's echoes render
No song when the spirit is mute-
No song but sad dirges,
Like the wind through a ruined cell,
Or the mournful surges
That ring the dead seaman's knell.

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee,
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee,
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)
[see also "Ozymandias" & "Ode to the West Wind"]
4. Another blogger makes a connection between "When the Lamp is Shattered" and Wilbur's haunting Christmas hymn "A Stable Lamp is Lighted".
[See also "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"]

5.StoryPeople always gets it right! Thanks Brian Andreas!

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, November 28th

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Let Them All In

Gates of Paradise, after Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 - 1455)
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
[I took this photo on Halloween 2012]

"Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."
curse from which
Everyman is saved ~ 15th C
[See also Spring ~ Time]

"Now hast thou but one bare hour to live
And then thou must be damned perpetually!"

curse describing the fate of
Christopher Marlowe's Faustus ~ 16th C

“Abandon all Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”
curse inscribed above
the Gate to Hell in Dante’s Inferno ~ 14th C
translated by John Ciardi in 1954
Dante Illuminating Florence with His Poem
by Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491)

In his essay "Pure Evil," Notre Dame thelogian Lawrence S. Cunninghman explains Dante's system of punishment in the Circles of Hell:

When Dante found himself in hell, he was so appalled by what he saw that he asked his guide Virgil about those who inhabited such a horrible place. Virgil's answer was economical but clear: The inhabitatnts of hell were those who had "lost the good of intellect." They were, in other words, those who never understood that they were destined to be perfectly satisfied in mind and will with the fullness of God, who is the source of what satisfies the restless hearts of human beings. They freely chose something less than their final end and they were given what they chose. Their damnation was the result of a "loss," and not of anything they "did" in life.

(Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 1994, 42 - 44).

Just inside the gate, Dante and Virgil encounter the uncommitted Opportunists who can go no farther and are doomed to spend eternity in the Vestibule of Hell. They are so repugnant, they don't even get to enter Hell, let alone Heaven! They are the lukewarm, the self - interested fence-sitters, wafflers, and neutrals. As they lived, so are they punished, racing around in pursuit of a waving banner, pursued by swarms of wasps and hornets. They took no side and are therefore vanquished to an eternal darkness of indecision. After years of working with Dante's Divine Comedy, twentieth - century poet John Ciardi was inspired, in this poem, to offer an alternative fate:

In Place of a Curse
by John Ciardi (1916 - 86)

At the next vacancy for God, if I am elected,
I shall forgive last the delicately wounded
who, having been slugged no harder than anyone else,
never got up again, neither to fight back,
nor to finger their jaws in painful admiration.

They who are wholly broken, and they in whom
mercy is understanding, I shall embrace at once
and lead to pillows in heaven. But they who are
the meek by trade, baiting the best of their betters
with extortions of a mock-helplessness,

I shall take last to love, and never wholly.
Let them all in Heaven—I abolish Hell—
but let it be read over them as they enter:
“Beware the calculations of the meek, who gambled nothing,
gave nothing, and could never receive enough.”

Peace To All Who Enter Here!
mantra at our backdoor

As Jack Handey says:
"Life is a constant battle
between the heart and the brain.
But guess who wins.
The skeleton."

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, November 14th

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Women [Don't] Want

Seated Woman in a Red Dress, 1920s
By Irish Painter ~ Roderic O'Conor, 1860 - 1940

“What Do Women Want?”
I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

by American poet ~ Kim Addonizio, b. 1954

Awhile back I heard a very good sermon about the "middle way being the hard way." The old proverb (certainly what I was taught in Sunday School) is that the middle way is for lazy opportunists who can't commit and want it both ways and haven't given their hearts to God. But this speaker was saying the opposite -- that the extremes are easier because they require less introspection, less observation, less compassion. The middle way is hard because it demands all of these things, and that's why the church should walk the middle path.

Around the same time, I also heard a very troubling sermon about abortion. What would Jesus do? Maybe he'd choose a different topic. All I could think was "Here we go again." It's bad enough on the television and in the House and in the Senate and every where else you turn your head, but even from the pulpit? When will it ever be considered unacceptable to violate the sanctuary of women? When will male ministers and lawmakers ever stop singling women out and talking about their bodies -- the very essence of objectification. Did Jesus do that? I don't think so. Being pitied and talked about like case studies -- this turns women into objects. The assumption that someone else can know which women need abortions and for what reasons -- this turns women into objects. What about self - determination? What about getting to be the subject of your own sentence?

I wince at the harsh pronouncements against all abortion, but I'm also suspicious of the so - called more generous stance that we have to consider the special cases of rape and incest. The unctuous reliance on this cliche fills me with dismay. What it says to me is that the church doesn't really want to help women but it will if it has to in the extreme case. The incest / rape exception makes me feel uneasy, not because it isn't valid or necessary, but because it's someone else's arbitrary decision, and a very harsh one at that, despite being presented in the name of compassion. Instead, how about acknowledging that the issue is too complicated for the existing exceptions and rules (the very thing that Jesus says NOT to rely on).

For those who claim the right to decide not only for themselves but for others, I want to hear their plans for helping expectant mothers who are carrying their children in fear, worried about money, health, nutrition, insurance, education, emotional support, rent, mortgage, heat, abuse, neglect -- and myriad other issues that we cannot possibly know in full, different in every case. How do these right - to - lifers plan to help care for each and every child who is born to a distraught mother? I want to see their directives and budget allotments for welcoming every newborn and nurturing every mother and every child. And I don't mean a cute hat and some diapers -- I mean non-stop tending until that child is safely through college.

There was one spark of hope in the sermon: the observation that, yes, you might meet a woman thirty years on who regretted her decision to terminate a pregnancy but on the other hand --

Okay, at this point I thought I was going to hear that you might also meet a woman who was relieved that she had the option to choose. But NO!

-- on the other hand -- there has to be help for college girls who get drunk and end up pregnant.

Some abortions end in regret; some begin in drunkenness. Thus did the sermon, which I did not find to be particularly helpful to women, come to a close. No acknowledgement that not all abortions begin in drunkenness or end in regret, no other examples, no mention of a considered choice, no middle path. Did it help anyone to make women sound so pathetic, to second guess their decisions, to sensationalize their distress with descriptions of crying and bleeding, to omit the possibility that women might know their own bodies and their own minds? No, it did not. It was offensive. Women don't need pity; they need a level playing field. Women resent the weary sexist conclusion that abortion is fair game for sermonizing -- because it's such an attention grabber. In fact, it's just one more way of putting women on that old familiar pedestal and looking up their dresses. How long, O Lord?

If human anatomy and physiology is sermon material, then lets move away from the insulting cliches about female reproduction and pick some topics that affect both sexes equally. Take colonoscopy, for instance. There's something that both men and women have to go through. Everyone has to have a first one sometime and no one wants to. You don't see much of a spiritual context to the colonoscopy? Well, then, give it one! I have lots of ideas: How about the low success rate of trying to make other people do the right thing? How about leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink? How about not even being able to lead it to water? How about responsibility? How about worry? How about fear? How about violation and taboo? How about people dying unnecessarily of colon cancer? As you can see, it wouldn't take me long to write a sermon on the topic! In fact, I think there's a veritable mission field out there of people who need to hear the message and be brought into the fold.

Or what about whole body screenings for cancer of the skin -- our body's largest organ! That affects everybody. God made the sun. Right?

How about the need for free STD testing at all college and university health centers? I don't know the cost, but some students find any fee at all prohibitive and / or embarrassing if they have to file an insurance claim. Maybe free STD testing is not an ENTITLEMENT in this country; however, if we take a look at the big picture instead of the small, we might see that free testing helps EVERYONE on campus, not just those who come in for a lab test or an exam. Who knows, a more generous policy might result in safer sex and fewer abortions.

I'm not necessarily suggesting these as ideal topics for Sunday morning, but then I wouldn't pick abortion either. Or if I did, I'd ask why the discussion of unplanned pregnancy is so one - sided. Little is ever said about the man who participated in the conception. I rarely hear any presumptuous suggestions or patronizing restrictions concerning what he should do next, now that he has fertilized a human egg. Where is the analysis of male anatomy and the massively hurtful potential of testosterone? I'd point out that a great many of the "birth control failures" that girls and women take responsibility for (sometimes by terminating a pregnancy) actually boil down to having been relentlessly pressured into having unprotected sex. Could women insist on birth control every time unless they want a child? Yes, of course they could and should. But that still doesn't explain why the men who love (?) them are pressuring them in the first place. Men and boys -- Stop. Doing. This. Make yourself part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Of course we have compassion for victims of rape, incest, and drunken mistakes -- those are the extremes; those are crimes! The difficult thing -- apparently! -- is compassion for normal women leading normal lives that become complicated because the evolutionary odds are stacked in such a way that women bear the biological risk for both recreational and procreational sex. What saddens me -- besides having to hear a discussion better left to me and my doctor or me and my girlfriends or me and my husband -- is to hear a public speaker take the predictable political path, in the name of "socio - cultural relevance" or "ethics" instead of a soul - searching, sermon - worthy middle path.

Even some of my favorite writers seem at times to get it weirdly wrong. In Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing (1972), for instance, the narrator becomes obsessed with the feral conception of a child in reparation for a previous pregnancy that her art professor pressured her into terminating. The new child, conceived in the wild, will be a living apology to the unrealized child. In Ruth Ozeki's novel All Over Creation (2003), a similar irrational, formulaic approach is expressed by the high school history teacher, twenty - five years after his affair with a fourteen - year - old student: "We took a life, Yumi. From the universe. And the way I figure it, we owe one back. Life is sacred. I want to make amends. . . . I want us to have a child (386). Yumi, who has returned to town for a visit, along with her three children, says oddly and crassly of them: "Three wonderful grandchildren ought to more than make up for one lousy abortion" (240).

What's going on here? Must these women be forever making amends? Are they never allowed to leave mistakes in the past, to grow and learn, to pay the price of experience and move on, sadder perhaps but wiser? How about the creation of heroines who gain dignity and emotional maturity, confident in their choices and the points to which they've come? Instead, first Atwood and then Ozeki (writing three decades later!) use their characters to express the view that abortion goes hand in hand with shame, guilt, bitterness and perpetual indebtedness to the universe. In each case I remain mystified by the author's placement of her heroine on such a regressive life path.

A more supportive and realistic view appears in Curtis Sittenfeld's novel American Wife (2008). Unlike Atwood's extreme reversion to nature or Ozeki's tone of self - deprecation, Sittenfeld allows her narrator, Alice to think rationally and walk the middle path: " . . . my entire political outlook could have been summarized by the statement that I felt bad for poor people and was glad abortion had become legal. . . . I live a life that contains contradictions. Don't you?" (204, 473).

Yes, I do.

Additional Reading: Reality Check & Thriftshop Barbie

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, October 28th

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

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

by Patti Spires Hamilton

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Am I Dreaming?

Thinking of the philosopher who did "not know
whether he was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly,
or whether he is now a butterfly, dreaming he is a man."

Zhūangzi (Chinese Philosopher, c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)

A few weeks ago, I was so mesmerized -- as were many others -- by an inspiring philosophical post from my facebook friend Anna that I decided to record it here, along with a few additional connections of dreams and butterflies and reflective reality. On the way to school, her little daughter Clara had asked her, "Mom, am I dreaming? Am I awake? How can I ever tell if I am really awake?"

A variety of clever responses followed:

She's a philosopher!

A post - modern existentialist!

Definite Descartes moment. Proud.

I think I am; therefore, I think I am.

Very impressive! How did you reply?

I said she was having a Descartes moment. She said "what?" And then I didn't say anything else bc my younger kid started scooting off down the street. Seems appropriate enough.

All in good time . . .

Put The Matrix in!

There's actually ways to test if you're in a dream . . .

I prefer to let her wonder . . . AHAHAHHA! Maybe that's not nice.

What you didn't pinch her?

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: -- do I wake or sleep?

~ Keats (English Romantic Poet, 1795 - 1921)

Not only did Clara's question remind me of Zhūangzi's parable of the butterfly and Keats' "Ode to a Nightengale," but I also suddenly remembered this mysterious prose poem tucked away in my autumnal saved files. Has the narrator dreamed up the entire conflicted relationship? Was she in his dream? Was he in hers?

I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

~ James Tate (American Poet, b 1943)

Floor Mosaics, here and above,
at the Wynn / Encore, Las Vegas

And lastly, this dreamy poem which my son Ben was asked to respond to several years ago on a college entrance essay. The prospective students were given the poem without the last line and asked to imagine how the poet might conclude his reverie:

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

~ James Wright (American Poet, 1927 - 80)


Shortly after posting the above essay, I came across the following passages.
Two in two days! What's the odds?

1. Rereading an old favorite
on Monday, September 29th:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie (Chinese–French Author & Filmmaker, b 1954)
"At this Luo broke away and started running, faster and faster, in a desperate headlong flight down the steep mountain in pursuit of the Little Seamstress. I went after him, taking a short cut across the rocks. The scene was like one of the bad dreams that had been troubling me lately, with the Little Seamstress losing her footing and falling into the void, and with Luo and me chasing after her, slithering down perpendicular cliffs without a thought of the risk to ourselves. For a moment I lost track of whether I was running in my dream or in reality, or whether I was dreaming as I ran" (193 - 94).

2. Starting a new favorite
on Tuesday, September 30th:
The Friendly Persuasion
by Jessamyn West (American Novelist, 1902 - 84)
"They rode into Vernon [Indiana] together . . . two rawboned farm boys . . . and saw it the way a man who thinks he has been dreaming wakes and sees the landscape of his dream lying all about him, the disaster real, hard and unmelting as sunlight -- and dreaming the only means of escape" (74).

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, October 14th

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Safe Home

The Peaceable Kingdom
by American Artist, Edward Hicks, 1780 – 1849

As an illustration for the Badger's elaborate creation theory, I picked this painting of the animal kingdom for the diversification it portrays: the bull's magnificent horns, the lion's impressive mane, the camouflaged leopards with their designer spots, the powerful bear down in the corner, kissing the cow with the curly horns; and the many other sleek coats, massive paws, half - hidden claws or tapered noses. Some of the best - known fictional explanations for these varied and unique natural properties can be found in Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. My preference, however, is the rationale provided by the wise Badger whom Merlin enlists to teach young Arthur (aka "Wart") about human nature:

from Chapter 21 (pp 191 - 93)
in The Once and Future King
by T. H. White, 1906 - 64

"When God had manufactured all the eggs out of which the fishes and the serpents and the birds and the mammals and even the duck-billed platypus would eventually emerge, he called the embryos before Him, and saw that they were good.

"Perhaps I ought to explain," added the badger, lowering his papers nervously and looking at the Wart over the top of them, "that all embryos look very much the same. They are what you are before you are born --- and, whether you are going to be a tadpole or a peacock or a cameleopard or a man, when you are an embryo you look just like a peculiarly repulsive and helpless human being. I continue as follows:

"The embryos stood in front of God, with their feeble hands clasped politely over their stomachs and their heavy heads hanging down respectfully, and God addressed them:

"He said: 'Now, you embryos, here you are, all looking exactly the same, and We are going to give you the choice of what you want to be. When you grow up you will get bigger anyway, but We are pleased to grant you another gift as well. You may alter any parts of yourselves into anything which you think would be useful to you in later life. For instance, at this moment you cannot dig. Anybody who would like to turn his hands into a pair of spades or garden forks is allowed to do so. Or, to put it another way, at present you can only use your mouths for eating. Anybody who would like to use his mouth as an offensive weapon, can change it by asking, and be a corkindrill or a sabre-toothed tiger. Now then, step up and choose your tools, but remember that what you choose you will grow into, and will have to stick to.'

"All the embryos thought the matter over politely, and then, one by one, they stepped up before the eternal throne. They were allowed two or three specializations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars. We badgers thought very hard and decided to ask for three boons. We wanted to change our skins for shields, our mouths for weapons, and our arms for garden forks. These boons were granted. Everybody specialized in one way or another, and some of us in very queer ones. For instance, one of the lizards decided to swap his whole body for blotting paper, and one of the toads who lived in the drouthy antipodes decided simply to be a water bottle.

"The asking and granting took up two long days --- they were the fifth and sixth, so far as I remember --- and at the very end of the sixth day, just before it was to knock off for Sunday, they had got through all the little embryos except one. This embryo was Man.

" 'Well, Our little man,' said God. 'You have waited till the last, and slept on your decision, and We are sure you have been thinking hard all the time. What can We do for you?'

" 'Please God,' said the embryo, 'I think that You made me in the shape which I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which You gave me, for other and doubtless inferior tools, and I will stay a defenceless embryo all my life, doing my best to make a few feeble implements out of the wood, iron and the other materials which You have seen fit to put before me. If I want a boat I will try to construct it out of trees, and if I want to fly, I will put together a chariot to do it for me. Probably I have been very silly in refusing to take advantage of Your kind offer, but I have done my very best to think it over carefully, and now hope that the feeble decision of this small innocent will find favour with Yourselves.'

" 'Well done,' exclaimed the Creator in delighted tones. 'Here, all you embryos, come here with your beaks and whatnots to look upon Our first Man. He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle, out of all of you, and We have great pleasure in conferring upon him the Order of Dominion over the Fowls of the Air, and the Beasts of the Earth, and the Fishes of the Sea. Now let the rest of you get along, and love and multiply, for it is time to knock off for the week-end. As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful. Run along then, and do your best. And listen, Man, before you go....'

" 'Well,' asked Adam, turning back from his dismissal.

" 'We were only going to say,' said God shyly, twisting Their hands together. 'Well, We were just going to say, God bless you.' " [emphasis added]


On last year's annual walk through the British Pine Forest,
we stumbled upon this little lean - to, or as Ben entitled this photo:
"Summer Home" ~ May 2013

The following passage echoes the Badger's lesson that, from beginning to end, humans retain the form of defenseless embryos -- "a naked tool all your life . . . an embryo till they bury you" -- like the innocent children included amongst the animals in Hicks painting, as well as the settlers and natives off to the left, meeting together to discuss the possibility of sharing the land in peace. Even at the height of our adult strength and power, we remain "weak, slow, clawless," no fur, no fangs, forever in need of shelter, in search of a home:

from Chapter 2, "House and Home" (p 29)
in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World
by Scott Russell Sanders

[see previous excerpt from Hunting for Hope]

The word house derives from an Indo-European root meaning to cover or conceal. I hear in that etymology furtive, queasy undertones. Conceal from what? From storms? beasts? enemies? from the eye of God?

Home comes from a different root meaning 'the place where one lies.' That sounds less fearful to me. A weak, slow, clawless animal, without fur or fangs, can risk lying down and closing its eyes only where it feels utterly secure. Since the universe is going to kill us, in the short run or the long, no wonder we crave a place to lie in safety, a place to conceive our young and raise them, a place to shut our eyes without shivering or dread." [emphasis added]


American philosopher Susanne K. Langer makes a similar point about the human need for signs, symbols, language, and expression. When the embryos chose their big brains over physical might, they steered us toward imagination and communication.

from paragraphs 13 & 14
of "Language and Thought"
by Susanne K. Langer, 1895 - 1985

When we are faced with a strange or difficult situation, we cannot react directly as other creatures do, with flight, aggression, or any such simple instinctive pattern. Our whole reaction depends on how we manage to conceive the situation -- whether we see it as a disaster, a challenge, a fulfillment of doom, or a fiat of the Divine Will. In words or dreamlike images, in artistic or religious or even in cynical form, we must construe the events of life. . . .

Conception is a necessary and elementary process . . . of human culture -- of intelligence and morality, folly and superstition, ritual, language, and the arts -- all the phenomena that set us apart from, and above, the rest of the animal kingdom.


In his typically amusing way, Andreas suggests a process similar to that of the embryos choosing their gifts:

from StoryPeople
by Brian Andreas

A few said they’d be horses. Most said they’d be some sort of cat.
My friend said she’d like to come back as a porcupine.
I don’t like crowds, she said.


Arthur C. Clarke -- along with T. H. White and Scott Russell Sanders -- observes that, compared to many others creatures, humans are neither strong nor fast:

"We humans govern the future
not because we're the fastest or strongest
creature but because we're the most intelligent.
When we share the planet with creatures
more intelligent than we are,
they will steer the future."

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 - 2008

British Science Fiction Writer
(and the first person that Wernher von Braun
wanted to meet upon leaving Germany)

Dawn or Doom: This Week at Purdue University

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, September 28th

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

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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Commonplace Book


"It smells good here," she said.
It did. It had the indefinable smell of a perfectly - kept,
well - loved American home; the smell found nowhere else on earth.
A smell of cleanliness and polish and Ivory soap and potted plants
and baking bread -- the sweet warm smell of simplicity and abundance.
. . . everything in the room felt kind and gentle and safe."

~ Marcia Davenport ~
from The Valley of Decision, 407
[More on my Book Blog]

Regular as clockwork, yet another Fall Semester has arrived, with all the excitement and promise of course descriptions and syllabi! Risking repetition, I thought the beginning of the academic year (see previous post also!) would be the right time for a review of my fortnightly initiative. The following outline is drawn from several previous posts -- Mission Statement, The Second Page, Pastiche -- and was prepared as a presentation for the American Literature Club of West Lafayette, Indiana, where my dear friend Elizabeth offered me the opportunity to share my work with the club members at their annual spring dinner meeting.

Naturally, I began with a special thanks to Elizabeth for her constant support in our various shared endeavors such as music, parenting, exercising, and -- our focus of the evening -- reading, writing, and blogging. To narrow the topic, Elizabeth asked me to please answer the question for well - read audience, with varying degrees of computer savviness: "What is a Literary Blog?"

To define simply, a blog is a personal website or web page -- technically a WEB LOG (thus the shortened "BLOG") on which an individual can record opinions, proverbs, poems, letters, essays, movie reviews or book reports -- along with photographs and helpful links to other sites. Adding new material or updates on a regularly basis is called blogging: Web Logging!

It is a digital journal or Commonplace Book that will be unique to whatever its keeper finds of interest, e.g., the clean metallic lines of the graceful leaves above (photographed earlier this summer at the at the Wynn / Encore in Las Vegas) and Marcia Davenport's blissful description of early twentieth homemaking. How are these apparently random items related? The blogger gets to impose the pattern! That's the beauty of blogging! All you need to do is choose your topic, decide how you want to organize your material, master a few simple functions on the keyboard, and hit "publish."

Five years ago, as I was getting the blog underway, my friend Eve -- also a writer and a teacher of writing -- asked me if I had a Dream Job in mind for my Inner Scholar. Indeed I did!

Always present in my mind whenever churning out an insight or two to share with a kindred spirit such as Eve, was the question, now how can I make that my work for the day? Because it feels so good, like an accomplishment. You know that old cliche that you know you're a writer if you just have to write every day? Well for me that doesn't mean I'm driven to lock myself in my room writing a novel, or stay up all night writing poetry; instead, it's more about articulating the daily worries and outrages and obsessions, then lining them up with the poems and stories and essays that will bring a little order to the chaos.

If I can take an hour or so to press beyond blathering, to organize all that angst and nonsense, channel all that anxiety into the written word, search out the literary parallels, send it out to an audience who "knows" (in manner of Carson McCullers), then I arise from my computer and say to myself, "Whew, that was a good morning's work," though I'm the first to admit that it's also play. The work of writing -- the discipline of daily expression, the task of scratching it all out, the quest of tracking down an old nearly forgotten poem or recovering a stray thought that's perfect for the moment before it gets away, the struggle with meaning, the satisfaction of connecting -- can feel so necessary yet also vaguely, if not blatantly, like a selfish indulgence, an undeserved luxury.

I wanted to create a space where the threads of art and life intertwine until a pattern emerges from the chaos; to generate some literary analysis -- scholarly yet painless -- about how literature fits into every hour of every day; to share and interpret what I have recorded and remembered over the years; to include a running update of my current reading; and to explain how it all fits together with the little things that actually happen in real life throughout the course of any given day -- in manner of Mrs. Dalloway.

To accomplish these quasi - para - academic goals, I designed three blogs:

a Book List -- which I update once a month with a brief description of what I've been reading recently

a Quotidian blog -- which I update -- not daily, but every other day or so with seasonal snippets, light verse, photographs of my cats, whatever comes to mind

and -- the page you're reading now -- my Fortnightly Literary Blog of Connection & Coincidence; Custom & Ceremony:

I have to thank my husband Gerry for the "Fortnightly" suggestion. He pointed out that readers would need to know how often to expect a new post. Not only did a two - week interval seem reasonable, but the term "Fortnightly" which I no doubt learned from reading English novels in my girlhood -- would lend a British flair to the literary enterprise.

Next, I chose as my watchword Goethe’s suggestion that

“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.”

Whenever my readers open The Fortnightly on their computer screens, I wish for them to encounter each item on Goethe's list:

a little song -- and amazingly, thanks to you-tube, I can include not just all of my favorite lyrics but also links for listening;

a good poem -- this would be my forum for sharing selections from all the wonderful poetry that I have been reading and collecting in notebooks for the past few decades;

a fine picture -- my favorite hobby has always been combining quotations and pictures into handmade posters, greeting cards, and scrapbooks for family and friends. On my blog, I could pursue this hobby, using my own photography or other beautiful photos and artwork found on the internet;

and last but not least -- a few reasonable words.

Goethe makes it sound so simple, I thought I'd give it a try, tying songs and poems together with just the right visuals and, hopefully, a few worthy observations of my own on the theme of connection & coincidence; custom & ceremony.

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

Coincidence: For me, nothing tops those moments when Life offers its own theme to a strand of apparently accidental events, and everything hangs together for a moment in such an uncanny way that you'd swear it was all planned out somehow! Those are the literary connections and coincidences that I am always on the lookout for, not that they require much tracking down, since they usually find me before I find them.

For example, I pulled together one of my earliest blog posts one morning back in 2009 when I came downstairs just in time to hear my son Sam saying: "It's my lucky rock; Mom gave it to me." Turns out, my husband was asking about the shiny rock that he had just seen Sam pick up from his desk and drop into his pocket. I was touched by Sam's belief in lucky rocks and by his sentiment of hanging on to a talisman from his crazy old mom. It was, however, no more than a fleeting morning moment -- yes, sweeter than most but still fleet -- until it suddenly took on a life of it's own.

Sam left for school and Gerry for work. I sat down to review my friend Jan's latest batch of short stories. I had read them earlier and was just collecting my thoughts to comment, when suddenly, my eyes fell on the title, "Pocket." How had I missed this entry, pocketed as it was, right there in between "Heart" & "Fable," which I had read several days ago? Can you imagine my astonishment when just a few lines into the story, the heroine exclaims: "Not even a lucky rock"?

A lucky rock? Like Sam's! What's the odds?

Sometimes, life is so full of coincidences that I think my head will split open trying to take them all in! It's enough to make me believe in the whole Universe at once! Here I was, sitting alone, reading a story about the very object my loved ones had been discussing a mere thirty minutes earlier. And not just any object, but a lucky, magic object, "something to keep forever." And now I know why I had previously overlooked "Pocket," -- because Fate was saving it up for me, a lucky story to read on a lucky Friday! Because, to quote Jan, we all need stories -- "clear, round, and easy to carry" -- in our hearts.


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

Along the same lines, just a few weeks ago, a couple of old friends shared the following funny, complete with sentiments such as

"Was there an old song written for every occasion?"
"Yes! I think there was!"

Or as my sister Di expressed it:
"Life is a musical!"
A poem for every poem . . . a song for every song.
Haha -- but true!

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

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

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

Thus the line from "A Prayer For My Daughter" has become the perpetual caption for the opening picture of every Fortnightly Blog Post. I hope that in some way (though not always in the same way) these photographs and illustrations will portray "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." Sometimes it's my own house (or former houses), other times, a cathedral, a log cabin, a playground, sites of historical interest or fame, a neighborhood mural, a village mosaic, a medieval tapestry.

In the early days of my blog, my older brother, who like me, studied English in college, asked me, "Do you have an encyclopedic memory of poems or a really good search engine? You seem to always find one that fits the occasion. Cool trick. Guess I shoulda paid more attention in one of those literature classes that I seem to have forgotten."

A funny question. But luckily, the answer is Yes, I have both -- the memory and the search engine! On the serious side of constructive criticism, he suggested: "You are a true master in linking nuggets of wisdom, wit, and rational thought, but I see so little of the inner Kit. Or perhaps, I just haven't been reading enough of your blogs."

I really liked his comment about my nugget - linking skills, because it's true -- some entries are just a quotation linked with picture, but it's always a good match, one that no one else would have thought of, or even found (because I'm the careful reader, that's the objective of my blogging). I took his words to heart and trust that, as he read further, he encountered to a greater extent my inner voice -- which I'm sure is there! -- in addition to the voices of so many writers whose work I admire.

My creative writing teacher in college once wrote in the margin of my paper: "What's at stake here?" I have never forgotten that comment and think that my brother may be asking a similar question. What I took away from his advice was the need to take more personal risk, go out on a limb, bare more of my soul, embarrass myself a little bit, move beyond "So what?" And, yes, I have tried to test these limits (see for example "Never Fear").

The blog is a good place to experiment and push the envelope. In the meantime, I strive to deserve the great faith that my friend Jes, who teaches in Boston, has placed in this enterprise: "How courageous of you to insist on beauty and thoughtfulness every day in this, the 21st century! What a brave blogger you are!"

I see now that Goethe (1749 – 1832) was asking his 18th & 19th Century audience to search for the same: beauty and thoughtfulness -- in a song, a poem, a picture, a few reasonable words.

Flower Gardens, Carosel, and Wall Art (above)
at the Wynn / Encore, Las Vegas

In closing,
many thanks to my supportive friends and readers
for their ultra - kind observations:

Nancy T.: "Sing! Thanks for all the blogs -- photos, poems, book titles. Some days you are my own only source or mental stimulation. May you keep on singing!"

Pat F.: "I just want you to know that your blog today was one of the most touching and meaningful ever! Actually, I have read it several times, and listened to the music. The first time through, I was absolutely in tears! It realllllly touched me on so many levels. Thanks for being a friend and such a talented writer. . . . Thank you for this beautiful article today. It really touched me!"

Barbara T.: "this is amazing. I learn so much from you and marvel at the beauty of the paintings, photographs, memorabilia and WORDS that you share. Thank you. Barbara T."

Tim Th.: "Thanks, Kitti for your unending eloquent endeavor; it is a reading pleasure I enjoy!"

Len O.: "Your collections of objects and archives of documents and photographs make you the FB Smithsonian. I am always struck by the high quality of your nature and celestial photographs (assuming you are not funded by NASA), as well as the archives of photos and objects you have from your life (including your friends)."

And in reply: "I am honored to serve in the capacity of facebook archivist! Would that I were funded by NASA! I just use a little Canon PowerShot recommended by my niece Sara & my friend Natasha. Len, thanks again for your kind words, especially about my friends. As Shakespeare / Bolingbroke says: "I count myself in nothing else so happy / As in a soul remembering my good friends" -- including you & everyone else on this post!"

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, September 14th

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

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