"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, June 28, 2017

Yellow Wallpaper


Pericles ~ Cicero

Click to see animated panels.

When I saw this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art ~ Sydney, Australia, passages from "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman began floating through my mind. Had Gary Carsley evoked / invoked Gilman intentionally or by coincidence? Either way, one glance at Carsley's "talking heads" brought Gilman's text to life. Re - reading the story, I felt almost convinced that the narrator was staring at the Carsley exhibit:
"The front pattern does move -- and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very ' bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern -- it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad."
Whether or not Carsley's exhibit explicitly mentions Gilman's story, I felt a subtle connection and knew that I had to share it with my friend Rebecca, who has studied Gilman extensively and is the one who urged me to study "The Yellow Wallpaper" more thoroughly years ago in graduate school.

As I was getting ready to share with Rebecca, the next coincidence came along. I turned to her facebook page and discovered that her most recent post contained a link to:
"Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus:
A Brief History or, Why I Teach "The Yellow Wallpaper"

By Terri Kapsalis

Rarely does the phrase "wandering uterus" come into my conversation, but
-- another coincidence! -- here it was twice in two weeks. A couple of weeks ago, Gerry and I started watching a new series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the very first episode of which contains a quasi-medical, half - joking reference to treating the "wandering womb." I remarked at the time whether "wandering womb" might be a pre - scientific term for "endometriosis"? As it turns out, yes, that is one important explanation.

Kapsalis suggests a few others:
"The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. 'Treatments,' including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place."
A google search will yield numerous insights into the disturbing tale of "The Yellow Wallpaper," and into the mind, life, and times of the author. Before checking out any of the others, read this one! Explaining the course she teaches ~ “The Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender, Race, and Medicine” ~ Kapsalis moves through history, literary criticism and fiction, medicine, mental health, gender issues, hate crimes, contemporary politics and economics, leaving no stone unturned -- even the weather plays a part:
"We know that the social toxins of living in a racist, misogynist, homophobic, and otherwise economically unjust society can literally make us sick, and that sickness is no less real than one brought on by polluted air or water. In actuality, both social and environmental toxins are inextricably intertwined as the very people subject to systemic social toxins (oppression, poverty) are usually the same folks impacted by the most extreme environmental toxins. And the people who point fingers and label others “hysterical” are the ones least directly impacted by said toxins."
Kapsalis concludes that "I teach 'The Yellow Wallpaper' because I believe it can save people," echoing Gilman herself, who wrote: "But the best result is this. . . . It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

As Gilman's distressed narrator explains from the outset, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a ghost story, although her husband is always ready to offer a practical explanation that "spoils my ghostliness." After a few more paragraphs, it becomes clear that the reader is also bearing witness to a descent into madness. Isolated from the family, denied meaningful work, and banned from creative expression, the narrator spends hour after hour sequestered in the yellow - papered, prison - like room, growing increasingly obsessed with the confusing random movement of the design. She hopes for order to emerge from the chaos, but it never does. Instead, a phantom woman appears, at first within the intricate design, then at the windows, then beyond. The narrator feels connected to this wandering yet trapped figure because their plights are similar:
" . . . there is something strange about the house - I can feel it. I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window." (648)

“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” (652)

“It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.” (654)

“I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once. But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at one time. And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn! I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.”
[Click for more quotations & to read the entire story]

Last week, another annoying, local coincidence reinforced the message of Gilman's story. Well in advance of garbage day, an ugly old yellow - patterned couch appeared out on the curb of our street, just a few houses down from us, a sorry sight for the neighbors to endure for several days. Truly, every time I biked past, it was driving me a little crazier than the time before! It seemed to embody the reason that Gilman chose yellow for the offending wallpaper!

Remember Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the enchanting childhood poetry collection in which each color "has a taste . . . a smell . . . a wonderful story to tell?" Yellow, for example, "is the color of the sun / The feeling of fun / The yolk of an egg . . . And a daffodil . . . sweet corn / Ripe oats . . . Summer squash and / Chinese silk . . ." (Mary O'Neill). If only Gilman's imprisoned heroine could lay hold of such nostalgic joy, but to her dismay, and ours, her reaction is the exact opposite:
"It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell." [654]

And for one last connection: in searching for material on Gilman and "The Yellow Wallpaper," I came across this collection, featuring a painting of Gilman herself, nursing her newborn:

Click for more about this book
and more about the cover painting:
"Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Breastfeeding her Baby Katharine"

How timely that my friend Brendan had recently spoken out against the latest misogynistic incident of breastfeeding hysteria, and I had posted this photo of what it looks like, more often than not, to breastfeed a baby in public:

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, July 14th

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Always June

A Month Where All's Accustomed, Ceremonious

My husband Gerry and I spent the first eleven days of this month in Australia, somewhere we had never been before. On June 1st, Gerry was driving us to the airport, while I sat quietly in the passenger's seat browsing through my latest Martha Stewart magazine. No sooner had I marked the above page with a little bookmark than my friend Katie texted me the following visual:

"Thought you'd like this quote from The Oprah Magazine.
Happy June!"

I wish it were a bit more legible, but take a closer look at the caption under the summer fruit and you'll find the exact same passage from Lucy Maud Montgomery. I loved the idea that at the exact same moment, Katie -- at her desk taking a break from her writing -- and I -- in the car on the way to Indianapolis -- were connected through our reading of these beautiful summery words from Anne of the Island, used in one case to illustrate the perfect summer bike ride, and in another to accompany an array of delicious seasonal berries and peaches.

I took a quick photo of the page in front of me and texted it back to Katie: "Funny coincidence. I brought along Martha Stewart Living to look at in the car on the way to the airport. Just got to this page then took a break to check my phone and got your message with Oprah page. Could it be that both magazines share the same literary editor?!"

Katie replied with her usual charm: "You were obviously meant to be seeing that great quote today! Happy June and happy travels!"

Red Leaf at
The Chinese Garden of Friendship
Sydney, Australia ~ June 9, 2017

I'm pretty sure that we readers from the northern hemisphere know exactly what L. M. Montgomery means when she wonders "what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June." She means, if only it could always be summertime!

Likewise James Russell Lowell when he asks: "And what is so rare as a day in June? / Then, if ever, come perfect days."

And Emily Dickinson When she exclaims that "My only sketch, profile of heaven is a large blue sky, / larger than the biggest I have seen in June -- and in it are my friends -- all of them -- every one them."

In our prose and in our poetry, June and summer are synonyms! As are October and autumn! Gillian Flynn explains it perfectly: "I had seen the photos . . . always with autumn colors in the background, as if the school were based not in a town but in a month, October." October is practically a place! It's certainly a season.

We know that George Eliot must be thinking of October -- not June -- when she declares: "Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

As it turns out, that's kind of what Gerry and I did. We flew around the world and found another autumn! In Sydney, June does not mean summer; it means a very mild and mellow (except for that one really stormy day) late autumn. Even more disconcerting than the 26 - hour time difference and the jet lag, was this sense of what I call season lag. Could it really be coming on to winter but not coming on to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas?

I guess the reverse was true last December in Medellin,
wearing summer clothes, photographing the tropical plants,
and admiring the Christmas lights without a snowflake in sight.

Yet, somehow my mind could bridge the disconnect of a warm December with greater ease than a chilly June. After all, I've visited Florida in December and seen the poinsettias sitting out on the front porches -- something you could never do in the Midwest! But never before had I seen leaves falling in June! I had to pinch myself a few times as a reminder: yes it is June, yes it is autumn!

An Autumnal Perspective ~ June 9, 2017
The Anglican Cathedral of St Andrew
Sydney Town Hall ~ Constructed 1886
Surrounded by a combination of green trees and fall leaves

Speaking of wandering the globe, Happy Bloomsday!
~ Coming up June 16th

The Return of Odysseus
by Romare Bearden (1911 - 1988)
And more! ~ Look at these!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, June 28th

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Crones At Last

Stained Glass Avian Triad ~ Birthday Present From Melinda

Connection ~ Treasured Friends

2010 ~ Celebrating Kitti's 53rd, Nancy's 70th, Melinda's 60th
In our matching embossed shirts:

Coincidence ~ Barbara G. Walker ~ Witches & Crones
In anticipation of our birthday gathering, I shared with Melinda and Nancy a few pages from one of my favorite works of religious insight: The Skeptical Feminist: Discovering the Virgin, Mother, and Crone, Barbara G. Walker. A brief interchapter entitled "The Witches" bridges the second and third sections of the book. In this mystical interlude, Walker describes thirteen friends who meet for a ceremonial supper once a month in observance of the full moon. Here's the thing about the "witch women" -- they are also just regular women: At the close of the evening,
"The women stand and put their arms around each other's shoulders for a moment. Then they collect their dishes, coats, and candlesticks, and go out one by one into the night. Each makes a little bow toward the full moon. They get into their cars and drive away, once more transformed into ordinary modern housewives and working women, filled with ordinary concerns. Yet each retains a small, steady, sustaining core of calm, like a candle in the center of a room.

They will meet again in another 28 days
" (207).

With no prior knowledge that I had copied these pages in preparation for our birthday celebration, Nancy presented me with Walker's classic introduction to aging wisely: The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power:
"A first step is to realize that the Crone was once a vital part of divinity . . . even early Christianity -- the nontraditional or Gnostic kind --had its own Crone figure, the feminine forerunner of the later, masculinized Holy Ghost. She was sometimes Sophia, personification of Wisdom; sometimes the Pneuma or Holy Spirit; sometimes Grandmother of God; sometimes the feminine Thought without whom God could not have functioned as a creator. . . . " (38).

[For more on Walker, see my previous posts:
Politics & Religion, Three Christmases, Once A Time Before.]

Custom ~ Birthday Reunion
2017 ~ Celebrating Melinda's 67th, Kitti's 60th, Nancy's 77th
In our coordinating scarves and birthday hoodies
fromTillicum Village ~ Blake Island, Washington

Ceremony ~ For May the Month of Mary
~ A Prayer For The Times ~ A Litany of Women for the Church ~
Dear God, creator of women in your own image,
born of a woman in the midst of a world half women,
carried by women to mission fields around the globe,
made known by women to all the children of the earth,
give to the women of our time
the strength to persevere,
the courage to speak out,
the faith to believe in you beyond
all systems and institutions
so that your face on earth may be seen in all its beauty,
so that men and women become whole,
so that the church may be converted to your will
in everything and in all ways.

We call on the holy women
who went before us,
channels of Your Word
in testaments old and new,
to intercede for us
so that we might be given the grace
to become what they have been
for the honor and glory of God.

Saint Esther, who pleaded against power
for the liberation of the people,
Saint Judith, who routed the plans of men
and saved the community,
Saint Deborah, laywoman and judge, who led
the people of God,
Saint Elizabeth of Judea, who recognized the value
of another woman,
Saint Mary Magdalene, minister of Jesus,
first evangelist of the Christ,
Saint Scholastica, who taught her brother Benedict
to honor the spirit above the system,
Saint Hildegard, who suffered interdict
for the doing of right,
Saint Joan of Arc, who put no law above the law of God,
Saint Clare of Assisi, who confronted the pope
with the image of woman as equal,
Saint Julian of Norwich, who proclaimed for all of us
the motherhood of God,
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who knew the call
to priesthood in herself,
Saint Catherine of Siena, to whom the pope listened,
Saint Teresa of Avila, who brought women’s gifts
to the reform of the church,
Saint Edith Stein, who brought fearlessness to faith,
Saint Elizabeth Seton, who broke down boundaries
between lay women and religious
by wedding motherhood and religious life,
Saint Dorothy Day, who led the church
to a new sense of justice,

* * *

Mary, mother of Jesus,
who heard the call of God and answered,
Mary, mother of Jesus,
who drew strength from the woman Elizabeth,
Mary, mother of Jesus,
who underwent hardship bearing Christ,
Mary, mother of Jesus, who ministered at Cana,
Mary, mother of Jesus, inspired at Pentecost,
Mary, mother of Jesus, who turned the Spirit of God
into the body and blood of Christ, pray for us. Amen.

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB

In addition to Chittister's litany of encouragement, Nancy also read a contemporary psalm of hope to carry us forward into the new year and our next decade of life on this beautiful, chaotic planet:

I will praise God, my Beloved,
for she is altogether lovely . . .

On the edge of your abyss I look down and I tremble;
but I will not stand gazing forever.

Even in chaos you will bear me up;
if the waters go over my head,
you will still be holding me.

For the chaos is yours also,
and in the swirling of mighty waters
is your presence known . . .

Though I lose all knowledge and security . . .

[God] will recreate me, in her steadfast love,
so that I need not be afraid.

Janet Morley ~ All Desires Known

"Transforming Spirits" is the name of this dragonfly design
by Coast Salish ~ artist ~ Simone Diamond
More on Quotidian Transformation and Renewal

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, June 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, May 14, 2017

Tools For Everyday Use

I wish I had thought to take a photo of my father's old garage shop
when I was visiting; but since I forgot to do so,
here is a picture of Gerry's basement shop instead.

Hanging out with my sibs for Mother's Day, I happened to recall a conversation between the six of us that took place ten (10!) years ago, so I combed back through my saved mail, finally tracking down the following exchange from Saturday, May 26, 2007:

Initial note from eldest brother Dave:
I will begin next week to pull out some of Dad's and possibly G'pa Carriker's tools and divvy them up. I will, to the best of my ability try and describe whatever history I know of them as well as their function if it isn't readily apparent. You should see them sometime around Dad's birthday.

Response from eldest sister Peg:
Thanks for asking about Daddy's tools. Unfortunately, working with their hands is not something either of my boys takes an interest in. I would appreciate one tool of your choice just to have something. It's a case of wanting some tangible piece of our legacy but nothing more. The purpose and function of the tool is irrelevant. Thanks again for asking, and I'm happy to know that the majority of the tools will go to someone who will give them a good home.

Response from youngest sister Diane:
Thank you for including us in the tools ... and what / who they represent. (hugs)

My response:
I feel exactly the same as Peg does. Just one slightly different idea -- and Peg may want to use this suggestion also -- how about if I request two small tools, so that one day when Ben & Sam have their own workshops, they can give each have an item to remember Grandpa Willard by. I like Peg's word -- "a tangible piece of legacy." It doesn't really matter which particular tools -- just pick things that are easy to package up and that you and Hans would be least likely to use in your work.

And one more thing -- if sending through the mail is a hassle, please don't feel that there is any rush. As I told you a few years back when you were sorting out the guns and figuring out whose was whose, if it's safe with you, that's good enough for me. I trust your judgment entirely on these issues.

Here's a little story that taught me about trusting and sharing when it comes to family heirlooms. Right after Earl died, Grandpa Lindsey offered me the 1913 photograph of his brother Sam, who was killed in WWI.
I said, "I don't want to take it if you're not ready to part with it." And Grandpa said, "Well, Honey Girl, if I give it to you, I'm not parting with it." Isn't that a great line? I've never forgotten it.

I'm also suddenly reminded me of a story that I used to love to teach, called "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. It's about two African American sisters, Maggie (the shy stay - at - home girl) and Dee (who has seen the world and changed her name to "Wangero" in honor of her African heritage). Dee / Wangero has come to visit her mother (who narrates the story) and look over some quilts made by their Aunt (called Big Dee) and Grandmother (also named Dee). The mother wants to give the quilts to the sister who will actually use them (Maggie), rather than to Wangero / Dee who sees them as artifacts.

So you should definitely not pick anything to give to us that Hans could put to "Everyday Use." Speaking of which -- here's the story:

Everyday Use
by Alice Walker
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.

Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.

You've no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has "made it" is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other's faces. Sometimes the mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.

Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft-seated limousine I am ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers.

In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.

But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature.

"How do I look, Mama?" Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she's there, almost hidden by the door.

"Come out into the yard," I say.

Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground.

Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She's a woman now, though sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie's arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee. I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot brick chimney. Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.

I used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised money, the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.

Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she'd made from an old suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.

I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don't ask my why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good-naturedly but can't see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by. She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face) and then I'll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself. Although I never was a good singer. Never could carry a tune. I was always better at a man's job. I used to love to milk till I was hooked in the side in '49. Cows are soothing and slow and don't bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way.

I have deliberately turned my back on the house. It is three rooms, just like the one that burned, except the roof is tin; they don't make shingle roofs any more. There are no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides, like the portholes in a ship, but not round and not square, with rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside. This house is in a pasture, too, like the other one. No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down. She wrote me once that no matter where we "choose" to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends. Maggie and I thought about this and Maggie asked me, "Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?"

She had a few. Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school. Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye. She read to them.

When she was courting Jimmy T she didn't have much time to pay to us, but turned all her faultfinding power on him. He flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy people. She hardly had time to recompose herself.

When she comes I will meet—but there they are!

Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand. "Come back here," I say. And she stops and tries to dig a well in the sand with her toe.

It is hard to see them clearly through the strong sun. But even the first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style. From the other side of the car comes a short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head a foot long and hanging from his chin like a kinky mule tail. I hear Maggie suck in her breath. "Uhnnnh," is what it sounds like. Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road. "Uhnnnh."

Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it. I hear Maggie go "Uhnnnh" again. It is her sister's hair. It stands straight up like the wool on a sheep. It is black as night and around the edges are two long pigtails that rope about like small lizards disappearing behind her ears.

"Wa-su-zo-Tean-o!" she says, coming on in that gliding way the dress makes her move. The short stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning and he follows up with "Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!" He moves to hug Maggie but she falls back, right up against the back of my chair. I feel her trembling there and when I look up I see the perspiration falling off her chin.

"Don't get up," says Dee. Since I am stout it takes something of a push. You can see me trying to move a second or two before I make it. She turns, showing white heels through her sandals, and goes back to the car. Out she peeks next with a Polaroid. She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead.

Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie's hand. Maggie's hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she keeps trying to pull it back. It looks like Asalamalakim wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy. Or maybe he don't know how people shake hands. Anyhow, he soon gives up on Maggie.

"Well," I say. "Dee."

"No, Mama," she says. "Not 'Dee,' Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!"

"What happened to 'Dee'?" I wanted to know.

"She's dead," Wangero said. "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me."

"You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie," I said. Dicie is my sister. She named Dee. We called her "Big Dee" after Dee was born.

"But who was she named after?" asked Wangero.

"I guess after Grandma Dee," I said.

"And who was she named after?" asked Wangero.

"Her mother," I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. "That's about as far back as I can trace it," I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.

"Well," said Asalamalakim, "there you are."

"Uhnnnh," I heard Maggie say.

"There I was not," I said, "before 'Dicie' cropped up in our family, so why should I try to trace it that far back?"

He just stood there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a Model A car. Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head.

"How do you pronounce this name?" I asked.

"You don't have to call me by it if you don't want to," said Wangero.

"Why shouldn't I?" I asked. "If that's what you want us to call you, we'll call you."

"I know it might sound awkward at first," said Wangero.

"I'll get used to it," I said. "Ream it out again."

Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as long and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he told me to just call him Hakim-a-barber. I wanted to ask him was he a barber, but I didn't really think he was, so I didn't ask.

"You must belong to those beef-cattle peoples down the road," I said. They said "Asalamalakim" when they met you, too, but they didn't shake hands. Always too busy: feeding the cattle, fixing the fences, putting up salt-lick shelters, throwing down hay. When the white folks poisoned some of the herd the men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and a half just to see the sight.

Hakim-a-barber said, "I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style." (They didn't tell me, and I didn't ask, whether Wangero (Dee) had really gone and married him.)

We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn't eat collards and pork was unclean. Wangero, though, went on through the chitlins and com bread, the greens and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn't effort to buy chairs.

"Oh, Mama!" she cried. Then turned to Hakim-a-barber. "I never knew how lovely these benches are. You can feel the rump prints," she said, running her hands underneath her and along the bench. Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over Grandma Dee's butter dish. "That's it!" she said. "I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have." She jumped up from the table and went over in the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it clabber by now. She looked at the churn and looked at it.

"This churn top is what I need," she said. "Didn't Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree you all used to have?"

"Yes," I said.

"Un huh," she said happily. "And I want the dasher, too."

"Uncle Buddy whittle that, too?" asked the barber.

Dee (Wangero) looked up at me.

"Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash," said Maggie so low you almost couldn't hear her. "His name was Henry, but they called him Stash."

"Maggie's brain is like an elephant's," Wangero said, laughing. "I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table," she said, sliding a plate over the chute, "and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher."

When she finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment in my hands. You didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.

After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell's Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War.

"Mama," Wangro said sweet as a bird. "Can I have these old quilts?"

I heard something fall in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed.

"Why don't you take one or two of the others?" I asked. "These old things was just done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died."

"No," said Wangero. "I don't want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine."

"That'll make them last better," I said.

"That's not the point," said Wangero. "These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!" She held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them.

"Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come from old clothes her mother handed down to her," I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved back just enough so that I couldn't reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.

"Imagine!" she breathed again, clutching them closely to her bosom.

"The truth is," I said, "I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas."

She gasped like a bee had stung her.

"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!" I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told they were old~fashioned, out of style.

"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"

"She can always make some more," I said. "Maggie knows how to quilt."

Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. "You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!"

"Well," I said, stumped. "What would you do with them?"

"Hang them," she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.

Maggie by now was standing in the door. I could almost hear the sound her feet made as they scraped over each other.

"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts."

I looked at her hard. She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff and gave her face a kind of dopey, hangdog look. It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad at her. This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work.

When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did some.thing I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open.

"Take one or two of the others," I said to Dee.

But she turned without a word and went out to Hakim~a~barber.

"You just don't understand," she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.

"What don't I understand?" I wanted to know.

"Your heritage," she said, And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it."

She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin.

Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After we watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.

Response from Dave:

Kit ~

Excellent story with a powerful message. It goes hand in hand with a maxim that I have always believed in relating to tools. Unused tools are one of the saddest things in the world. So much potential, so much already done and yet there they lay, fallow but full of promise. Another thought on tools came from G'pa Carriker who quoted it to me often: "It's a poor workman that blames his tools."

Quilts unslept under and saws painted and hung in a Crackerbarrel. So sad.

~ Dave

~ The Old Home Place ~

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Notes Toward a Heroine of Sensibility

"The whole of anything is never told;
you can only take what groups together."

The Notebooks of Henry James

A couple of things happened over the weekend:

First, I had a note from the niece of my dear friend and literary colleague, Celine Carrigan, marking the 20th - year memorial of her passing. Twenty years . . . without Celine . . . it will never seem right.

Second, I had a call from my friend Sandy S - K asking me, on behalf of her studious daughter Rachel, how I used to prepare for my big exams. What came to mind was my typical strategy, suggested by Henry James (above) of taking "what groups together."

In fact, I remember applying that particular strategy when getting ready, with assistance from Celine, for a presentation on "The Heroine of Sensibility" (one of her specialties) -- and I still have those notes! So I pulled them to take a look and see what I had learned and hopefully retained from that study session.

Thus, I begin this post with a shout - out of "Congratulations!" to Rachel on the completion of her M.A. in English / Writing. And I dedicate these musings to the memory of Celine's scholarship and pedagogy. She was a gentlewoman and a scholar, a beloved teacher and a true friend, and a heroine of sensibility in her own right.

~ Heart - shaped ornaments ~ a gift from Celine ~

From the 18th Century through the present day, the heroine of sensibility has animated the British and American novel with spirited introspection and vibrant discourse. Despite lack or loss of legitimate authority in her life, her will is always strong enough to initiate a natural regrouping, restoring order and continuity. She strives for autonomy, self - determination, and a life not entirely bound by acquiescence. Modernist Carolyn Heilbrun suggests a more appropriate designation: "The Woman as Hero."

Such a character believes herself sufficiently in control of the situation at hand; she develops a sense of her own identity as she contemplates and searches for destiny. As with any male hero, the woman as hero struggles with the tension "between her apparent freedom and her actual relegation to a constrained destiny."

All you have to do is google "sensibility," and Jane Austen is all over the place. In chronological order here are a few additional authors and novels that capture the characters and the concepts:

Samuel Richardson / Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740)
My thoughts: Her focus finally shifts from the wickedness around her to a matter of confusion within her soul. She identifies herself as "an enemy she never thought of before." She names her own mind as the power with which she must struggle. Pamela holds out for being treated as a social and economic equal, for unrestricted, unclassed treatment as a human being.

Samuel Richardson / Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748)
"Steadily she [Clarissa Harlowe] has refused the marriage he offers: she cannot marry without love, cannot love without honour, and cannot honour the man who, by every action, has ruined his (not her own) honour in her eyes" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942). Clarissa transcends the limits set by the novel's world.

Henry Fielding / The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749
" 'Love,' says Squire Allworthy, 'however much we may corrupt and pervert its meaning . . . remains a rational passion' " (21).

Charlotte Bronte / Jane Eyre (1847)
"But Jane, like Clarissa Harlowe, still identifies virtue with the power to keep her fate in her own hands" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942).

"As Celine Carrigan notes . . . Charlotte Bronte's heroines, unlike their creator are generally 'free from the burden of imposed responsibility' (214, "Versions of the Governess: Narrative Patterns in Ellen Weeton, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Bronte." Diss. U of Notre Dame, 1988). They work to support themselves, but do not have others dependent upon them; rather, they assert her belief that work in itself is respectable and healthy for women" (Christine Doyle in Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte: Transatlantic Translations, 140).

from Jane Eyre, Chapter 2: "How is he my master? Am I a servant?"

" 'Unjust! -- unjust!' said my reason."

Jane resolves to achieve escape from insupportable oppression.

Chapter 10: " . . . my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."

Emily Bronte / Wuthering Heights (1847)
"The love in it is relentless, as pure of hope as it is of fliesh. . . . here is the real English dark tower of passion above rationality. Wuthering Heights bears no definite feminine stamp -- though perhaps only a woman could have liberated her spirit so completely" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942).

Henry James / Portrait of a Lady (1881)
My favorite thing about Isabel Archer: when she says, "I feel very old." And Ralph responds, "You'll grow very young again. . . ." (Chapter 54, p 471).

James gives Isabel traits of himself and of his beloved cousin Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis and of whom he said: "She would have given anything to live."

Created late in the 19th Century, Isabel is a modern heroine of sensibility: honest, imaginative, innocent, intelligent, philosophical, presumptuous, reflective, soul - searching -- so many admirable traits! Even so, it is a struggle to order her own life and control her own destiny without being "ground in the very mill of the conventional." Thinking over the ways in which fate and friends have let her down, Isabel suspects that "she might have been a woman more blest."

E. M. Forster / Howards End (1910):
Of course, I have invoked Forster many times over on this blog for his iconic phrase "Only connect! (See Mission Statement, Commonplace Book, King & Queen, Handful of Dust, RedBear.)

Taking a closer look at the hero of Howards End: Margaret Schlegel begins the novel with an awareness of herself, her sexuality, and her lack of inheritance; by the end, she inherits from Mrs. Wilcox a sense of England and a sense of reality that allows her to pass the inheritance on.

Helen to Margaret: "But you picked up the pieces, and made us a home. Can't it strike you -- even for a moment -- that your life has been heroic?" (222 - 23).

E. M. Forster / A Passage to India (1924)
My favorite thing about Adela Quested: "She loved plans" (147). She speaks the truth, makes decisions, alienates everyone, shakes the world, and makes a fool of herself in the cause of justice. Unlike other characters in the novel, she is capable of public heroism. She finds her function beyond the range of her womanhood. As a heroine of sensibility, her innate quest is not necessarily bound by a desire for romance and children. [Likewise Miles Franklin's heroine Sybylla Melvyn in her 1901 novel My Brilliant Career. In the movies, both Adela and Sybylla are portrayed brilliantly by Judy Davis.]

Doris Lessing / The Golden Notebook (1962)
Anna thinks,"That will be my epitaph. Here lies Anna Wulf, who was always too intelligent." Anna and her friend Molly are "free women," but their emotional structure is incompatible with the fragmentation of real life: " . . . the point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up" and our strongest emotions are irrelevant to the time we live in. Despite her notebooks, Anna fears that her words "have no connection with anything I feel to be true" and suffers from a lack of conviction and faith in her own significance. As a heroine of sensibility, Anna wonders "What anonymous whole am I part of?" Furthermore, she is willing to pay the price of seeing whole, including anxiety, exhaustion, and responsibility: "The world would never get itself understood, be ordered by words, be 'named,' unless [she] remained a woman who was able to be responsible" (651). [Likewise Margaret Drabble's character Alison in The Ice Age who must endure for the sake of her daughters.]

Though possessed of many gifts and talents, the heroine of sensibility still makes mistakes; in fact her very self - honesty and introspection sometimes lead her into inevitable error. The woman as hero is not always able to please herself, nor does she escape her share of the world's burdens. Yet her path is made more interesting to herself and to the reader because she consults her feelings and acts from the highest dictates of her intelligence.

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Sunday, May 14th

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Prepare Ye the Way

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 2013
By Kehinde Wiley ~ American painter ~ b 1977

Contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley takes a new look at old classics:
"Wiley frequently engages in gender swapping of roles
for his models -- one example is St. John the Baptist
who is recast as a beautiful young black woman."
Seattle Art Museum

A more conventional rendering of the same subject:
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1660-70)
Probably by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 - 1682)

See More
Biblically Themed Figures
William Morris - Like Designs

My friend Nancy and I were lucky enough to see the exhibit Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic when it was in Seattle a year ago. We admired Wiley's vision of dislocation and relocation, his imaginative subjects, brilliant use of light, and vivid colors. His vibrant re -imagined John the Baptist (above) expands the gospel and prepares the way for a more inclusive future. For the most part, however, we felt more curious than surprised by the juxtaposition of Old World and New Age.

Nancy said, "I think the reason his new compositions of an old tradition didn't shock me is that I never made any personal connection to the originals. I had no imagination for them. They were too rich, from too long ago, too male -- so I never identified in any deep level with the people in the portraits."

I knew exactly what Nancy meant about the remoteness of the entitled figures that Wiley was updating and re - thinking. The formal gentlemen, with swords or on horseback? Whatever life they may have lived in the 18th or 19th century, it was never one that made us think, "Oh if only that had been me!" Or the wealthy, stuffy ladies? Had we ever donned a punishing corset and sat for a portrait with our bosom pushed high and our hair piled atop our heads and studded with jewels? No, that had never been us.

More likely, we were villagers, farmers, or gleaners; women working at a counter, sitting in a cafe, or tending a child. The Wiley exhibit reminded Nancy of some consciousness - raising images from her postcard collection. She wrote" I collected them when a child, and have a tall stack. This one is from some unknown source along the way. It does make me think, 'That could be me! Or my baby in the cotton.' I have been wanting to share them with you for some years now. Finally remembered."

~ Thanks Nancy! ~

~ At the Museum ~
"In the room the women come and go.
Talking of Michelangelo."

T. S. Eliot

Barkley L. Hendricks, Portraitist of a New Black Pride ~ visuals

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Melancholy and / or Properly Tormented

The Last Full Moon of Winter

Beautiful image
lunar melancholia
framed in leafless twigs

~ Haiku by Burnetta & Kitti

From The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
By Oxford Scholar Robert Burton (1577 –1640)
"Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality... This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed."

There are many artistic depictions of Melancholy
to choose from, but I'm going with this one . . .

Melancholy, 1894

. . . because coincidentally, I saw this one recently in Chicago and
was drawn to the solitary girl, as she herself is drawn to the moon.

The Girl By the Window, 1893

~ both by Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) ~

Without seeing the girl's face, it is hard to know just how sad she is, or if she is even sad at all. However, if she happens to be melancholy, that's okay. As contemporary American writer Laren Stover wonders in her article, "The Case for Melancholy": "Whatever happened to experiencing the grace of deeply tinted blue moods, which require reflection and mental steeping, like tea?"

Stover traces the role of melancholy from Burton's Anatomy (above) to Keats's 19th Century expression of "the wakeful anguish of the soul" to a sampling of contemporary movies, including one of my favorites, the animated Inside Out, in which Melancholy is not just a concept but an actual / virtual character. Stover's article concludes as mine begins -- with a melancholy moon; and as Munch's girl in the white nightdress silently conveys to the viewer: "I want moonlight."

When my friend Vickie shared Stover's article on facebook, I was intrigued by the subsequent comments. Not only is Vickie an academic expert on the topic of melancholy, but she also offered her personal perspective: "This has been my natural humour my entire life. No getting around it, and I'm tired of trying and pretending."

Other friends responded similarly:

Billy Lord: You are loved, dear one, just as you are . . .

Patrick O'Brien: Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy -- Yes! Not a bad little read. Studies have shown we have a base level of happiness (or melancholy) that we return to despite external events. After the initial euphoria, lottery winners quickly settle back to their base level. And accident victims; paraplegics, etc., rebound to their previous level.

Sir-Igor Steinman: Certainly not "blue" as in "blue laws." I always did detect a "slight" limp. I had always assumed it was the weight of the crown, not a rebound from an accident.

Steve Stajich: All kidding aside, I think we must accept wider parameters of human mood or we're doomed to be either up or down, with outsiders attempting to adjust our down cycles into "productivity." See Soma in Brave New World. Jazz singers, for example. We love their art, but do we want to medicate them so that all they can sing is "Happy" or Christmas tunes? Gestalt theory might say, "Ask a squirrel if he feels funky today." Most critters on this planet don't even struggle with mood. [See my post "SSRI's & Walking Upright."]

My contribution was to pass on the advice that a counselor once wisely told me: "You're a writer; you're supposed to be sad." Not to mention a couple of my Modern British professors at Notre Dame: one who reminded us every semester that we were called upon as students of literature to be "properly tormented human beings," and the other who lectured regularly on "the ache of modernism" -- an ailment from which we all suffered.

What, after all, is a writer's life without a dose of despair?
from Dear Committee Members (p 68)
by Julie Schumacher

“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing
is destroying the quality of our suffering.”

Tom Waits

“I drank to drown my sorrows,
but the damned things learned how to swim.”

Frida Kahlo

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
David Bowie

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly: No. The blues are because you're getting fat, and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of.
Do you ever get that feeling?

from the screenplay ~ Breakfast at Tiffany's
based on the novel by Truman Capote

After thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning,
excepting perhaps five or six, until the day of his death

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I never wake without finding life a more
insignificant thing than it was the day before.

Jonathan Swift

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long."
from the psycho - science - fiction movie Melancholia

So, it seems that no matter the century or decade, whether you're young or old, whether it's a "Melancholy Moon" or a "Melancholy Baby," from cradle to grave, in order to be a properly tormented human being . . .

"You've got to win a little, lose a little,
always have the blues a little. . . . "

Haiku by Basho
Gravestone at Cedar Grove Cemetery
University of Notre Dame

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Friday, April 14th

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THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Always Have the Blues a Little"
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