"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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Trees, Trains, and Idiots

Cartoon by Michael Lipsey
Prequel: A few weeks ago, when writing about the Guayacan Tree (and shortly thereafter on the Vernal Equinox) there was one quotation that kept eluding me, something I read somewhere about trees and houses made of bones. After an hour of fruitless searching for the lost thought, I gave up locating the passage and posted the essay without it, even though it would have made such a perfect connection. I lamented the failed memory recall, filing away the almost but not quite remembered line under "maybe one day I'll relocate it."
Yesterday was the day! Early in the morning I came across this comment:

" . . . [at] no time in American history have so many idiots
been exposed to other idiots Thanks Facebook . . ."

reminding me of the old / new, negative / positive [take your pick] adage that "the internet has given everyone a megaphone."

Only the day before, I had encountered these wise words from George Washington, describing the 18th Century version of "megaphone syndrome." I.e, you're going to have to listen to a lot of idiots:

"In a free and republican government,
you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude.
Every man will speak as he thinks, or, more properly,
without thinking, and consequently will judge at effects
without attending to their causes."

Stepping back in time, American historian Sarah Vowell explains: "Washington was reminding Lafayette that even though the establishment of a free and republican government comes with half - baked tomfoolery and half - cocked bile, every now and then someone who has something to say gets to say it" (203, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States). I.e, you're going to have to listen to a lot of idiots, but eventually you might hear something worthwhile.

But, getting back to yesterday, later in the afternoon, while re-reading high - lighted passages from my new favorite novel, I came across these lines:
"Gustave [Flaubert, 1821 – 1880] belonged to the first railway generation in France; and he hated the invention. . . . he hated the way it flattered people with the illusion of progress. What was the point of scientific advance without moral advance? The railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid together" (108, emphasis added).
Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

Wow! Flaubert's 19th Century concern matches right up with the 21st Century image of the megaphone and the internet: "so many idiots . . . exposed to other idiots." Synchronicity! Except for one slight problem: where did I read that about the idiots? Somewhere on facebook. Only a few hours ago. Was it on my nephew's page? He had recently been expressing annoyance with facebook users who refuse to accept accountability for their own participation in the great communicative enterprise. I skimmed his page and reread his important, imperative advice: "STOP blaming people and be accountable for your own self"! But I didn't see anything specifically about "idiots."

On to my next lead, the page of facebook friend, artist and writer Michael Lipsey, who had also expressed misgivings about various issues of privacy and profit. I clicked on his page just in case but saw nothing about "idiots." However, you may have already guessed what was there, patiently awaiting my rediscovery: one of Lispsey's classic cartoons: "Bones...trees.....houses" -- as seen above! After congratulating myself on this fortuitous, serendipitous (No, I'm not going to choose! Yes, I'm going to use both words!) rediscovery, I was also able to retrace my steps to the subject of my original search -- the observation about exposure to idiots -- in a conversation between my brother and one of his facebook friends.

Just as a bonus, facebook decided to show me another glimpse of brilliance from Michael Lipsey before I turned off my laptop for the evening. Thanks Michael for your initial share (one of the good things about facebook!) and for allowing me to reshare here on my blog! Thanks Flaubert for predicting the 21st Century internet in your description of the 19th Century trains. And thanks facebook for the synchronicity!

Further thanks to Jean - Paul Sartre for referring to Flaubert himself as The Family Idiot (reviewed by Frederick Jameson; and to Hazel Barnes for her study of Sartre and Flaubert (reviewed by Julian Barnes).

As the song says, is it coincidence or connection? Or both.

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, April 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ Coffee With Flaubert ~ Imposter Syndrome
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Who's Afraid? Fear Not!

"Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully
in what is commonly thought big than
in what is commonly thought small. . . .
Down, down into the midst of ordinary things."

1902 & 1927
George Charles Beresford - Virginia Woolf in 1902 - RestorationVirginia Woolf 1927

Rest in Peace Virginia Woolf:
25 January 1882 ~ 28 March 1941
"I am now galloping over Mrs. Dalloway. . . . The reviewers will say that it is disjointed because of the mad scenes not connecting with the Dalloway scenes. And I suppose there is some superficial glittery writing. But is it 'unreal'? Is it mere accomplishment? I think not. . . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world." ~ Virginia Woolf, December 13, 1924


Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

from Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene 2, 2656 - 2689)

The opening lines of this Shakespearean song are quoted
several times by Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf's novel:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages.

"Fear no more," said Clarissa.
Fear no more the heat o' the sun.
. . . the world seems to be saying "that is all" more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.” (59)
. . . she repeated and the words came to her,
Fear no more the heat of the sun.
She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night.

Google Doodle on Woolf's 136th Birthday


Sometimes the connections are all about connections.

Armin van Buuren:
"Everyone’s connected but no one is connecting."
from the song: "Alone"

Joan Didion:
"In this light, all narrative was sentimental. In this light
all connections were equally meaningful and equally senseless."

from the essay: The White Album

Donna Tartt:
"What held me fast . . . was the element of chance:
random disasters . . . converging on the same unseen point . . .
You could study the connections for years and never work it out
-- it was all about things coming together, things falling apart,
time warp . . . a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.
. . . a field awareness of unseen patterns. . . "
from the novel The Goldfinch

Annie Barrows
In books . . . things were connected; people did something
and then something else happened because of that.
I could understand them. But outside, here in the real world,
things seemed to happen for no reason that I could see.
Maybe there was no reason.

"Did most girls my age feel the way I did, as if the people
I thought I knew had turned out to have a thousand little tunnels*
leading away from the face they showed the world? . . .
The buried parts, now, they were fascinating but ominous, too."
from the novel The Truth According to Us

Virginia Woolf:
"I should say a good deal about The Hours [later entitled Mrs. Dalloway]
and my discovery: how I dig out beautiful caves* behind my characters:
I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth.
The idea is that the caves shall connect
and each come to daylight at the present moment."

from A Writer's Diary
~ Thursday, August 30, 1923 ~

*I'm also seeing a connection here between Woolf's "beautiful caves"
and Barrows' "thousand little tunnels . . . fascinating but ominous"!


The previous year, Woolf had written:

"Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book;
and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide;
the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side
-- something like that. Septimus Smith? is that a good name?"

~ Saturday, October 14, 1922 ~

And in 1998, film critic Jack Kroll wrote:
Mrs.Dalloway's day is climaxed by her party, Smith's by his suicide. But these contrasting events are two parts of a symbolic whole, Virginia Woolf herself. Mrs. Dalloway is a Woolf without the genius, while Smith's fate prefulres the troubled Woolf's own suicide in 1941 [on March 28th]. In her notebook Woolf wrote, 'Mrs. D seeing the truth. SS seeing the insane truth.'"

from "Down in the Upper Crust:
Virginia Woolf's Landmark Novel Dazzles on Screen"
in Newsweek, March 2, 1998

In conclusion, only last month I was dismayed to find this trivializing assessment (an opinion I suppose shared by many) of Clarissa Dalloway's immersion into the details of one perhaps ordinary yet fateful day. In a book about teaching that I otherwise liked very much, Heather Kirn Lanier writes:
"In college, I'd spent my years studying the narrative stances of Virginia Woolf, appreciating the relative plotlessness of Mrs. Dalloway a book in which, let's face it, not much happens."
Au contraire! For Woolf's characters, it is a day filled with grief, intropsection, tension; and enlarged understanding. Oh dear. One does not throw a party -- nor encounter death in the midst of that party -- everyday. Still, though, I was touched to read that Kirn Lanier's students mistook her black and white postcard of Virginia Woolf to be "some great - grandmother of mine" (47, 77).

Virginia ~ Woolfpack

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, April 14th

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

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading ~ "Makin' a list, checking' it twice . . ."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Not to be Devoured

"An Indian artist gives final touches
to a painting on street walls
on International Women's Day in Hyderabad, India,
Friday, March 8, 2013."

Read More About
International Women's Day & Women's History Month

This fortnightly post is a belated tribute to last week's International Women’s Day, observed around the world every year on March 8th ("Beyond #MeToo, With Pride, Protests and Pressure").

A few months ago, my brother Bruce sent out the following query:
I am presently working on a Congressional campaign, doing some writing for news releases, social media, etc. I've been tasked with drafting a statement on the MeToo sexual harassment / assault phenomenon.

As a sixty-year old, white man, I have never been sexually accosted in any manner. I am the father of two 20-something daughters, and I'm sure they've both dealt with this. But I have no firsthand experience.

I am reaching out to women who I know, and whose opinions I respect, to ask this question: What would you want your member of Congress to know, and what would you want them to say, about this issue.
My answer:
Since you are looking for general concepts rather than personal narrative, and for a direct response to the MeToo sexual harassment/assault phenomenon, I think what I want my member of Congress to know / take seriously is that to some extent all women live in fear.

Although I don't recall the source, I've never forgotten something I read a few years ago on the topic of racism -- that, no matter how irrational it was, in the United States the face of fear is Black. I remember thinking at the time, "No, not true." For women, the face of fear is Male. Men can so easily hurt women physically and so often do. This knowledge modifies a woman's existence at all times. It governs her emotional outlook, her comfort level, her behavior -- when home alone, getting in a car, going for a walk, entering a parking garage or a stairwell in a public building.

Yes, a certain amount of caution for all humans is always a good idea, but too many times for women it becomes a self - limiting factor, closing off options ranging from simple enjoyments to serious employment choices.

You know me, I have to include a literary example, this time from the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector's short story "The Smallest Woman in the World," about the pygmy Little Flower. Lispector describes Little Flower's primal fear of being devoured, and her relief at so far being spared this fate: " . . . the ineffable sensation of not having been eaten yet . . . Not to be devoured is the secret goal of a whole life." The towering explorer who comes to take notes and write an article about Little Flower and her people does not exactly understand this; but, as a reader, I got it right away.

For a woman "the secret goal of a whole life" is to not be assaulted, attacked, or violated. If you can make it through without that happening, then lucky for you. Maybe someone stalks you but never actually touches you. Whew! Maybe someone touches your privates against your will but never actually rapes you. Whew! See what I mean? The fear is always there. And to merely set the bar at the level of women being able to congratulate themselves and say, "Well I guess that wasn't so bad" or "it could have been worse" is too low.

What would I want members of Congress to say, about this issue? I want them to say that threatening women just because you can is wrong. I want them to say that our goal in this country is a cultural and social environment in which we all feel safe, regardless of how we are built.
My MeToo
For me, it was stalking stalking by a nasty old creepy chemistry professor at the University of Arkansas? Standing outside my classroom watching me teach, giving my students the heebie - jeebies; following me around the grocery store; stopping me on the sidewalk and staring at my chest; ringing my doorbell at 10:30 pm. He knew where I lived, and he seemed to have figured out what I was doing every hour of the day. It was a scary semester. My gut told me, Be afraid; be very afraid. And I was. There, I feel better for having said all that.

PS. No, he never touched me.

PPS. Perhaps a little off topic, but not entirely: there was also the time in high school when a few friends and I all received some obscene phone calls at our houses. It happened shortly after a group picture of us had been in the local paper, so we thought maybe some weirdo had seen it and somehow looked up the phone numbers of the girls in the photograph. Strangely enough, the upshot at our house was that I got in trouble from my mother for somehow "causing" the obscene weirdo to call our number! What???? I was way more traumatized by my mom's reaction than I was by the phone call.
Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, March 28th

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

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Yellow Gold Guayacan

The People and the Guayacan
by Ethel Gilmour (1940 - 2008)
Museum of Antioquia ~ Medellin, Colombia

The Complete Installation ~~~~~~ Detail of Girl Standing Beneath Tree

About the painting: "In this work we see fragments full of tenderness over the peaceful life of a town whose center is a flowering Guayacan. Ethel, tiny among the rain of yellow flowers, looks at the majesty of the tree. She tells us that the old people of the town sit to watch the Guayacan at the end of the day."
Herman Hesse wrote:
"Trees are sanctuaries; Who knows how to talk to them,
Who knows how to listen to them, learn a truth.

I cannot find much written in English about this painting or this artist,
but I did find this essay "The Yellow Guayacan"
by Alberto González

Those of us who have followed Ethel's work recall how the parochial world of Colombian art imitating what was seen in Art Forum or Art in America only three decades ago decided that the painting had died and that the Future belonged to the video, "proposals" and facilities, but even though the prophecy of the new gravediggers never came to fruition. An artist of this era who loved painting, needed to have strong convictions and be very brave to reject the tribal wisdom of criticism in the late 1970s, but fortunately Ethel had both, coupled with solid professional training, which allowed her to approach the world of her own experiences, to recreate it in powerful and meaningful images.

Our painter, a native of Charlotte, a small town in North Carolina, completed her academic training at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York, where she had professors such as Erwin Panfosky, the father of modern iconology, and the painter George McNeil, who in turn had been a disciple of Hans Hoffman, the famous pedagogue who had opened, along with Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell and others, a new way to American art and "Abstract expressionism." After a rich experience at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris and in the field of lithography, Ethel arrived in Colombia and in 1971 we see her linked to the National University in the Medellin headquarters where she would share her teaching experience With the sculptor Germán Botero and the painter Saturnino Ramírez, thus becoming one of the career artists at the University.

Ethel Gilmour tells us a story to celebrate the joy of life and the beauty of the world. Firmly committed to the experiences of the new cultural medium, Ethel begins to rework her pictorial language; This is how his initial paintings, of strong brushstrokes and aggressive color, are transformed into images more purified but not less intense. At a time when much of the art is parody and parasitarily given to cite the mass media, Ethel's work goes against the current, opting for a difficult road, since its figuration will always be controlled by that fine abstraction of its own, Which comprises the rigorous arrangement of the planes of the pictorial surface and the care in the accents of color or of ways to direct the gaze of the beholder in an unforgiving manner; These elements, coupled with an elegant and refined handling of color, speak of a cultured but also readable painting for an unprepared audience.

It is important to note in Ethel's work that special tension between pictorial space and its objects that she transforms into emblems: tables, dogs, toys, or even reproductions of the great painters she loves: Gaugin and Matisse, And also the great painters, however, she is not a "feminist painter" in the ideological sense of the term, but there is no doubt that her work, like that of Paula Modersohn - Becker or that of Gerogia O'Keeffe, conveys a powerful feeling Of feminine experience, such as those forms and those spaces that suggest the sensation of protection and, above all, the construction of an imagery based on everyday objects that, as already said, our artist elevates them to the level of emblematic forms.

When visiting the last exhibition of Ethel Gilmour and bidding farewell to the fabulous yellow guayacan, there remains a different and peculiar visual impression: it is the presence of the aroma that emanates from her recent work, a work with which this great painter has wanted to thank her friends and admirers.

~ Alberto González (& google translate)

There is so much more to learn about the guayacan tree.

The yellow clusters are blossoms, not leaves!


Because mine is a blog of connection and coincidence,
here are a couple of loosely connected poems
from Chilean (not Colombian, I know) poet
Pablo Neruda (1904 - 1973)

This one is about yellow flowers,
though not about trees:

Ode to some yellow flowers

Rolling its blues against another blue,
the sea, and against the sky
some yellow flowers.

October is on its way.*

And although
the sea may well be important, with its unfolding
myths, its purpose and its risings,
when the gold of a single
yellow plant
in the sand
your eyes
are bound
to the soil.
They flee the wide sea and its heavings.

We are dust and to dust return.
In the end we're
neither air, nor fire, nor water,
neither more nor less, just dirt,
and maybe
some yellow flowers.

found in Neruda's Odes to Common Things
translated by Ken Krabbenhoft; Bulfinch Press, 1994
(other ~ translations)
[*We'll have to revisit this poem come October!]


This one is about trees,
though not about yellow flowers:

The Tree Is Here, Still, In Pure Stone

The tree is here, still, in pure stone,
in deep evidence, in solid beauty,
layered, through a hundred million years.
Agate, cornelian, gemstone
transmuted the timber and sap
until damp corruptions
fissured the giant's trunk
fusing a parallel being:
the living leaves
unmade themselves
and when the pillar was overthrown
fire in the forest, blaze of the dust-cloud,
celestial ashes mantled it round,
until time, and the lava, created
this gift, of translucent stone.

~ Pablo Neruda


"If trees could build houses
they would build them out of our bones."
~ Michael Lipsey ~


And lastly, remember these Golden Oldies?

"The trees are drawing me near
I've got to find out why . . ."

And this one:

If only it said "blossoms of yellow" instead of "white,"
it could be about the guayacan tree:

The Sweetheart Tree

They say there's a tree in the forest
A tree that will give you a sign
Come along with me to the Sweetheart Tree
Come and carve your name next to mine

They say if you kiss the right sweetheart
The one you've been waiting for
Big blossoms of white will burst into sight
And your love will be true evermore

Songwriters: Johnny Mercer / Henry N. Mancini
Sung by Natalie Wood / Johnny Mathis / many others

Medellín, Colombia ~ December 2016

Botero Plaza

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, March 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Not Cool, Not Funny"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



Due to some quirky calendar alignment this year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day (first time since 1945); and Easter coincides with April Fools Day (first time since 1956)! That's what happens when the moveable feasts intersect with the fixed feasts. Scheduling intrigue ensues!

Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have also overlapped in 1923 and 1934 and will do so again in 2024 and 2029.

Easter has fallen on April Fools Day many times: 1584, 1646, 1657, 1668, 1714, 1725, 1736, 1804, 1866, 1877, 1888, 1923, 1934, 1945, 1956, 2018, 2029, 2040, 2108, 2170, 2181, 2192, 2238, 2249, 2260, 2306, 2317, 2328, 2401, 2412, 2485, 2496, 2553, 2564, 2610, 2621, 2632, 2700, 2762, 2773, 2784, 2857, 2863, 2868, 2925, 2936.

The last time the dual overlap (both Ash Wednesday / Valentines and Easter / April Fools) occurred was 1945; and the next time will be 2029 -- only 11 years to wait! On the other hand, maybe it's better when the special occasions are not combined. After all, why reduce 4 days of significance down to 2 when we mere mortals need all the holidays and Holy Days that we can get, right?

Still, I like the coincidence of the doubled up occasions and, even better, the double - double years such as 1945, 2018, and 2029. Perhaps if the cosmic insistence is powerful enough, we will be swayed to once again privilege nature over commerce -- as observed above in connection with Demuth's "Spring" collage: "By titling his painting Spring, Demuth wryly highlighted the new reality of American life, in which the changing of seasons was heralded not by nature but by commerce."

Demuth has another painting (also in the Art Institute of Chicago) that illustrates what happens when the days become too much the same:

Here's to the novelty of our lunar / liturgical calendar for 2018, and to celebrating, observing, and distinguishing one day from another to the best of our ability! In addition to the connections, this year will also come with its own peculiar set of contradictions: receiving chocolates for Valentine's Day and immediately giving them up for Lent; or the troubling juxtaposition of "Christ is Risen -- April Fools"!
My introspective friend Diane opened the season with a facebook query: "Any creative approaches to Lent this year?"

Her witty friend Stone replied: "I am doing the same thing I do every year for Lent. I just give up for Lent. I will start trying again in 40 days."

To which Diane responded: "Give up. Give in. Give over. Not a bad strategy!"

And I shared: "This answer reminds of the year that I gave up going to church for Lent. I resumed after Easter."

In recent years, my husband Gerry and I have come up with the crazy, perhaps indulgent idea of adding something on instead of giving something up. We rarely remember to enjoy even a glass of red wine with dinner, let alone experiment with any novelty cocktails. So, during Lent, in the interest of giving up monotony, we have been searching inside our liquor cabinet, and trying a new mixed drink of some kind before dinner each evening. To name a few, we have sampled the Delta Sunset, the Sazerac, the Brass Monkey, and the slightly unsafe but extremely dramatic Goblet of Fire:

Having spiced things up a bit before dinner, we next addressed the monotony / consistency of our after - dinner rut / routine: Tetley Tea, round bags only! Lent is the time that we steer away from our tried and true favorite and brew up some of the other fine flavors that have made their way into our tea caddy: green cafs and decafs, mints and peppermints, raspberry and other berries, chamomiles and assorted organics. A nearly endless variety, yet none so delicious as that first cup of Tetley Round on Easter Morning!

Moving a step beyond tea bags and cocktails, I also have some more serious answers to Diane's question. First, there's taking down the Christmas tree on Ash Wednesday, putting away all the ornaments, and giving up Christmas for Lent. The saddest day of the year. Truly a Lenten pall is cast over my heart the first few days, learning to live again with the bare front window. In place of a few hundred twinkle lights there is now only the pale blue glow of my light - up globe, a mere speck in "the vast expanse of interstellar space"!

Second, for the past 20 years or so, my primary Lenten discipline has been to give up ordering from amazon. I should be able to live for 6 weeks without clicking "place order"!

Back in the pre - amazon days, I started this particular self - restraint by giving up mail order & 1 - 800 shopping. One day my West Philly neighbor Cate was out on the front porch with me when the mailman came by and I reached out to take my mail for the day, which included -- as always -- a stack of mail - order catalogs. She said,"Oh no you don't; I'll take these and put them straight in the recycling for you." I insisted that I wasn't going to order anything -- just look. She insisted that giving up shopping meant not looking as well as not purchasing. Her view made me take my "sacrifice" a step further and take it more seriously.

Third, a few years ago, in addition to amazon -- since I'm used to that one by now -- I decided give up "stuff" for Lent. My goal was one garbage bag full every week: old clothes to Goodwill, old books to the library sale, wherever the "stuff" needed to go in order to be out of my house forever! Even throwing out just plain old trash counts.

I've mentioned this strategy before, but this year I want to try harder to make some visible progress in the war against clutter. I want to commit to the big black garbage bag (or at least a regular brown grocery bag). In addition to the clothes, books, and trash, we're taking DIY leftovers to Habitat for Humanity, over-saved packing materials and plastic food containers to the recycle center, worn beach towels and blankets to the animal shelter or the vet (for making cozy dog beds), re-gifts to friends, relatives, or neighbors who might enjoy the surprise or be able to use the items creatively.

The re - gifting idea comes from a couple of my favorite advice ladies: The Slob Sisters, Pam & Peggy I can't find the exact quote right now, but their advice was that you have to set yourself free from hanging on to every gift you ever receive, that the gift exchange is in the joy of giving and receiving and expressing thanks; after that, it's okay to let the physical gift go out of your life if it doesn't fit in or is just taking up space. (And vice - versa, you can free yourself from any expectation that everyone else must keep the gifts you have given them.)

As you can see, The Slob Sisters were well ahead of the current trend for down - sizing, de - cluttering, and minimalizing. I also appreciate their advice that "it's okay to make a mistake" -- in reference to buying things that you end up dis - liking: clothing, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, knick - knacks. If you simply can't stand the scent of the new hand lotion, you're not required to use up the whole bottle in order to avoid waste, and so forth. Gather up all the unwanted, never - to - be - used - again items and give them away. Or throw them away -- it's okay to make a mistake!

I found that very freeing! It seems so simple, but I don't think we are commonly taught that we can let ourselves off the hook or that it's okay to make a mistake -- even a small one. More often, the vocabulary is about punishing ourselves, or paying the price, or getting what we deserve, or learning to live with our mistakes. How wonderful it would be if we could give up those negative messages -- for Lent and Forever!

How good of the Slob Sisters to give us permission! In their book Get Your Act Together, at the conclusion of a chapter specifically about eating better and exercising -- but also generally applicable to being more organized and kinder to yourself -- Pam and Peggy advise: "Remember, though, you didn't get out of shape in a week, and you're not going to get back into shape in a week. Also, one of your traits is a childlike nature, so be gentle with yourself or you'll rebel" (119).

For additional Lenten reading, about cutting back but also cutting yourself some slack, try Ann Patchett's recent article about giving up stuff, not just for Lent but for twelve months: "My Year of No Shopping." I could see right away why my friend Cate had shared the article with me: because it reminded her of that long ago day when she insisted that I give up browsing through mail order catalogs! Patchett, likewise, has decided that if she's not going to purchase, then she's not even going to look -- no catalogs, no websites, no window shopping. She remembers her parents telling her: "If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass." The way I learned it: "Want something long enough and you don't," an odd little proverb that confused me at first but eventually made perfect sense.

Patchett's year of no - shopping -- except at grocery stores and bookstores -- reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's strategy for making it through the year in Animal Vegetable Miracle, when each member of the family is allowed to make one exception to the rule of "buy local eat seasonal." Remember? I think one of the children keeps bananas, or maybe it's dried fruit; and one of them keeps chocolate; the adults hang on to coffee and exotic spices (35).

Patchett's exceptions to the discipline:
"I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books . . .

"My first few months of no shopping were full of gleeful discoveries. I ran out of lip balm early on and before making a decision about whether lip balm constituted a need, I looked in my desk drawers and coat pockets. I found five lip balms. Once I started digging around under the bathroom sink I realized I could probably run this experiment for three more years before using up all the lotion, soap and dental floss. It turns out I hadn’t thrown away the hair products and face creams I’d bought over the years and didn’t like; I’d just tossed them all under the sink. I’m using them now, and they’re fine."
I couldn't help noticing the coincidence that Ann, as well as Pam and Peggy, encountered an array of forgotten products under the sink -- all those impulse buys and good intentions! It's also worth noting that they took two different approaches: the Slob Sisters say, "if you can't stand that stuff, throw it out," whereas Patchett says, "use that stuff up!"

I was entertained by Patchett's successful quest for so many stray lip balms, in order to avoid making an unnecessary purchase. However, I would like to gently observe that a simple, or even fancy, chapstick can be found at the grocery store, so the good news is that she could have bought more without violating her no - shopping rule! And as to whether or not lip balm constitutes a need? Indeed it does! In fact, the topic of lip balm has provided an odd little recurring theme to my first week of Lent.

In started when Cate sent a list of things that the well - prepared woman keeps in her handbag -- protein drinks and energy bars, a revolver, a distributor cap, a rosary -- that kind of thing. I wrote back that my purse contents pale by comparison -- mostly kleenex (Swankies!) and chapstick! So boring. Yet, as Cate pointed out: "Well, we all know that chapstick is powerful stuff!" Then a few days later, another friend posted a survey: "If you could pick only one make - up item to wear everyday, what would it be?" Naturally, for me it has to be lip balm -- otherwise, I can't even eat or smile or move my mouth! Please don't ever ask me to give it up!

Whatever you choose to part with -- after six weeks (or a year!) of less shopping, less stuff, less commerce, and more nature -- you are bound to feel so much lighter! Wishing everyone a tidier space, a fulfilling and introspective forty days, and a heart lighter than a feather! All in preparation for the Moveable Feast!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, February 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, January 28, 2018

Robert Burns, The Man's the Gold


From Find a Tartan ~ Top: McCartney Day / McCartney Night ~
Bottom: Carrick Day / Carrick Hunting
Don't worry, I realize that "Carrick" is not the same as "Carriker"
and that aside from some of the dark classic plaids, such as
Black Watch, the rest are latter day tourist inventions --
but still, they are fun, right? And mostly harmless!

If you want to see a lot of Scottish plaid, in the form of elaborate kilts and scarves, then you might want to attend a Robert Burns Birthday Dinner, which is what Gerry and I did last night, along with our friends Jack and Leta. These events are held annually throughout the UK and USA around this time of year in honor of the favored and favorite Scottish poet, who was born in 1759 on 25 January (British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf was born on the same day, 123 years later: 25 January 1882). Sadly, Burns died young on 21 July 1796.

The 259th birthday celebration of Burns' birthday that we attended -- our first time ever! -- was being hosted for the 35th time by ~

The 42nd Royal Highlanders of Lafayette, Indiana
Band of Music ~ Bagpipes, Fifes and Drums

My favorite lines from Burns have always been the last two stanzas from his poem To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough (1785). During my teaching years, I would print these verses at the conclusion of every syllabus, not only as a way of introducing the Scottish English dialect of Robert Burns but also as a reminder to the students that, control being but an illusion, we were likely to deviate from the syllabus at any time:
But, Mousie, thou art
no thy lane, [not alone]

In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, [go oft astray]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
At the Burns Supper, however, the tone was lighter and more joyful. Never mind the existential angst of all creatures great and small! Instead, the opening poem is an ode to a haggis. Should you be unfamiliar with this unusually named menu item, think of a cross between a meatloaf and a pâté. Not necessarily your typical subject of introspective poetry, but here goes:

Address to the Haggis [click title for original Scots version]

All hail your honest rounded face
Great chieftain of the pudding race;
Above them all you take your place,
Beef, tripe, or lamb:
You're worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your sides are like a distant hill
Your pin would help to mend a mill,
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distil,
Like amber bead.

His knife the rustic goodman wipes,
To cut you through with all his might,
Revealing your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, what a glorious sight,
Warm, welcome, rich.

Then plate for plate they stretch and strive,
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all the bloated stomachs by and by,
Are tight as drums.
The rustic goodman with a sigh,
His thanks he hums.

Let them that o'er his French ragout,
Or hotchpotch fit only for a sow,
Or fricassee that'll make you spew,
And with no wonder;
Look down with sneering scornful view,
On such a dinner.

Poor devil, see him eat his trash,
As feckless as a withered rush,
His spindly legs and good whip-lash,
His little feet
Through floods or over fields to dash,
O how unfit.

But, mark the rustic, haggis-fed;
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Grasp in his ample hands a flail
He'll make it whistle,
Stout legs and arms that never fail,
Proud as the thistle.

You powers that make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare.
Old Scotland wants no stinking ware,
That slops in dishes;
But if you grant her grateful prayer,
Give her a haggis

According to tradition, the dinner continues with more feasting, more poetry, and various other readings. The conventional "Toast to the Lassies" and "Toast to the Laddies" may vary from venue to venue, depending on who has been nominated to deliver the address. I like the idea of choosing a poem by Burns to fill these slots on the program. How could you go wrong with this tender tribute, especially when sung by Andreas Scholl:

A Red, Red Rose

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

The next poem, a fitting toast for lads and lasses alike, was written during the French Revolution and exemplifies the rising tide of democracy that informed the poetry of the time. Burns' words continue to inspire and express what we all crave -- to be known for our own worth:

A Man's A Man For A' That [click title for original Scots version]

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and all that?
The coward slave, we pass him by -
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that,
Our toils obscure, and all that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gold for all that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear rough grey tweed, and all that?
Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man is a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.

You see that fellow called 'a lord',
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a dolt for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribboned, star, and all that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might -
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall take the prize and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

It's only right that an evening - long tribute to the enduring legacy of Robert Burns should conclude with a rousing group rendition of his most beloved poem. Anyone who missed out in the early moments of the New Year is granted another chance here at the end of the month to sing -- for old time's sake -- of forgiveness for the past and congenial commitment to a kinder, gentler future:

Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind
Should old acquaintance be forgot
for the days of old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear
for auld lang syne
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

And surely you'll buy your pint cup
and surely I'll buy mine
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne,

And here's a hand my trusty friend
And put your hand in mine
We'll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear
for auld lang syne
we'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

"Jack Frost" on the Garage Floor

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, February 14th

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

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