Sunday, June 26, 2016

Redux--Summertime. . .and the livin’ is easy

Recall a summer time memory from your youth--I confess that I suggested that prompt to Comeback Bloggers, having previously posted about one of my summertime memories--the swimming hole.

It is interesting to me is that I share, along with Ginger and Ruth, recollections of scrambled seasons.  Having grown up in southern Africa,  as a child I experienced "reversed seasons"--that is, summer in November, December and January, and winter in June, July, August.  Combine with that the schedule the school system followed--a calendar based school year beginning in January with holidays spaced throughout the year. We had a six week break at Christmas, and two 3 week breaks in the year between terms.  

So my earliest summertime memories are intermingled with Christmas holidays, definitely not the usual memory that a child in North America might have.

But, my parents did return to the U.S. when I was a teen--and I had several wonderful summers full of "typical" memories.

Here are two of the most vivid. I have written about them before, but the memories are still fresh and when I think my youthful summer times, these are what I recollect.

I can recall two idyllic summers when I lived with my uncle and aunt near the village of Grantham, PA. Too young to work (by the standards then), I had to find things to fill my summers. And I filled them very well, thank you.

What did we do? Well, we could walk to the little IGA grocer in the middle of the village. By today’s standards, this grocery would be a convenience store, but then it served to provide all the food goods we might need. And it had a soda cooler right inside the door. We would pad down the hill to the IGA, go inside in the relative cool, fish around for the right soda, then sucking our bottles, walk back home.


Or we would go to the local swimming hole. Do they even have swimming holes anymore? The one near Grantham was called the Riffles, and to get there you had to walk along the railroad tracks. The swimming hole was formed by an abandoned dam, which had fallen mostly into disrepair, but the remnants of a deep water reservoir remained. There was a nearby tree with the proverbial swing on which braver souls than I could swing far out over the swimming hole then drop in. We could sit on the remnants of the dam, sunning, talking, (if old enough) with a boy.

Soon enough, I no longer had time to fill my summers with such idol activities. Instead, at age 18 I went to Canada, along the shores of Lake Erie, to work for "rich" people--U.S. residents who worked in Buffalo, NY, but had summer homes on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I did that for 3 summers.  No more swimming in swimming holes, no more leisurely walks to the corner grocery store.

Ah, summer. A time of leisure, a time for building memories, a time--at least when you are young--"the living' is easy."

Photo credit: 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Music Hath Such Power

Well, despite the title, the real quote is "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast..." (from William Congreve's drama The Mourning Bride).
I specifically altered that quote because it is the POWER of music on which I want to focus. 

It is hard to express how much music is infused through almost all the facets of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father singing to me--nonsense songs that even to this day I can recall.

  • "Mairzy doats and dozy doats"  
  • "Kentucky Babe" 
  • "I'm A Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch"

As I was growing up, my father gave me free access to play his 45 rpms. I could play Beethoven string quartets, Mozart symphonies, Verdi operas. To this day, I love classical music.

I sang in school chorus, in college choir, in church and community music groups. 

Among the most joyous associations I have with music are the various choral pieces I have sung. Understand, I am no soloist--I am a solid alto. It is the CHORAL experience that I enjoy. I sang Bach's choral music, Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," Handel's "Messiah," Haydn masses and requiems.  Maybe you notice that (at least) one great composer name is missing: Mozart.

For all the choral pieces I had participated in singing, I had never sung Mozart's tour de force choral piece--his Requiem.

Until--until one year after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.  Someone got the idea to have Mozart's Requiem sung all over the world. Singing the requiem would begin at  9 a.m. and be sung all over the world on September 11, 2002.

I joined with collective choral groups that united in the area where I live to participate in singing the Requiem. We sang  inside the Rotunda in our state capitol building.

Here is the genius of that idea--every time zone around the world assembled at least ONE choir and began singing the Requiem at 9 a.m. in THAT time zone. Thus the rolling Requiem. All around the world, people singing and instrumentalists accompanying in that glorious Requiem mass.

It was perhaps the most perfect way to memorialize all those who died on September 11, 2001.  And to remind us of our connectedness.  

That's why I say--music hath such power.  Power to fill and restore our souls.  Music to remind us of our common humanness. 

If you have the time, you can listen to the entire Requiem Mass here.  

It lasts just under an hour.  Think of it--24 time zones* around the world sharing in this powerful piece--each lasting an hour for a whole day.  If people in the world can come together for one day to all sing the same choral piece, what else might we be able to do?

*There are actually more than 24 time zones (it's complicated--you can look it up).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”

The title of this blog is a quote from Austin Phelps, 
an American minister and an educator living in the 19th century.

If you have been a long time reader of this blog, you will not be surprised to read that I LOVE BOOKS.  After all, I did major in English literature in college, and in graduate school. And I spent the first eight years of my working career teaching literature (at my college alma mater) and the last eight years of my working career teaching writing (and the occasional literature course) at the local community college.

So, when I think about summer, I think about reading. Truth be told, when I think about spring, autumn and winter, I think about reading.

You should see the nightstand next to my side of the bed. Yup--a book holder with 10 or so book "waiting to be read."  And on top of those book is my Kindle reader with a whole bunch more books to be read.

So when someone asks me for a recommendation of a good book that I read (recently), it is really difficult for me to choose.

Understand--it is not that my selections are always faultless.  I have occasionally picked a book that "looked good" only to learn that it was a complete dud. A waste of my time and money. I resent such an encounter with a book. And I really resent the promoting of such a book which a certain online website where one can buy books did--and that's why I bought the awful book that I resented. No, I won't tell you the name of the book.

But, but, but...this blog is supposed to be about a really good book that I have read. (Can you tell that I am is so hard to choose?) I am going to cheat--and pick TWO: one fiction, one non-fiction. Both are from several years ago. If you haven't read them, do. If you have, re-read them.

Three years ago, a book discussion group I was in selected the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. From the title, you can figure out something about the book. The structure of the novel is focused on three main characters--and the cellist. As the chapters alternate among these characters, you experience the horror of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.  Soon, you too become caught up in the recurring question--will the cellist of Sarajevo live another day to play Albinoni's Adagio on the exact spot where a deadly mortar fell.

Non-fiction? I try to read interspersing books--fiction/non-fiction. Repeat.

The same book discussion group introduced me to the wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. Through the story of a Hmong child with epileptic seizures, the book brings into stark contrast two approaches to health and healing. Unexpectedly, both approaches are correct but they are on a collision course. Contrast the Hmong culture with the mindset of American clinical health care--and you get the basic sense of  the content of the book. What you can't get unless you read it is the agonizing direction the story takes you.

I was so taken with this book that for months afterwards I would tell ANY health care provider I met that they really "had" to read this book. I finally stopped when one of these providers said--"I already have." 

So, those are my choices. And as Austin Phelps advised--wear the old coat and buy the new book. The book will wear much longer and better than the coat!

Monday, June 06, 2016

This Above All...

If you studied Hamlet in high school (or wherever) you can finish the quote: "to thine own self be true."

Sounds like great advice, doesn't it? What is ironic, however, is that the character who speaks these lines is Polonius, who is--to put it rather bluntly--a big windbag. He is constantly interfering with affairs that he should leave alone.

So, how does this connect to the writing challenge of the week--what advice would I give my younger self? Well, I suppose just this: advice is not always helpful.

As I get older, I find myself doing the reminiscing bit. You know, going over events from the past, wondering what would have happened had I...fill in the blank with a "this" or "that."

But I always come back to one conclusion: while I am well aware that things in my life aren't perfect, and I certainly am not perfect, in the main--I like the way my life has turned out and I like myself.

So for fear of altering the course of my life in some unforeseen way, if given the chance, I would most certainly decline to tell my younger self anything.


There are a few dumb things I did. Perhaps if I had been forewarned, I might have done better.  Such as:

--remember the time I stopped going to movies? Well, that was dumb. Plain and simple. I love movies and I made no great moral point by avoiding them.

--then there was the time that because I had a migraine, I decided not to go to a concert. My husband had gotten tickets for us to go to an Eagles concert--I am a big fan of that group. Turned out the concert was superb--part of their comeback tour.  To this day, my husband has the tickets tucked away. And every so often he mentions it. Wish I had told myself--go to the concert. The headache won't last; the experience of a great concert will.

--swimming. Yup, just that. I wish I had learned to swim properly when I was a child. I had lessons, and regularly went to the public pool (in Bulawayo) where we had instructions. But I just couldn't get the hang of it. I loathed diving--putting my head underwater. I never mastered breathing. I can't float. Seriously--I just sink. So I wish...

--And one thing I most certainly would have told my younger self--take advantage of the places where you live and absorb as much as you can. For example. having grown up in southern Africa, I never even tried to learn any of the languages. I missed out on the experience of a lifetime simply because I couldn't be bothered.

That's it, folks.

Perhaps, as Polonius advised, I was being true to myself. Too impatient, too distracted, too young and immature. But, isn't that what it means to be young? Even if I had been able to advise my younger self, I doubt if I would have paid attention.

Monday, May 30, 2016

It's Complicated

Every generation has its war, it seems. For my parents, that war was World War II (I was born two months before the end of the war in Europe). For me, that war was the Vietnam "conflict" (although, of course it was a was not so called at the time).  Today, it is the extended conflicts... Afghanistan, or Iraq.  

Perhaps the reason for a war, and the way it is fought, influences how we think about war, and warriors. Of course, today as Memorial Day is a day during which we think of war, especially those who fought and died. Or at least we SHOULD think of them. (Instead too many people are thinking of barbecues, beer, and beaches.)

When I think of war, I think of the waste, the sadness, the sacrifice. Oh, of course I think of the "good" reasons that wars are fought. I can't imagine the world which would have existed had Hitler and the Axis powers won World War II. Go further back in U.S. history and imagine what things would be like had President Lincoln NOT insisted on preserving the state of the union as a UNITED States. 

But, I also think of the wrong reasons that political leaders commit troops to battle. We need go back no further than the "second" Iraq war...fought for? Well, name the reasons.  Was the world preserved in any way for a better future?  And, my generation's war--Vietnam--so many young people died that most of us who were alive in the 1960s most likely know someone who either died there or was injured.  When I went to the Vietnam War memorial "the Wall" I found the names of two young men I knew who had died there.

So, it's complicated. I never want to detract from the sacrifice that young men (and women) make when they answer their country's call.  But I do question why the call is sounded.

On this Memorial Day, I honor those who sacrificed to make the world a better place. And I question those who march young people off to battle for specious reasons.

Monday, May 23, 2016

(...take a deep breath) AH! Smell that?

Herewith three vignettes about memories evoked by a smell.
I am in 10th grade in high school. This school is new to me, having recently been in a school system in another country. I have never been in an American high school before.
 As best I can, I settle into the routine. First, the relatively long bus ride. Just enough time to check out a couple of guys who get on the bus after me. They're cute.

Then school. We all hurry inside. And make our way to lockers, then homerooms. Soon the school bell sounds and we dutifully rise and "pledge allegiance to the flag." This is new to me, but I get the hang of it. And now classes begin. I have the usual round of classes--English, history (Pennsylvania history, I think), math (I get a pass on algebra having taken that in my prior school--not that it did any good--so business math for me), phys ed, and Latin. Of course, Latin. I don't remember much from that year but I remember Latin--oh, I suppose a bit of the language seeped through to me (I know many of the Latin words that helped shape the English language). But I do remember how to wolf whistle. Yup--learned that in Latin.

The one break during the day is lunch. And with it, foods that, though not unfamiliar, were not the common fare I had eaten in boarding school. You could tell by the smell what was for lunch that day. Barbecue sandwiches, pork and sauerkraut, hot dogs. I don't recall all, but even now--the smell of barbecue or sauerkraut transports me back to 10th grade.


As I enter the large room, I can immediately smell the touch of mold, mingled with lingering bath soap, laundry soap, perfume. And occasionally a whiff of food--probably from a covered dish supper. There is also the smell of books, and well-worn wood. The whole room is over-heated but that gives it a welcoming feel--like being enfolded in the arms of a grandparent who loves you and hugs you tight.

The room is dimly lit, and very quiet. There is a light buzz of voices, but mostly whispering. As I sit down, I look around.  There are some of my uncles and aunts, and my cousins. Probably my Pappap as well. Grandma must have been there, but I don't remember that.

I am in the small church where my mother grew up.  And now today, when I enter a small country church, all those smells hit me, and I am once again in that church from my childhood.


Late at night the plane landed. I had flown from the U.S. to London, then had a long lay-over at Heathrow (I over-estimated how much time I would need to connect planes).  Since the plane departed a bit later than scheduled, I missed the opportunity to see the sun set over the Sahara.  

With the usual delay in deplaning, my anticipation builds. I am going to see my daughter who is in a four month internship working on an art project.  The coolness of the airplane begins to dissipate. And as the cabin door opens, it becomes clear that the weather is not the same as Pennsylvania in November (from where I had departed), nor London. In fact, it is down-right steamy.

As I step off the plane, and down the ladder (no connecting tunnels at this airport),  I am immediately hit with a wave of intense humidity. And that smell.

I breathe deeply--wood fire smoke mingled with sweat of humanity. I take another deep breath--hold it, and then say (in my mind at least) -- AFRICA. After a more than 40 year absence, I am back.


Monday, May 16, 2016

The Power of the Word

Yup!  The topic for this post is superstition...and when I prepared the prompt (for our group of Comeback Bloggers) it was Friday the 13th. So superstition seemed like an obvious topic.

Then I got to thinking...what would I write about on this topic.

I am basically NOT a superstitious person.  As Ginger (one of our intrepid bloggers) said: the typical superstitions--"don't open an umbrella in a house, don't get out and about too much on Friday the 13th lest harm should befall you; watch out if a black cat crosses your path, cross your fingers for good luck, and don't break any mirrors"--are silly. 


Of course, we could all expand the list above...all based on various origins and "explainable" within a context.  But even other examples of superstition do not move me. After all, the whole point of superstitions is that something has some power over you--it predicts disaster or bad luck.  Except for those superstitions that bring you good luck.

So, what was I going to write about?  Then I recalled--there is one thing that I think of as predictive: the spoken word.

Let me explain--there are times when I absolutely will not voice a thought because of my deep-seated sense that SAYING something makes it a reality.  Maybe I have this sense because I am basically an intuitive person. I can look down the road and envision what could happen.  Thus by extension maybe my saying "it" causes the event to happen.

Understandably most of the examples that I could give you involve some level of disaster. So all the more reason not to voice them--does saying word call forth the event?  Maybe not, but I am still sufficiently "superstitious" of the possibility that I keep mum.