Thursday, March 31, 2011

Words, words, words

Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac imparted wondrous trivia about the humble pencil. Herewith some of the tidbits. A common pencil (think No. 2) is hexagonal to keep it from rolling off the table. It is yellow because the best graphite—what we incorrectly call lead—came from China and yellow was the traditional color of royalty in China. Start drawing a line with a common pencil and you can go for 35 miles before you run out of graphite.

Before the advent of computers, or even typewriters, writing was a hand affair. Some of America’s best writers wrote their masterpieces long hand using pencil. John Steinbeck particularly favored the pencil. He started every day by sharpening 24 new pencils. When he wrote East of Eden (oh, I do recommend it if you’ve never read it), he used 300 pencils.

Why this reverie on pencils? Well, writing and more specifically writing words. Words words words. I just finished reading a marvelous new literary biography: Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns. The subject is Emily Dickinson, who had her own way with words. Gordon has a dual thesis—first, she posits quite convincingly that Emily suffered from epilepsy, and that the disease may have accounted for her success as a poet. In part, the disease fueled some of the content of her poems, both in subject matter and style. A poem such as “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” which is sometimes interpreted as a description of madness makes much more sense if you understand it as a foreboding of the effects of a seizure. As for style, Gordon points out how Emily’s unorthodox use of words and punctuation can be a verbal representation of a seizure like state. Read a poem such as “After great pain a formal feeling comes” and think epilepsy. The closing line “First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –“ sounds so like the onset of a seizure.

Not only do the poems shed light on the prospect of Emily’s awareness of her illness, but also the details of her life line up in support. Gordon most convincingly traces the historical record of visits to physicians and medications prescribed for Emily. She slowly withdrew from the world, narrowing her circle of contacts. That is not to say that she did not carry on lively correspondence with various friends. But, if you accept that she suffered from epilepsy, for which at the time there was no effective treatment to forestall seizures, her withdrawal makes absolute sense. She would have isolated herself to avoid the stigma that accompanied having a seizure in public.

Gordon points out that Emily’s father in his effort to help his daughter exempted her from most household chores, which freed her to write poetry. She may have been counseled not to marry—which also freed her. Read this little poem—and see how its meaning dovetails nicely with Emily’s awareness that her illness freed her.

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some

Who till they died, did not alive become —

Who had they lived, had died but when

They died, Vitality begun

Second, Gordon chronicles the adulterous affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an Amherst professor. Emily Dickinson’s grandfather had built a homestead on Main Street in Amherst. There, Emily’s family—her parents and her brother Austin and sister Lavinia—lived. When Austin married, he and his wife Susan had moved into a house (called the Evergreens) built immediately next door to the Homestead. When Austin began his affair, some 27 years into his marriage, he and Mabel would meet at the Homestead. By then, the senior Dickinson parents were dead, and the Homestead belonged to Emily and Lavinia.

Imagine, sometimes up to three times a week for several hours at a time, the house being taken over by the lovers. They used a room downstairs, the dining room, as their place of assignation. Emily presumably stayed upstairs, writing poetry. No wonder her “life stood like a loaded gun.” Gordon credibly writes that the stress of this untenable situation may have hastened Emily’s death.

The stress of the affair may have killed or at the least hastened Emily’s death, and it also led to a multi-generation feud over who was the heir to Emily’s writings. Sue, Austin’s estranged wife who had been Emily’s dear friend, and Mabel, the mistress, each thought themselves the true beneficiaries of Emily’s life work. Their feud then was passed on to the next generation with Sue’s daughter and Mabel’s daughter each claiming the right to Emily’s words.

WORDS. Wondrous that we have pencils that write them. Wondrous that we have a poet such as Emily who flexed them to her use. And wondrous that we have a biographer such as Gordon to ferret out the details of a complicated life and record that life in words.


photo of Emily Dickinson:

Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. (Original is scratched.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Close Reading

In honor of A.E. Housman's birthday (March 26) and in honor of spring--herewith.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I have used this poem many times in teaching poetry. It is an utterly charming poem, and most accessible. One of the first questions I ask is--how old is the speaker in the poem? Well, how old?

Maybe you all are too smart to be fooled, but invariably I would have students say--seventy. No, I say, look again. So then I can see them doing the math--three score year and ten, well that's 70. And they subtract 20 ("will not come again") and say--fifty.

No, close reading now. AHA--the light goes on and they answer--twenty.

Oh, such a young man is that speaker. He has enjoyed spring cherry blossoms for twenty years. It is almost ironic that the VOICE of the poem is a far older, maybe wiser, voice than twenty years might suggest. I think the speaker sounds more like someone who is three score years and ten.

Whatever age--enjoy the spring. And all the blossoms--cherry included.
Image from

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Good Man is Hard to Find

...and a good woman, for that matter. And a good writer is even more rare.

I have a candidate for a good writer--and today is her birthday, so recognition is not only merited but timely. Flannery O'Connor.

A prototypical story of hers, one of the best, is "
A Good Man is Hard to Find." If you've never read it, you can go to the link, and read. It is a disturbing story. It centers on a family going on vacation. The son and his wife, along with three children, are accompanied by the matriarch of the family. She is one of the central characters. She is a complaining nagging domineering woman. She complains about their vacation destination. She begins to obsess about an escaped convict called the Misfit.

After a lunch stop, she recalls a house with secret passages that she believes is along the route they are taking. The family diverts to visit the house--and then the matriarch realizes that the house is not even in the state where they are traveling. She becomes flustered, her cat becomes agitated, and in the ensuing ruckus, their car crashes. As they assess their situation, another car approaches, and soon some people begin approaching them. It is none other than the Misfit and his cohorts.

The family is taken captive and the matriarch cannot shut up. Eventually, she begins babbling about salvation, realizing the potential evil of the Misfit, and begging him to turn to Jesus. Of course, he is not persuaded by her newly found grace. I won't characterize the unraveling of the story. But it is indeed a grim tale.

The themes that Flannery O'Connor explores focus on the possibility of redemption. She is always identified as a Christian writer. It may be difficult to discern that strain in her writing, yet it is undeniably there. You can read a fuller treatment of her themes

Her stories are dark--no question. She is sometimes identified as being a Southern Gothic writer. But it is not unreasonable to see how they emerged from the crucible of her own life.

She was an only child whose father died in 1941, of lupus, when she was only 16. Ten years later, when she was 26, she was diagnosed with lupus from which she suffered the remainder of her life.

She never married, continuing to live with her mother on the family farm. She loved birds of all sorts, including peacocks. As a young girl, she had taught a chicken to walk backwards--which garnered her some fame. She wryly noted that "When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the news. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax."

At age 39, she died of complications of lupus.

Her small body of work is extraordinary. I can think of no other writer who wrote the kind of stories she did. The characters are grotesque, yet they are searching for the same thing we all yearn for. Her humor is grim, while her vision is clear-eyed.
While I do love Flannery O'Connor's dark vision in her stories, I have another reason to love her. As someone who taught writing at times in my career, I love what she had to say about that:
"Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."

I am not sure if I did my part, but I hope I dissuaded some from writing best sellers!

Happy birthday, Flannery!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Big Blue Marble

You know, sometimes it just doesn't pay for me to read the news thoroughly. Too depressing. But my ever attentive husband brings a story to my attention, and I ask for the link. And, (sigh), a blog is born.

Here's a link to the story he read this morning. Can you imagine a sadder lead-in: "Americans say save the economy, not the planet"?

The story relates the findings of a recent Gallup poll. You can see the basics in the graph below. For 26 years, the graph shows we have cared more about the environment than jobs. In recent years, the environment has been losing ground, slowly. In 2008, environment slipped below economy, then rose, and now has fallen again. You can go here and see the source of the graph as well as Gallup's findings.

A bit over a year ago, I posted on this wonderful blue dot in the vast universe--and I used the photo above (from NASA). The big blue marble. This is home, folks. Not sure what else to say. Of course it is very important, even critical, to have a job. But should we de-value the environment just to have jobs? That's the drumbeat we are hearing today.

I am reminded of that great philosopher, Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. He wrote many wonderful books, but the one that comes to mind right now is The Lorax.

Do you remember this book?

Herewith a quote:

business is business!
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger.So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East!
To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering... selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.

That doesn't do the story justice, so go read the whole thing here.

We can turn that graph around. The environment and the economy are not incompatible. They may have been made so by the drumbeat in today's political environment, but they are not.

And, remember, when they're all gone--whether truffula trees, or regular trees, or the air we breathe, or the water we drink--when that's all gone, just what good will your job do you then?

I speak for the trees.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

This morning, my husband and I were sitting in our sun porch. This room is a favorite one--added on to our house about a decade ago. It has windows on three sides--actually sliding glass doors--which afford us a view to the yard.

I looked out and saw a rabbit hopping about--not too unusual. Except. . .

Except this rabbit looked a bit too light in color--sort of caramel colored. And it seemed to be a different size, with shorter ears. But I ignored it.

Back to reading my newspaper.

Then, there it was again--this odd rabbit. I pointed it out to my husband. And then I thought--I wonder if that's Hoppy. Not sure if you remember my writing about Hoppy--he's the neighbor's bunny who is kept outside in a hutch all the time. It drives me crazy--I mind so much his constant captivity. I go up to his hutch almost every day to bring him fresh parsley, which he loves, and carrots. His owners seem to feed him irregularly. I also gave him a full bedding of straw and some timothy to keep him warm during the winter.

Anyway--I grabbed a handful of parsley and pulled on a coat and gloves, and headed up the hill. I walked up to him, as he was hopping around eating clover. I talked to him--as I do every day--and then just reached down and picked him up.

I carried him back to his hutch, and latched the door.

Later today, I took his regular food up to him. And there he sat, hunched in the corner of his very small hutch. He usually jumps around when he sees me coming. Not this time. He just sat there. And at the risk of anthropomorphizing him, I thought he looked depressed.


Such a brief taste of freedom. So enjoyed by one wee bunny.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wednesday's Ashes

I was a bit hasty in my Wednesday post on "Upstairs, Downstairs." It had nothing at all to do with Ash Wednesday--of course, I knew that, but I hadn't planned to post about the significance of Ash Wednesday at all. . .except--

Except we went to Ash Wednesday service at our church, and one particular aspect of the service moved me incredibly. And, yes, I use that word particularly. I did not believe I could be so moved, yet I was.

If you have attended an Ash Wednesday service, you might know that imposition of ashes upon one's forehead is a traditional part of this service. Herewith, an image from my denomination's website.

As we approach the minister, who is holding a small bowl of ashes (traditionally made from burning last year's palms from Palm Sunday), the minister asks--what is your name?


Donna, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Such a simple exchange.

In effect, the minister has just said--you are going to die.

And what is the reaction of people as they receive this sentence?

Thank you.

I watched people as they received this cross of ashes. Watched them as the minister drew this small simple symbol of suffering on their foreheads. I watched them close their eyes, as if in prayer, or keep their eyes open, looking with clarity into the eyes of the minister before them.

And I saw person after person murmur "thank you."

That's what moved me.
I recall a marvelous little poem about mortality.
By Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618)
(written the night before his execution, 1618)

Even such is time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
My God shall raise me up, I trust!

Photo of the Ash Wednesday service taken by Beth Hager.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs

Time for another installment from my parents' biography. This story is actually a continuation of one I wrote about 4 years ago. In fact, I was thinking today about continuing the biography series, and thought--well, I had best do an introductory post and call it "The Rich are Different from Us." As I thought about what I could write, I thought to relay the story of the famous conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, in which Fitzgerald opined that "the rich are different from us somehow."

But I had a sneaking suspicion I had used that story before. So, I searched my past blogs and--voilĂ --there it was. A post titled (appropriately) "
The Rich are Different from Us" wherein I relay the entire Fitzgerald/Hemingway story complete with punchline, as well as my thoughts on some of the rich folk I have encountered.

I also told the story of my father's first foray into serving as a house servant--an ill-fated foray as it turned out. And, I gave an account of my own time "in service" -- that is working as a house-maid and sometime cook for rich Americans who had vacation homes along the shores of Lake Erie, on the Canadian side.

It was the way that I was treated--and the way my father was treated as I recounted in the story--that strikes me. The rich in those stories were different--there was a sense of entitlement, an attitude born of having made money, and now having servants to whom one could give orders, and treat badly, if one so chose.

This class division is far more pronounced in Britain--where there is a sharp division between upper class and lower class. The long running series of BBC--
Upstairs, Downstairs--which was then brought to the U.S., captured that class division marvelously. It was also featured in the wonderfully charming mystery movie Gosford Park. These media depictions showed how much those "in service" were just as opinionated as their employers. They may have been invisible but they certainly knew what was going on.

Okay--so that's the background. Here's a brief story of my father's SECOND foray into working for the rich.

The summer of 1940, my father secured work as a houseman, one of a number of servants, in the summer home of Henry McCormick. The McCormicks were a family of some prominence in Harrisburg, PA. His brother, Vance, was prominent in Democratic politics, and served a term as mayor of Harrisburg.
Henry B. McCormick, for whom my father worked, was a director of a Harrisburg bank and of the Harrisburg Bridge Company. At that time, most bridges were toll bridges, garnering a handsome income for the owners. Henry McCormick owned a summer home along the Yellow Breeches Creek, near Bowmansdale, which is very near Grantham (where my father's family had lived).

My father’s duties included pressing Mr. McCormick’s suit daily, polishing his shoes, wet mopping the front porch weekly, and cranking ice cream weekly. My father also occasionally served as a driver to help with transportation. He even had a slight accident while driving one of these cars, but Mr. McCormick was a kindly soul and nothing came of the incident.

Happily, this employment situation ended far more amicably than had his stint as a butler. He even got to keep the summer suit the McCormicks had purchased for him.

True, the rich are different from us (whoever "us" may be). I wonder--do young people still head off in the summertime to work in wealthy homes? Along the shores of Lake Erie? Along a creek? Somewhere at ocean's edge? Or, have the rich turned elsewhere for those who labor downstairs, while they wile away the hours upstairs?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Approaching Lent

Almost any description you read of Lent talks about this season as a time of prayer, fasting, and self-examination. Fair enough.

The website for the church to which I belong points out that Lent lasts for 40 days "like the flood of Genesis, Moses’ sojourn at Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Jonah’s call to Nineveh to repent and Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness." If you want to read more from that website, go

I can appreciate the beauty of such a time. Where Advent, the season that leads up to Christmas is a time of anticipation and waiting, Lent is more solemn, not nearly so joyful. True--Lent leads to Easter, where the climax is the resurrection account, but to get there, the story takes us through a trial, a betrayal, and a crucifixion. No wonder the season dwells on darkness.

But the meaning of Lent is not what this post is about.

This is about the way people get ready for Lent--by engaging in excessive celebrations and overeating.

On Saturday, my husband saw a small poster for a local Byzantine Orthodox church that was having its Mardi Gras festival. The features: Slavic foods, Mardi Gras beads, and a polka band. Did I want to go?

Sure, why not? Let's go.

When we walked in to this totally unfamiliar environment, we first were practically bowled over by sound--loud raucous polka music.

We asked for some of the ground rules--how to get food? where to sit? We learned we had to buy tickets--then order our food and pay with tickets. OK. Next was figuring out what the food items were. Kielbasa--that's easy. And perohis (aka perogies). Check. But halupki? And halushki?

So for ease, I said--just go ahead and order one of each. R-i-g-h-t! You can see the perohis, the halupkis and the halushki above. Mostly pale white food. Most carbohydrates. Mostly not much taste. I mean--if you like (make that love) cabbage, potatoes and flour--you are all set.

But it was fun. Something a bit different. Neither my husband nor I has any Slavic blood in our family pedigrees, so while these were unfamiliar dishes, we managed.

But isn't it interesting--preparing for Lent by over-indulging in some of the worst imaginable foods for your health's sake? Of course, Mardi Gras, aka Shrove Tuesday, aka Fat Tuesday, aka Fasnacht Day--all these day names refer to this coming Tuesday, the last day before Lent--the featured foods call for over-indulgence in carbohydrates, sugars and fats. Fasnachts--really donuts made from potato dough--what could be more. . .filling. Getting ready for Lent--for 40 days of denial.

I don't typically "give up" anything for Lent. Oh, I know--I'll give up halupki and halushki. Maybe even perohis.


Photos from Web.

Food photo guide: photo 1-- halushki; photo 2--perohis; photo 3--halupki.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

And the Oscar Goes To...

In past years, I have blogged about the movies which have garnered nominations for the annual Academy Awards. And, in preparation for that blogging, my husband and I engage in a mad dash of seeing a whole slew of movies.

Well, this year I didn't blog in advance, and we did our movie going in slower dashes. Maybe it's a sign of encroaching age--dashing not being a thing we try to do more often than necessary.

Anyway. The first movie we saw was True Grit--back when it was first released and no Oscar nominees had been announced. It was a bit of a shock when the Golden Globes skipped nominating True Grit for anything. That snub notwithstanding, we went to see True Grit and enjoyed it enormously. I am not really a fan of Westerns--and there are many Western classics I have never seen, including the original True Grit. But I am a fan of the Coen brothers--of their movies I have seen, there is not one that I would say "oh, skip that one." The Coen brothers movie making sensibilities can be described as quirky, at best, but the result is usually an indelible movie that stays with you. So it is with True Grit--scenes from it keep popping into my head.

What we usually concentrate on is the best movies category, and the top actor nominee movies. We are not slavish, though, and willingly skip a movie we think we might not enjoy. So, we skipped 127 hours, The Black Swan, and The Fighter.

In the run-up to the Oscar night, we first went on a Toy Story bash. We recorded and watched all three. Toy Story 3 is the animated feature that was nominated for Best Movie. To understand its plot, we watched 1 and 2. Toy Story 3 is so charming, so endearing. Any adult would enjoy it. And, I confess, I wonder what it says about our non-animated movies when it is the animated ones that actually make us cry. Every child who has grown to be an adult, and every adult who has watched a child grow can find something to love in this movie.

As soon as The King's Speech came to theaters here, we went to see it. What a wonderful movie. The story would have been most compelling without the historical framework, but of course the point of the movie was not only the triumph of one person, but the triumph of that particular person--the man who became George VI. As an Anglophile, I enjoyed almost every part of this movie--the people, the setting, the social commentary. I can't claim to be prescient, but this did seem like the movie to beat.

We next The Social Network which recounts the creation of Facebook and the rise of the genius behind it, Mark Zuckerberg. The contrast between the old-style Western and the new generation social network couldn't be more stunning. Each movie crafted its own kind of dialogue--the wonderfully oddly stilted formal dialogue of True Grit contrasting with the rapid fire Aaron Sorkin dialogue of The Social Network. My ears simply can't listen fast enough to an Aaron Sorkin script. But I love it anyway. The bits I do catch are worth the effort.

We then recorded several movies to watch at our leisure. First, we watched The Kids are All Right. This movie was not great in its story--the story of a marriage, where secrets are uncovered, where infidelity occurs, and where final forgiveness is achieved--that's an old story. What was new was that the marriage was a gay marriage. The normalcy of the family underscored part of the message--so what's the big deal about gay marriage. A gay couple is in every detail--save one--completely the same as a straight couple. Get over it.

Next we watched the one movie we knew very little about--Winter's Bone. As the title might suggest, this movie--set in the grim grey winter world of the Ozarks-- presents a stark story of a young woman who is the sole locus of responsibility in her family. Her father, a meth making drug dealer, has vanished, but not before putting up the family home as collateral against his bail. The mother is catatonic, in a silent world of her own, incapable of caring for the two younger children. It is only Ree Dolly, the 17 year old heroine of the tale, who has any sense and tries to care for the family. She goes on a quest to find her father and make sure he appears for a court date and does not thereby cause them to lose their home. As she searches, she is turned away at almost every place by heartless relatives and even more heartless neighbors. Only a few folk are willing to help her any, until one person steps forward and helps her in a wonderful surprise twist.

Finally, we watched Inception. OK, OK--I admit it. My husband watched this one. I started watching it, and gave up. The premise was so preposterous to me--dreams within dreams within dreams--and all of them controlled by external intention. I got lost trying to figure out which layer of reality--oh, did I say reality?--err, unreality we were in that I just plain quit watching.

When the Oscar nominations were announced, the battle seemed to be between The King's Speech and The Social Network. Each garnered multiple nominations, each had a compelling story. Interestingly, a generational split developed, with older viewers (ahem, that would include me) preferring The King's Speech and younger viewers (say, my daughter) preferring The Social Network.

The surprise for my husband and me was that we really preferred the small budget unassuming movie: Winter's Bone. Were I a member of the Academy, one of those folks who receives a ballot and gets to vote, my votes would have gone to Winter's Bone.

Ah, well. Oscar night has come and gone. Anne Hathaway changed dresses--almost too many times for me to enjoy each; James Franco looked oddly stoic and bored. Come on, James--say something. The viewer audience dropped from last year's numbers, and the show ran over-time.

But the movies? Well, they just keep rolling along.

What were your favorites?