Delayed Gratification

February 21, 2010 at 9:41 am (Family, Farming, Films, God, Gorgeous Writing, Rant)

To truly understand the significance of the picture to the left, you would have to have experienced my downstairs bathroom as it has been for the past 20 years. I wish I had a picture. The old bathroom had a barf-pink tub and toilet and an ersatz vanity/sink. The floor was two layers of crumbling linoleum, half of which was peeled off and half of which was kind of barely nailed on. I insisted on a plumbing upgrade when the pipes got so bad I was literally showering with a hose in the milkhouse in the barn, hiding behind the bulk tank and hoping to heck the milktruck didn’t pull in. My very pregnant and naked self was not a pretty site. Demi Moore I ain’t. During one Thanksgiving, we made our respective parents pee in the lawn because the septic was so bad. My mom was much in fear of the rooster that was poking about.

We made do with this bathroom until Youngest was born in 1997, when we put a brand new bathroom in upstairs (we didn’t have an upstairs bathroom for the first 7 years, and by pregnancy number three, I was darn tired of waddling down the stairs in the middle of the night). So since 1997, we have had a nice bathroom on the second floor, and we tolerated the pink pit on the first floor. It served its purpose for toilet, brushing or gelling (Middle son) hair, washing the dog. We rarely (read “never”) had guests, and we bumpkins didn’t care where we relieved ourselves. Then the toilet broke, and it would only flush intermittently. AND we have hard water, and calcium and rust accumulate on the inside of the toilet and hold on to the … whatever else is put in there, if you catch my meaning. So it became useless to clean it, and things became worse.

Remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal is in the outhouse and the movie star is arriving? That is not too far off from my bathroom of the past two years. So last spring, in a fit of Spring Fever, Andy and I tore everything out: the cast iron tub had to be smashed to smithereens (lots of fun, actually). I was in charge of ripping off the lovely faux-marble laminate walls and the plaster and lath. We left the sink and the toilet in place, but then the milk price bottomed out and we had to put it all on hold.

So for a year we had a very scary space right off the kitchen, kind of like those communal bathrooms in tenements in movies? You think I am kidding but I am not.

But just after Christmas Andy stumbled upon a fabulous deal on flooring so he bought it. And then our neighborhood ace handyman hurt his back and couldn’t work, but he could do some stuff for us. So way-hay and away we go! Suddenly beaded board was going up and toilets were flying and flooring was going down and all of a sudden I have a pretty bathroom. Twenty years is a long time to wait, and it makes the one-year wait on doing this

seem like child’s play. I bought this switchplate in Durham, North Carolina, at Vaguely Reminiscent in April of 2009. I was spending the day with a fabulous bunch of people I had met online and we were all about to go and see Haven Kimmel and Augusten Burroughs. I bought the switchplate saying to myself, “This is the way I want that bathroom to feel.” One year – 20 years – later, I finally screwed it into place. It will remind me daily of that magical trip. But screwing that little thing of beauty to the wall got me thinking.

I don’t know if this is an Asperger’s thing or a first-generation farmers thing, but Andy and I got very used to delaying gratification in the early days. Any entrepreneur will tell you that if you want to succeed in business, you have to suffer through the early years when all the money you make gets shoveled back into the business, and you cross your fingers that some day the business takes off and makes it all worth it. Andy and I were so good at delayed gratification, that we usually just skipped the gratification part. We just went without, went without, went without, one-month splurge when the milk price was high, and then back to went without, went without.

The year 2008 was a record-high milk price year, and the money was a’sloshin’ around like crazy! Andy bought a boat, and the family got a pool. We got a little used to buying a little treat or a little toy or whatever. I confess to over-spending on Amazon Used Books, and Andy overspent on fishing gear. But then the Bush era finally took its toll and the country plunged into a recession.

If the dairy industry is any indication of what is happening in the economy at large, the prospects for recovery are looking grim. Over the past 15 years, the large farms have adopted sexed semen (meaning they have 90% heifer calves) and expansion and anything else that made them personally more profitable, with the result that the national herd is huge and growing, there is more milk on the market than the recessed economy can absorb, and as any economist will tell you, oversupply and shrunken demand equals low prices.

For the big dairies where large volume means that even a small profit margin keeps you in business, this is fine. For us small to medium-sized dairies, a small – or non-existent – profit margin means borrowing to stay afloat and watching years worth of growing sweat equity start to slow to a halt.

Andy (who has THREE Bachelors degrees, one of which is in Economic Theory) and I (who have learned all I know about Economics because I have to teach it) have been talking a lot about the shift that seems to be going on right now. From my perspective in public education, I have seen the past twenty years devoted to preparing America’s graduates to go to college, teaching them critical thinking and theory analysis. When I graduated high school in 1984, that worked. You got yourself a four-year degree, and everyone opened their arms to usher your brainy self in the door. Ask Michael Lewis. Ask Melanie Griffith. If you could think, you were welcome to come on in and help America’s growing companies make some money.

But Andy and I are both feeling like the years of graduating from college and easily attaching yourself to the corporate teat are at an end. First of all, many of those Jamals made it through the latrine, got themselves an education, and will now do what American graduates do better and for one-quarter the salary – and be happy about it! Most American graduates (self included) are so dependent on adhering to big companies or agencies like barnacles that they couldn’t start their own business if you gave them the money to do it. And with money being funneled to keep the economic Titanics afloat, no money is currently available for entrepreneurs wanting to do their own thing, where keeping your job is your OWN responsibility. Besides, what upstart rowboat can compete with the Titanic, even if it is bailing water?

The really frightening thought is that the economy we have known and enjoyed for the past twenty years might be dying away. The economic model we have embraced, enjoyed, and are now trying to save might not be savable.

This hit me pretty hard this past Friday. We had been struggling along between milkchecks until Friday when the milkcheck finally arrived. I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately went out and bought myself swim goggles, fancy soap, a video game for Youngest, and was heading toward Lowe’s to get the medicine cabinet for the new bathroom when I stopped myself. What happened to delayed gratification? Yeah, we had money again, but truly, it was all spoken for already. Had I truly gotten so used to gratifying my desires that I couldn’t wait for my own paycheck a week later to get the bathroom decorations? Maybe, in fact, I might need to wait a month – or even two – to get those pretty baskets and that laundry hamper and that shiny towel rack. Maybe I couldn’t get them at all. And in truth, Jamal would be happy with just having the darn toilet that was already sitting at home.

I fear some serious belt-tightening is going to be called for, and I know that lots of Americans have already had to do it. Part of what Andy and I are feeling is that by the age of 50 (or 43), it shouldn’t be a big deal to buy a cappuccino; we have truly worked our asses off to get where we have gotten with the farm, much harder than our peers who did pursue the big and stable salary. Shouldn’t we be able to buy at least a couple of luxuries in our middle age? Ask the middle-aged folks in Guatemala or the slums of Mumbai.

Could it be that delayed gratification – or no gratification – is going to be necessary in America? And what about the concept of the majority of Americans returning to physical or manual labor? Perhaps the economy is now calling for us all to actually produce something as opposed to spin it, analyze it, market it, train it, teach it, think it, televise it, or turn it into a video game.

As usual, through pure grace, I am currently teaching The Grapes of Wrath in my class. Andy used to joke that America needed another depression to get Americans’ heads out of their butts. Maybe then we WOULD get some Americans who would work as hard as Hispanic workers.

And now the joke is on us. We had lived like the Joads for years as we had started the farm, and like the Joads, we assumed that if we worked hard enough, we could at least have that pretty little white house in the orange grove. But unless everyone on the planet can have the pretty white house, it’s not going to happen. People living in cardboard boxes are going to take the jobs and be happy to upgrade to corrugated metal. And those who want to live in a Pottery Barn advertisement might find themselves replaced by someone who wants the job worse.

I am looking down right now at a Pottery Barn rug, one that I finally purchased after 18 years and with great guilt and trepidation. Maybe it’s the last one I’ll ever buy. And you know what? I have a roof over my head, more flesh on my body than I need, a job that I don’t think is going away, and healthy kids.

This was real:

And so is this:

And so I should consider this to be as much or more than I deserve in this lifetime. I used to think I would have been quite the survivor had I lived through the Great Depression. It might be that I’ll be finding out whether that is true.


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Happy Confluence of Winter Books

January 31, 2010 at 10:52 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, God, Gorgeous Writing, Literary spaces)

It is 10 below zero here today, and I just finished the perfect book to read when it is this cold. It also occasioned one of those happy confluences when a favorite children’s book suddenly appears in adult form and is equally good.  I have probably read Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink 30 or more times. Of course I had discovered Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons and then Two Are Better Than One and Louly by third grade, but then when I discovered Winter Cottage, something about it made it my favorite of her books.

I finally had a name for the reason after I read The Poetics of Space in college, and recognized what Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity” or the sheltered, small, hidden space that allows the spirit to roam freely. Bachelard’s contention is that such phenomena are ontological and that we experience them when a writer is able to express them for us. I experienced intimate immensity when I read Winter Cottage.

The protagonist is Araminta Sparks, called Minty, who is on her way to Chicago with her sister Eglantine (Eggs) and their father Pops. It is the midst of the Depression, and their car breaks down on a back road they have accidentally turned onto. They find a summer cottage on a lake and “break in” to spend the night. Because they are hauling all the canned goods from Mr. Sparks’ failed grocery store, they eventually decide to winter there, planning to leave “rent” for the landlords whom they do not know.

Moving on to North of Hope. I had discovered the Loyola Classics series in Fall of 2008, and after I bought and read In This House of Brede, I made it known that I would like several more from the series. My lovely husband bought me three for Christmas last year, including North of Hope because Andy knows I like books about hardship, cold, Native Americans, and Catholics. Besides, look at that cover. Is that not lovely?

When the weather turns cold and nasty here, I usually pull out The Shipping News or Alistair MacLeod’s Island to make me count my blessings, but this year I picked up North of Hope. (I would also suggest Peace Like a River in this grouping). Jon Hassler is new to me, but I am now going to run out and read more of his books. He was a high-school English teacher and then taught college, later becoming Writer in Residence at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

North of Hope focuses on Father Frank Healy, a priest having a crisis of not so much faith, as hope. He returns to his hometown parish to sort this through and is reunited with his best friend/almost girlfriend from high school Libby, who, though not religious, is similarly facing a crisis of hope as she deals with her manic-depressive daughter, drug-dealing doctor husband, and her own rekindled passion for Frank. These two spend a winter supporting each other through some true tragedies, and find in each other’s Platonic love and support, the means to find hope once again.

Reading Winter Cottage on a cold day is like drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows. Reading North of Hope was like drinking very strong espresso with maybe a shot of whiskey: adult, realistic, true, bitter, and yet still warming. The epistle from this morning’s Mass readings was from First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a woman, I put aside childish things.” As a woman I have not totally put aside childish things; I still read the Little House books and I still read Winter Cottage. As a child, these books were an escape into another world, a rural, character-building place I wanted to be. And when I reread these books now, they do rekindle that romantic, adventurous feeling that inspired me as a girl.

But now I LIVE in that world, where things are rural and character-building, and I cherish the tales of adults facing these hardships with courage and integrity. Frank Healy is my grown-up Minty Sparks. The other time I had a similar book confluence was when I discovered Willa Cather’s Prairie Novels and had found the adult equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Alexandra Bergson is now my role model as much as ten-year-old Laura was.

In addition to the tough weather-beaten and life-beaten heroes I sought, I was also looking for books that created that “intimate immensity” of a small, warm, protected place in the midst of the snow and the chaos and the hardship. I think even as a kid I kind of knew that life could be a tough journey, and I girded my loins by finding heroines who took it on bare-handed and adult characters who provided safety and warmth. There is Pops at left, making his famous pancakes. That kitchen is warm, and light, and smells good. At right is Pops playing chess by the fire. It’s cold outside, and Minty’s mom is dead, and they have no home or money, and yet they have made a place of safety.

In North of Hope that place of safety and warmth is much more abstract, in the way that adult things are. One character dies when his car goes through the ice, another is hospitalized in a mental clinic, another comes close to throwing herself in front of a train. There are no places of comfort for many of these characters. Frank has to find that place inside himself, as do the other troubled characters in the book. Most of them feel North of Hope itself, and hope IS that warm place by the fire. The hard thing in adulthood is creating that Winter Cottage metaphorically. And within.


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A Book Review for Epiphany Sunday

January 3, 2010 at 11:49 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, Family, God, Gorgeous Writing)

TS Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

In this poem TS Eliot gives voice to the mysterious kings who, once they have seen the infant Jesus, return home unable to not completely change their outlook on life and religion. Yet they do not mourn this loss of old certainties, insisting they are happy to be shed of obsolete beliefs. The Magi were led to experience this world-view revolution by the words of a prophet, what Flannery O’Connor called a “realist of distances,” one who can describe in detail what is yet to come because of lucid understanding of what currently is.

In Quaker writer Haven Kimmel’s fictional gem The Used World, Hazel Hunnicutt, proprietor of the eponymous Used World Emporium, is such a prophet. She sees what is distant by discerning the purest essence of what is and urging it into new combinations. Her most significant “arrangement” in the novel, and what drives the plot, involves her two employees: 40-something Claudia Modjeski, a six-foot-four androgynous woman living alone and mourning the death of her beloved mother, and 20-something Rebekah Shook, disowned by her Pentecostal father after she becomes pregnant by her first-ever lover, the decidedly non-Pentecostal Peter. This new arrangement also involves a baby boy, “stolen” after being orphaned into the meth-addicted biker gang Hazel’s own sister has fallen into, as well as a pit bull, abandoned by and rescued from the same.

The new story that is created here is ingeniously formed by Kimmel from elements of the old. Narration of the present-day lives of the main characters is interspersed with chronologically presented flashbacks to Hazel’s childhood and early adulthood. In these scenes Hazel, who early in life is “marked” for prescience by an owl, learns to differentiate between those acts that demonstrate pure love – though they might not be socially accepted – and “antique” traditions that deserve casting off when what they produce is pain and suffering. Hazel’s past and present circumstances call for quite challenging acts of discernment, from evaluating her mother’s work with unwanted pregnancies and her own repressed love for her best friend to the proper response to her sister’s addiction and to a fledgling lesbian relationship. Kimmel does not portray these acts of discernment as easy, nor should she. She opens such perennial powder-kegs as illegitimacy, homosexuality, and abortion, all flash-points that persist throughout human history, elicit changing societal responses as humanity evolves, and remain controversial because they are so complex.

The “theological” opinions voiced in the book contrast Rebekah’s father Vernon, a member of The Prophetic Mission where “the cruel, the stupid, the kind and the good alike believed they were the conduits for the direct revelation of Yahweh,” and Amos Townsend, pastor of the Church of the Brethren. The principle difference between these two is the degree of certainty with which they assert their beliefs. Where Vernon Shook continually reaffirms his own incontestable convictions, Amos humbly questions his own claims even from the pulpit. While Amos mistrusts the idea that anyone can thoroughly understand Jesus and so speculates more than pontificates, he does avow those truths he knows to be everlasting, especially the truth that God is Love and is revealed through love.

Sugar and Spice by artist Sher Fick

Throughout the book, in both image and theme, Kimmel contends there is much in life to preserve because it is good, but there is also much that should not be clutched merely because it is old. Acts of loving responsibility, symbolized by Claudia’s mother’s preserves and Rebekah’s mother’s recipes, shine out against the micro-waved meals of Claudia’s married-with-children sister Millie and the immature instant-message romance of the self-centered and two-timing Peter. These two, dubbed the New Mother and the New Man, have left the past completely behind but have also, unfortunately, abandoned those elements that were most worth saving.

On the other hand those who cling too fiercely to their outdated beliefs – Vernon and Hazel’s father Albert – leave destruction in their wake when the “truths” they cling to are divisive, vindictive, self-serving, and intolerant. Those characters unwilling or unable to sort the treasure from the junk are left to suffer at their own hands, while those who adapt and move on, doing what love asks of them, thrive and grow.  Kimmel challenges us too to retain what things are true, honest, just, pure, and lovely but to also be open to the new and sometimes unexpected ways these can be combined. The only test, and every great agape practitioner from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day would agree, is the question What is love asking of us now?

Haven Kimmel, whose hysterically funny memoir A Girl Named Zippy launched her onto the New York Times Bestsellers List in 2002, employs the same down-home humor in The Used World. But here in the world of fiction, Kimmel can employ even more nuance in her craft. Her symbolic touch throughout is simultaneously subtle and ever-present. The novel can simply be enjoyed as a gripping tale and yet the watchful reader discovers constant nuggets of pure philosophical gold, just as the persistent antiquer consistently finds new treasures in her favorite store. For example, the epigraph for Part Two from Luke, “the child in my womb leaped for joy,” literally describes Claudia’s reaction to the arrival of the pregnant Rebekah but also posits these two as a modern-day Elizabeth and Mary. Even such Judeo-Christian mainstays as a flood, a mob called Legion, and a woman saltily looking back read as seamless plot elements, especially as they are mixed with non-Biblical archetypes such as an Old Road, animal familiars, and three-headed dogs.

And this is indeed Kimmel’s point. There is only one story, one rock of permanence, one eternal word, and that is compassion. The impermanent and ever-changing face of history’s artifacts should not be worshipped. If the Word Himself calls us to anything it is to caritas, in whatever unusual and unexpected combinations this might require. It could be an illegitimate baby born to country folks in a stable and worshipped by royalty. It could be a woman accepting the love of another woman and raising a stolen child. The Magi say that what looks to be birth turned out to be death. And in The Used World what looks to be death turns out to be birth. The suicidal Claudia, the maltreated infant Oliver, the exiled Rebekah, the frantically despairing Millie and even the still-bereaved Hazel find new life in the odd arrangement a blizzard in Indiana hurls into place. As Hazel says, “There is wild change afoot, and you must be brave enough to not only endure it, but to embrace it, to make it your own.” And to do so, Kimmel maintains, always with compassion.

Let Your Light Shine by artist Sher Fick

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

December 24, 2009 at 10:27 am (Gorgeous Writing)

I first read this story in high school, and when I hit the sentence that I have highlighted, it stopped me in my tracks. The sound of that sentence in my head, how completely it transported me – sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling – I was THERE in that kitchen. I read it in Literary Cavalcade magazine, and it said on the page “A must for anyone who really cares about great writing.” I discovered, that day, that I was one of those anyones.

I present the story here as a holiday gift. Enjoy. To hear Truman Capote himself read this aloud (abridged, alas), click here for This American Life. It  starts at around 21:00.

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. ”

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”

“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”

“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “1 could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”). Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy”—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—”I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences.

Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.

Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”

“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’11 wager it never happens. I’11 wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones….”). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.” But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! ”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

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Me and My Main Man Ralph

December 1, 2009 at 12:33 pm (Asperger's Syndrome, Book review, Family, Gorgeous Writing, Marriage, Rant, Writing)

The Perpetual Male Adolescence Festival (aka Shotgun Season) is in full swing here in Central New York. Mighty Hawkeye has already gotten four does with his bow and one monster buck (update : two monster bucks) with his shotgun (update: and one doe with his muzzle-loader). At the risk of offending anyone, I feel I must rant.

I spent too many years teaching Lord of the Flies to sophomores. I love Lord of the Flies, can practically recite enormous portions by memory; it was the sophomores that got taxing. It’s been eleven years since I cracked the cover, but one scene always jumps to mind when hunting season rolls around again, and so I cracked.

Ralph and Simon have been valiantly attempting to build huts on the beach while Piggy allegedly watches the Littl’uns and avoids asthma. Jack is rapidly devolving into primitive hunting mode, and is intently thinking like a pig, plotting his kill:

“Ralph gazed bewildered at [Jack’s] rapt face.

‘-they get up high. High up and in the shade, resting during the heat, like cows at home-‘

‘I thought you saw a ship!’

‘We could steal up on one – paint our faces so they wouldn’t see – perhaps surround them and then-‘

Indignation took away Ralph’s control.

‘I was talking about smoke! Don’t you want to be rescued? All you can talk about is pig, pig, pig!’

‘But we want meat!’

‘And I work all day with nothing but Simon and you come back and don’t even notice the huts!’

‘I was working too-‘

‘But you like it!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘

They faced each other on the bright beach, astonished at the rub of feeling.”

The Modern Version:

“Mo gazed bewildered at Husband’s rapt face.

‘-they get really careless when they’re in rut. If you sit really still in one place-‘

‘I thought we were talking about Eldest!’

‘You have to be downwind, and brush your teeth with baking soda, and wear Scent-lock … ‘

Indignation took away Mo’s control.

‘I was talking about the kids! Don’t you care about their future? All you can talk about is deer, deer, deer!’

‘But we need meat!’

‘And I work all day downtown, which you would hate, and you come back and don’t even notice the 20-year-old bathroom!’

‘I was working too-‘

‘But you like it!’ shouted Mo. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘

They faced each other in the kitchen, astonished at the rub of feeling.”

And so it goes.

I did make it to 50,000 words and got a big “You win!” graphic from the National Novel-Writing Month team (me and over 32,000 other people). Ironically enough, my novel is set in a future year when the people of Central New York are literally fighting for survival, and a good hunter is worth his weight in lost college-planning conversations.

And really, I must admit that I love venison, Husband is a fabulous cook, he is an extraordinarily skilled hunter, he is working on the bathroom, and if I were able to live a turn-of-the-last-century life and stay home cooking and baking, I would feel very different about the whole thing.

And much as I revere William Golding and his brilliant analysis of human nature, according to his biographer John Carey, he was “a reclusive depressive who considered himself a ‘monster’, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”

There are dangers in trusting the imagination above all things, as Husband is quick to tell me. Imagination alone might lead to a Nobel prize, but it doesn’t fill the freezer or keep the house warm. So, I tell myself, Back off, English geek! Once you publish a book and make some money at your hobby, you can sneer at your husband’s hobby, which does at least feed the family.

Meanwhile, me and my main man Ralph are going to shut up and keep working on the huts and keeping track of the Littl’uns.

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From “Winter Barley” by Andrea Lee

October 31, 2009 at 9:10 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, Gorgeous Writing, Ireland, Literary spaces)

scothouse

The Storm

Night; a house in northern Scotland. When October gales blow in off the Atlantic, one thinks of sodden sheep huddled downwind and of oil cowboys on bucking North Sea rigs… even a large solid house like this one feels temporary tonight, like a hand cupped around a match. Flourishes of hail, like bird shot against the windows; a wuthering in the chimneys, the sound of an army of giants charging over the hilltops in the dark…

Halloween

Bent double, Edo and Elizabeth creep through a stand of spindly larch and bilberry toward the pond where the geese are settling for the night. It is after four on a cold, clear afternoon, with the sun already behind the hills and a concentrated essence of leaf meal and wet earth rising headily at their footsteps – an elixir of autumn… Now from the corner of the grove, Edo and Elizabeth spy on two or three hundred geese in a crowd as thick and racuous as bathers on a city beach: preening, socializing, some pulling at sedges in the water of the murky little pond, others arriving from the sky in unraveling skeins, calling, wheeling, landing….

geese

A tumult of wind and dogs greets them as they pull up ten minutes later to the house. Dervishes of leaves spin on the gravel … Both Elizabeth and Edo stare in surprise at the kitchen windows, where there is an unusual glow. It looks like something on fire, and for an instant Edo has the sensation of disaster – a conflagration not of this house, nothing so real, but a mirage of a burning city, a sign transplanted from a dream…

Elizabeth sees quite clearly what Nestor and his cousins have done and, with an odd sense of relief, starts to giggle. They’ve carved four pumpkins with horrible faces, put candles inside, and lined them up on the windowsills… “It’s Halloween,” she says, in a voice pitched a shade too high…[Edo] hurries inside, telling her to follow him.

Instead, Elizabeth lets the door close and lingers outside, looking at the glowing vegetable faces and feeling the cold wind shove her hair back from her forehead… she thinks of a Halloween in Dover when she was eight or nine and stood for a long time on the doorstep of her own house after her brothers and everyone else had gone inside. The two big elms leaned over the moon, and the jack-o’-lantern in the front window had a thick dribble of wax depending from its grin…She’d stood there feeling excitement and terror at the small, dark world she had created around herself simply by holding back.”

pumpkins

I went through a series of many years when I snatched The Best American Short Stories volumes off the New Books shelf at the library as soon as they arrived. Now, not so much. The 1993 edition came out in the midst of my Louise Erdrich jag, and since she was editor that year, I very much snagged and devoured. I was VERY struck by the short story “Winter Barley” by Andrea Lee, not so much for the plot but for the setting and the mood.

A week ago I made the very old librarian go down and retrieve 1993 for me from the basement (I offered to go down there myself, but that is where the very secret books are kept, like A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle. What? because of the lesbianism?) and I reread this story and was again transported. This story has taken the place of Mr. McFadden’s Halloween* and The Halloween Tree in my repertoire of seasonal , transporting books. So above are my favorite chunks with some visuals to go along.

This story was originally published in The New Yorker and can be read (if you are a digital subscriber) here.Or you can get the 1993 edition of The Best American Short Stories. Here is the New Yorker’s abstract:

“Elizabeth, 30, a banker from Massachusetts who is stationed in Rome, and Edo, 60, an exiled prince from an Eastern European kingdom now extinct, have an affair at his home in Scotland. They meet at Easter. Elizabeth is invited to Scotland by Edo’s gay nephew, Nestor, her neighbor in Rome. Nestor doesn’t show up, having deliberately planned to throw the two of them together. Edo regales her with anecdotes about his world travels, and challenges her with his snobbery. They become lovers, although Elizabeth does not feel that she is in love with Edo. She is bored by his interest in water fowl; he has designed his estate to attract them. At Halloween, Nestor and two aristocratic friends arrive in Scotland. They and Edo try to offend Elizabeth with bawdy songs and stories. Edo is annoyed when the young men surprise him and Elizabeth by putting jack-o’-lanterns in the windows. Elizabeth has a childhood memory of Halloween in Dover, Massachusetts. Edo recalls an experience in Persia, when two of his friends, Persian princes, surprised him in the desert, bearing falcons.”

BASSmcfaddenAccording to Andrea Lee’s Contributor’s Note in BASS, she was inspired by a line at the end of King Lear where Lear and Cordelia plan to escape together and enjoy “an improbable idyll” of father-daughter love. Lee wanted to replicate such an idyll in a modern context and so devised a “father-daughter” love affair. Why did an image of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones just jump into my head?

halloween tree

Ray Bradbury's painting of The Halloween Tree

Happy Halloween, everyone!

rumercats* Speaking of Rumer Godden, I have lately discovered her adult novels. (I was a huge fan of her middle grade books: Mr. McFadden’s Halloween, The Doll‘s House, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, The Kitchen Madonna). I am now enjoying In This House of Brede about Benedictine nuns. Next on my list is Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Both of these are part of the Loyola Classics series. More on that later. Check her out at left with her cats. The website for the Rumer Godden Literary Trust is wonderful.

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The Catcher in the Rye

October 25, 2009 at 10:25 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, Family, Gorgeous Writing, Lectio, Writing)

For your listening pleasure while you are reading this post, here is the Count Basie Band (my dad’s favorite) playing Comin’ Through the Rye.

rye

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Mabel Ruth Kellick, in her teens. Whenever she showed me this photo, she would always say, “Mabel, coming through the rye.”

One of my three books waiting to get published (Who am I kidding? I am waiting for an agent to discover me and wrangle one of them into something salable) is called “Wonderful Plans of Old.” It starts with a family intervention to deal with the father’s alcoholism, and then goes backwards and forwards in time to explore the roots of this moment as well as the effects after it. When I was writing it, I was reading the Book of Isaiah, because it seemed to fit so well with the ideas of Desolation and Redemption I was exploring in the book, and each chapter title is taken from Isaiah. This chapter is from the very middle. Don’t worry: I will be tying all this seemingly random stuff together!

Among Fat Ones, Leanness

Kate was gone to China – we rarely heard from her. Patrick was home sometimes, six weeks at college followed by six weeks of working at home. And I was a high school senior: pianist, valedictorian, tennis team captain, and so very alone. My English class read The Catcher in the Rye that year, and like all adolescents I felt that Holden Caufield was my voice: repulsed by all the phoniness of adulthood and reluctant to move into the contradictions it seemed to mandate.

I rode the bus home from school, sitting in the front seat with a scarf over my nose and mouth to filter out the smoke – not all of it tobacco – that drifted from the back of the bus. Our driver was known to allow – even condone – smoking, so the bus was packed with students willing to walk ten blocks home from the wrong stop to smoke their pot in warmth for one mile. Roxie the bus driver would snap her gum, big ball earrings bobbling, and cackle to the back, “You smokin’ that horse shit back there?” She purposely aimed for the big bump halfway down Washburn Street and we would all fly into the air. Everyone but me laughed.

When I got dropped off, I walked across the street, got the spare key from the garage, and let myself in. No one was home. I’d drop my books at the kitchen table, take off my coat, and start the ritual. Holden had a malted and grilled cheese at the soda fountain. Without the equipment of a diner, I made do with a cheese sandwich on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Then I would line up twenty-five Ritz crackers – five by five – and slather them with peanut butter. Once I had eaten those, I checked into the ice cream – usually half of a half gallon would go next. Then Oreos: one column. By then my stomach felt tight, way beyond Holden and into a territory of loneliness Holden did not know, a territory where no one saw me, no one knew what I was doing, where no one seemed to notice that I was home, wanting someone to care about my day, wanting someone to notice that I had emotionally quit everything.

The upstairs bathroom was the place: away from anyone, close the door, turn on the fan, run the water, pretend I was a teenage girl obsessed with washing my face in case anyone got home early. No one knew – or really cared – what I was doing, even when I repeated this part of the ritual right after dinner. It really became quite easy. I would drink an enormous glass of water, and then it was amazing how easily it all came out – it didn’t even taste bad, just a watered down version of what I had just eaten. Three times and it was all out. I had had the feast – treated myself if no one else would – and still did not gain weight – as thin as a Junior Miss at least. So thin that my period stopped and Mom finally took me to an endocrinologist who took one look at me and said, “She’s too thin.”

I got thin, very thin, and I would lie in the hot June sun in the driveway on the lawn chair wearing only the Bloomies underwear and camisole I had bought on a class trip to New York City, the camisole rolled up to expose my browned stomach. I had no bikini and Mom wouldn’t allow one, but my blue-and-pink-striped cotton undies worked the same, as long as I had covered up by the time Mom got home. Our backyard was shaded by a huge maple, but there was a strip of strong sunlight along our driveway right next to the Gardiner Girls’ lilac bushes, which were on the other side of the waist-high chain link fence.

Mrs. Dixon came over one day and found me this way. I didn’t hear her approach since I had my Walkman on, slathering myself with coconut oil. “It must be nice to be so perfect,” she said, looking down her nose at me. She obviously disapproved of a teenage girl half dressed lying in view from Morton Avenue, or else she was jealous – a former beauty queen herself, believe it or not – whose figure with teenage children now was not what it had been.

I smiled in a knowing adolescent way and pulled my sunglasses back down over my eyes. If only boys would have the same response, but my obsession with my weight was mixed with a fear of sex, and the physiological effects of thinness had been to halt my hormones, leaving me desireless. I craved the jealousy of my female peers more than attraction by males. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a boyfriend if I had one.

The night of my first drink, I had gone to a senior dinner dance with a childhood pal, and there, in a funky bar in Buffalo, I had several white Russians. They tasted good, and I enjoyed, for a time, the way I warmed up, chatted with everyone, danced without inhibitions. But on the way home I felt bad, guilty, headachy, and when I crashed into my room that night, I planned the next morning to confess and gain absolution from my parents.

When I finally awoke, a beautiful, sunny spring day, my head ached, and I lumped down the stairs to the kitchen where my father was making a second pot of coffee. I slumped into a chair and drank the glass of orange juice he offered.

“How was the dance?”

“OK, I guess.”

“Did Jeremy behave?”

“Barely.” I finished the orange juice and poured some more.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “Aren’t you guys going to church?”

Dad sat down across from me and took a deep breath, sighed long.

“Mom’s upstairs in her room.”

I looked up. Something had happened.

“She had to have her stomach pumped last night.” I stopped. I had a vision of an ambulance in the driveway, reds lights flashing on the neighbors’ houses and on the Sansones’ garage wall. Mom on a gurney coming out the front door.

“She … wanted to show me what I looked like, so she drank an entire bottle of wine.”

I felt sick to my stomach. “Is she OK?”

“Yes. She’s going to be OK. She’s resting upstairs.”

“Can I go see her?”

He nodded.

I got up, holding my throbbing head, and went into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Across the hall I could see that the door of the sewing room where she had been sleeping of late on the spare bed was shut. I approached it quietly and peeked in through the crack. She had her eyes closed, but she heard me at the door and opened them.

“Hi, Moll. You can come in.”

I opened the door, which squeaked a little, and closed it behind me. The lovely soft sun had risen and came in a strip under the shades on the east window. I moved slowly to the bed and sat down on the edge.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Kind of bad,” she whispered. “Did Dad tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. On the night of your date.” She cleared her throat, which appeared to be a painful process. “How was it?”

“It was fine. Do you need anything?”

“No.”

“Can I lie down with you?” She made room, turned over and faced the wall. I lay down on top of the blanket and spooned in next to her, like she used to do with me when I was scared by a nightmare, but our positions were reversed. I put my arm around her and just stayed. The shade glowed with the sunlight outside, but in her darkened room it felt more like sunset.

She was there through the next two weeks, up until my graduation. Dad called and told her boss that she was very sick. After school I would come home and lie with her. Then I would go back downstairs and sit at the table, doing my homework: Calculus, AP Bio, English, Psych – a breeze really, it just took time – and maybe I would play the piano, or practice my valedictory address, or I would take the car and drive to the school a few blocks away and practice my forehand, hitting my tennis ball against the big brick wall, over and over and over and over until blisters formed and broke open and my hands bled.

Count BasieDid the music end? Here it is again.

I would not wish such a senior year on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, many students in high school DO have this kind of senior year. I have been teaching seniors now for eleven years, and I am convinced that it is one of the most stressful and difficult years of a kid’s life. It is like Kindergarten in reverse. Kindergarten means leaving the safety of home for the unknown of school; senior year involves leaving not only the now thoroughly known of school, but also leaving hometown, everyone known and loved for 18 years of life, and heading into the unknown of adult life.

Yes, some students are Homecoming King or Queen and apply early decision and are accepted at their first choice college, with a happily married mom and dad standing proudly behind them. But plenty of others are dealing with a parent’s illness or divorce or a major family problem, they have suffered socially throughout school and are glad to be leaving it behind, though they are simultaneously terrified of the blank slate before them. Sometimes no one has ever seen or understood their situation, and they have no support at all as they apply to colleges, all the while knowing that there is no money available at home to support this huge and expensive venture.

catcher in the ryeThese kids need a catcher in the rye. They are technically adults, and yet many of them are running dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. Oddly enough, I have found myself in a job where I can BE the catcher in the rye for some of these kids. In my previous teacher job, I saw 75 kids a day for 40 minutes each: they were a blur. Because I now have a small class of students and see them for over two hours a day, my relationship with them is very intense and becomes very close. I know their lives and their dreams. Also, the programs that my colleagues and I run require students to leave the safety and familiarity of their home schools and take an early leap into independence and novelty. We often end up with the kids who are happy to be leaving their high schools behind.

Because I was also one of these types, I find myself with a rare ability to see their fears and their hurts, and I find myself so grateful to be in a position to help them, to the best of my ability. To quote Holden, my main man,

“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Not crazy, Holden. I hear you, dude. Many of us have fallen off that cliff because no one was there to catch us. But anyone who has been over that cliff can see – preternaturally almost – those heading toward the edge. You can see it in their eyes, in their stance, in their words or their silence. If you personally survive the fall and pick yourself back up, you are in a unique position to see those little kids nearing the edge and to try to get in the way.

My heart aches for the Holdens and the Mollys of the world, and the many real teenagers I have seen undergo this process. My heart aches because it ached for me going through it. Holden sobs for Phoebe in her joy on the carousel, and it is true that innocence – either in its still pure form or lost through no fault of the child – is worth our sobbing over. The events that cause this are often beyond anyone’s control; who can stop cancer or death or any of a variety of things from raining on our parades? But I wish here to offer thanks that I have been given the opportunity to see and assuage what pain I can. God grant me the wisdom and the strength to do so.

carousel

Carousel by Leeanne McDonough as found at http://dazzioart.com/

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Autumn in Central New York State

September 22, 2009 at 3:55 pm (Art, Book review, Gorgeous Writing, Literary spaces)

cooperstown 2It was the sweetest time of the year, she thought. Coming home from the gallery, over the hills through Edmeston and New Berlin, she had watched the sallow final green of the fields go ocher; she had seen the brush, under a silky darkening sky, turn sere. The sumac was brilliant with its final burn. The wind, though still warm with late September, had a touch to it of October’s chilled-wine autumn taste. And here she was in a bulky sweater and jeans and her boat shoes, walking behind the house and sipping at the wind…

The garden behind the house, a hundred by a hundred feet or so, still held the heat of the day. She kneeled in the friable soil that she’d worked, manured, nourished, rotary-tilled, and weeded for years, and she stayed that way, on hands and knees, looking into the low sun. The green mulching plastic she hated but used because it kept down the weeds now caught the sunlight, and the garden looked striped into rows of rich earth and rows of shiny green liquid. The dark tomato vines on their green bamboo stakes were drooping with the weight of plum tomatoes she hadn’t ye plucked. Most were dark red, and even going soft.

tomatoesThere were hundreds to take, and although she hadn’t planned to harvest tonight, the low orange sun, the sky that looked like a dark – an African – skin, and the smell of the vines, that luxuriance of greenness, made her take off her sweater and, with goose bumps pricking the flesh of her arms and her neck, tie its sleeves together and fill it with all the dry, firm tomatoes she could fit inside its upside-down torso…

milkweedThere were days when the light and temperature made you want a sweater on not so much because you were chilly as because the day or evening looked like chill, suggested that being a little cold would be appropriate, and you wore something heavy, to acknowledge the world: Canada geese overhead, out of sight but hooting the shrill sad cries; the sky going one tone darker of blue; the roadside milkweed bobbing in a wind that would bring enough col within the week, she thought, to burst them into white silk hairs and crusty brown shell.

From Harry and Catherine by Frederick Busch

harryOK, I’ll admit that my adoration of this book is very far beyond normal. First, it is set RIGHT in my neck of the woods – I drive through Edmeston and New Berlin on a regular basis – so it makes my sometimes hum-drum life seem quite romantic. SECOND, I met Fred Busch, who was a professor at Colgate just to the north AND the founder of the Colgate Writers Workshop AND a phenomenal writer. His wife Judy was a mentor of mine when I first started teaching, and as Fred says in the dedication, This is Judy’s book. LAST, I think Catherine Hollander is just a kick-butt heroine, and I really jam to her artisty wood-chopping tomato-picking 40-something mother-of-boys Gestalt.

fredIf you like this novel, there are two short stories that I know of that precede it, found in Domestic Particulars and Too Late American Boyhood Blues. (If anyone knows of other Harry and Catherine stories I missed, please let me know.) If you like books, read everything Fred Busch ever wrote because he was brilliant. I just ordered three used copies of his novel Sometimes I Live in the Country to foist onto my students from Sherburne because it is set in their school. I have read Harry and Catherine probably 15 times.

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Writing in the desert, an adobe study

August 25, 2009 at 5:54 pm (Art, Book review, God, Gorgeous Writing, Literary spaces) (, )

willa-cather-archbishop

I think that Death Comes for the Archbishop is my end-of-August read because the lovely painting on the cover of my copy is filled with blues and yellows and oranges, the colors of late summer/early autumn. Also, there is something about returning to teaching that calls up what little Bishop Latour I have in me. And of course, woodsmoke. If you have never read this book, don’t let the title dissuade you. Only the last, very-short chunk deals with his death. Most of the book is very lively and uplifting.

mission…the Bishop sat at his desk writing letters … Father Latour had chosen for his study a room at one end of the wing. It was a long room of agreeable shape. The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had the irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand. There was a reassuring solidity and depth about those walls, rounded at door-sills and window-sills, rounded in wide wings about the corner fire-place. The interior had been newly whitewashed, and the flicker of the fire threw a rosy glow over the wavy surfaces, never quite flat, never a dead white, for the ruddy colour of the clay underneath gave a warm tone to the lime wash. The ceiling was made of heavy cedar beams, overlaid by aspen saplings, all of one size, lying close together like the ribs in corduroy an clad in their ruddy skins. The earth floor was covered with thick Indian blankets; two blankets, every old, and beautiful in design and colour, were hung on the walls like tapestries.

On either side of the fire-place, plastered recesses were let into the wall. In one, narrow and arched, stood the Bishop’s crucifix. The other was square, with a carved door, like a grill, and within it lay a few rare and beautiful books. The rest of the Bishop’s libray was on open shelves at one end of the room.

oldestchurchThe desk at which the Bishop sat writing was an importation, a walnut “secretary” of American make. The silver candlesticks he had brought from France long ago. They were given to him by a beloved aunt when he was ordained.

The young Bishop’s pen flew over the paper, leaving a trail of fine, finished French script behind in violet ink.

“My new study, dear brother, as I write, is full of the delicious fragrance of the pinon logs burning in my fireplace. (We use this kind of cedar-wood altogether for fuel, and it is highly aromatic, yet delicate. At our meanest tasks we have a perpetual odor of incense about us.)”

The Bishop laid down his pen and lit two candles with a splinter from the fire, then stood dusting his fingers by the deep-set window, looking out at the pale blue darkening sky. The evening-star hung above the amber afterglow, so soft, so brilliant that she seemed to bathe in her own silver light. Ave Maria Stella, the song which one of his friends at the Seminary used to intone so beautifully; humming it softly he returned to his desk and was just dipping his pen in the ink when the door opened…

santa fe

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Literary Shot in the Arm

August 19, 2009 at 6:03 am (Book review, Gorgeous Writing, Writing) (, , , , , , )

Hey, writers! (and readers!)

If you are needing a shot in the arm to get you writing again or writing more or writing better (or reading again or reading more or reading better), the videos from the 2009 Colgate Writer’s Conference are now available on the CWC website and on Youtube.

This is Jennifer Brice, whose latest memoir is Unlearning to Fly.

This is Brian Hall, extraordinarily nice person, gifted writer, and my workshop leader.

This is J. Robert Lennon. I about peed my pants laughing during this talk.

This is the poet Peter Balakian.

This is Easter Island author Jennifer Vanderbes, my instructor two years ago.

This is Patrick O’Keeffe, about whom I posted in July.

These writers all also did readings from their work, also available on the CWC website. Ah, happy memories!

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