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Iris and Rose, enjoying a quiet moment at home.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

– Henry David Thoreau, in Walking

Anywhere else, I walk with speed and purpose. But here at home, I am a Saunterer. I amble from the house to the chicken coop to collect the eggs, or mosey out to the stable to brush the goats. I stroll to the clothesline to take down the laundry—at least I did, before a Mighty Wind last Sunday night snapped one of the clothesline poles; now we’re waiting for the concrete to set on the new post.

The margins of our five-acre property make it feel postage-stamp small, though I understand that from the seat of a lawnmower under a blazing sun the place seems mighty big. We have pasture, lawn, outbuildings (less one since the Mighty Wind), and a large chicken run with coop. There’s a fledgling orchard with two apple trees, a fig, and several blueberry bushes. We have a few raised garden beds, and one in-ground garden larger than an Olympic-sized pool. A fringe of woods marks our back survey line, and a deeper stand of woods across the road appears nearly impenetrable. We have hickory trees, cedars, a dogwood, and lots of redbud trees, but there aren’t any patches of actual, walkable woods that we own, so there are no cool forest paths.

Our house was originally wrested from the forest. We know this from the many times we step in holes and soft spots where long-time-gone stumps have crumbled to dust, leaving the top layer of ground as collapsible as pie crust. Our large, open front lawn appears deceptively smooth and tranquil, but we must step carefully to avoid holes. I am mindful of every step.

We also have some rather impressive rocks rising from the lawn in random places. Ernesto has removed numerous rocks from the yard and garden and built them into an inviting snake-pile at the edge of the woods behind us. Every time he plows the garden he turns up a fresh crop of rocks. Sometimes I go along behind the tractor, flinging rocks to the side. There’s a lot of quartz, and I’ve collected a bowlful of white and glassy chunks. After every rain there are new ones visible in the red dirt. It’s as if this place was at one time a crystal mountain, now worn down to fragments.

It’s a stump-holed, rocky patch, but it provides most of what we, the chickens, and the goats need—with plenty left over for visitors. This summer our visitors have included a pair of red-shouldered hawks. We see them in the yard enjoying a meal, sitting on the fence, and flying overhead. Even when they aren’t visible, I can hear them calling almost every morning.

On the other end of the bird spectrum, we have a tiny flock of hummingbirds. Hyped on nectar, they fight and chase and shove each other to get another fix at our feeders. One feeder hangs from the front porch, and the birds are almost invisible until they are on top of it. Going and coming, they appear like rips in the atmosphere, as if the veil of reality is torn as they pass. Needle-beaked, maybe they’re actually holding the fabric of life together as they dip and weave, repairing and embroidering the thin spots. If that’s their job, it’s a thankless one. We say, “Oh, aren’t they darling?” with no thought for how exhausted they must be, and how badly they need the sugar-water to stay aloft and alert.

If you squint, it’s an idyllic place we have here.

Which isn’t to say it’s complete. Ernesto wants to add a garage, especially now that the shelter we used to park under blew away, burst through ours and our neighbor’s clotheslines, and came to rest 100 yards away in the neighbor’s front yard. Yesterday he carried the scrap metal to the Liberty Recycling Center. It had been a large steel shelter, open on all sides with a red metal roof tall enough for a horse trailer or tractor. Every molecule of it blew with the wind, and it took two trips in the Ford Ranger to haul it away. Then Ernesto had to submit to a number of security measures to ensure that he was not selling stolen property (I guess): He had to show his driver’s license, have his picture taken next to each truckload, and sign an affidavit or something. All to collect $26.13.

We were talking about our possible new garage, and I asked about underground power lines. I know where the lines enter the house, but there are additional lines running to the stable and outbuildings. I wondered if those lines were buried deep, and securely. “If something were to hit one,” I asked, “would the person who hit it be hurt?”

“Electrocuted?” Ernesto shook his head. “No, but they might be dazzled.”

Being dazzled sounds rather pleasant, but I still think I’ll try not to dig holes anywhere in the back yard. Instead I’ll continue to saunter from coop to clothesline, from goat pen to garden. Because even without a woodland path of shade and moss, and even though the crystal mountain crumbled, the ground occasionally caves in, and things sometimes fly away in the night, this is holy land, and it is home.

In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

Poetry Fodder

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Pablo Neruda’s essay, “Childhood and Poetry” tells the story of a gift that he remembered for the whole of his life:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either.

That exchange inspired Neruda to make a life of writing poetry, which is similar to leaving gifts for strangers. Authentic gifts, unique and from the heart.

I’m always looking for a hand to come through a fence and give me something amazing. Other times I’m watching the ground in hopes of finding an arrowhead or a bluebird feather. Watching the ground is not much fun, though, and the best surprise gift is a story that lights up the room, or a shared laugh that flattens the walls. Here are a few of the stories that lit up my world recently: 

  1. My friend J. attended a celebratory luncheon at a Mexican restaurant. The attendees, including 90ish-year-old Granny D, lined both sides of a long table, and at each place setting was an individual bowl of salsa. During the clatter and clang of conversation while waiting for the food to arrive, J. looked up to see Granny D. drinking salsa from her bowl with a straw.
  2. J., M., and I were driving to lunch on Friday, and J. said she wanted to get her nails done. “I need a pedicure,” I said, “because my feet are in bad shape.” M. snorted. “Do you both have all your toenails?” she asked. J. and I admitted that we did, in fact, have all our toenails. “Sexy ladies,” M. said. She said no more, other than to claim that only one of her toenails is currently missing.
  3. J. (whose story-cup has been running over this week) told of a time when she was going through security at the airport. I believe it was an emergency trip; she had packed in a big hurry, and threw her makeup case into the suitcase without checking it for bottles that held more than 3 ounces of liquid, etc. She was stopped by a TSA agent who discovered, within the makeup case, a pen made from a deer antler with a bullet for a tip. A bolt-action ink pen! The agent did not confiscate the pen, but he told her not to bring it back through the airport, ever. “Why was it in your makeup case?” I asked, but J. had no answer for that.

These bits and pieces–and the many others that enliven my world–often inspire me to write poetry, just as they might have inspired Neruda. Unfortunately, the best I can do is an occasional limerick. Here’s one now! I call it “Proverbs.”

A sheep toy with no wheels means it’s real hard to pull it.
Don’t board planes with a pen if the tip is a bullet.
And if you find you can’t draw

Your salsa through a straw,
Well, it wouldn’t affect your toenails, now would it?

 

2016-03-17 08.02.14

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

2016-03-17 08.01.51

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

— Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”

2016-03-17 08.00.37

ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.

 

Christmas Memory

I’ve been reading the collected works of Elizabeth von Arnim, mainly because I was able to buy 11 of her novels for $1.99 via Kindle. I came across her when reading about British author Barbara Pym, who was heavily influenced by von Arnim. Pym is one of my favorites for low-key humor, so I collected the 11 works and set to reading.

First, about the author: She was a mess. Elizabeth was born (under about three different names, none of which matter for our purposes) in Australia, grew up in England, married a Prussian aristocrat and lived in Germany, married the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, split with him, carried on with H. G. Wells for about three years, had a lengthy relationship with a British publisher who was 30 years (thirty years!) younger, and died in Charleston, SC in 1941 at age 74. I expect she was exhausted.

But I enjoy her writing immensely. I started with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and then read The Pastor’s Wife and Enchanted April. Elizabeth is, besides being a mess, a hoot. There is one passage in German Garden (which is autobiographical) in which her small daughters attempt to tell her the story of Moses in the bulrushes, using a mix of German and English:

“He wasn’t a cat,” [the April baby said.]

“A cat?”

“Yes, he wasn’t a cat, that Moses—a boy was he.”

“But of course he wasn’t a cat,” I said with some severity, “no one ever supposed he was.”

“Yes, but mummy,” she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand-action, “the cook’s Moses is a cat.”

“Oh, I see. Well?”

“And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim.” [There follows a bit of back-and-forth about how the Konigstochter and her ladies discovered the basket.]

“And then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so”—here both babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook—“and see! It is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn’t go.”

That is the most entertaining retelling of the Moses story that I have read, though I have seen a modern e-mail circulate that featured children’s views of various Bible stories. My favorite was: “Jesus also had twelve opossums. The worst one was Judas Asparagus.”

Another von Arnim book, In the Mountains, contains no children or Bible stories. In it, the main character returns to her family’s summer home after five years away and finds that the books have shifted about on the shelves during her absence:

There is the oddest lot of books in this house, pitchforked together by circumstances, and sometimes their accidental rearrangement by Antoine after cleaning their shelves each spring… would make their writers, if they could know, curdle between their own covers. Some are standing on their heads—Antoine has no prejudices about the right side up of an author—most of those in sets have their volumes wrong, and yesterday I found a Henry James, lost from the rest of him, lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight. I pulled him out, a little damaged, and restored him, ruffled in spite of my careful smoothing, to his proper place. It was the Son and Brother, and there he had been for months, perhaps years, being hugged. Dreadful.

But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending up by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading. The coffee grows cold and the egg repulsive, but still I read. … Perhaps I had better not get arranging books before breakfast.

(Later in the book, she has this to say about breakfast: “There is a great virtue in a hard boiled egg. It holds one down, yet not too heavily. It satisfies without inflaming.”)

The description of books being jammed together inappropriately on the shelves reminded me of the book-spine poems I had so much fun writing. But they are not as easy as you may think, and I tore up several rooms looking for a good combination. I’m not as happy with it as with my earlier efforts, which were satisfyingly sing-songy, but it is appropriate for the season:

A Christmas Memory
Refiner’s Fire
Celestial Navigation
A Lovely Light

Now I sit in the middle of a great untidiness, with books scattered all over and stacked in threes and fours across two rooms. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, before a satisfying (but not inflaming) breakfast.

And further it doesn’t go.