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Archive for September, 2012

Late-blooming cardinal vine

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis, my Quaker friends from Jacksonville sent me a copy of Faith and Practice, the Quaker guidebook.  It includes short, usually one-paragraph stories from Quakers beginning with George Fox in the mid-1600s and continuing through today.  Quakers believe that we all learn things that can be useful to others, and this is their way of collecting that wisdom into one place. I’m going to share my favorite piece from it in a bit.

But first, let me just say that the Jacksonville Society of Friends was a wonderful group, perhaps because it was so choice. Usually there were only six to ten persons in attendance. They met in the library of a private boarding school on a pretty wooded campus. The first time I attended, I drove onto the campus and was almost immediately faced with a choice of unpromising roads, none marked. An elderly gentleman in a golf cart was nearby, apparently serving as a gatekeeper.  I asked him which way I should go to attend the Quaker Meeting. 

“Follow me,” he said, and his golf cart lurched forward onto a straight and narrow way.  We wound confusingly and very, very slowly past several charming vintage buildings and quite a lot of in-process new construction, dirt piles, and orange perimeter fencing. The road was unpaved—or possibly it just appeared to be unpaved due to all the construction-related earth-moving.  I followed the golf cart for what seemed like several miles, ending in a tiny parking area in front of a small library. My guide waved a hand and lurched forward again, heading in a circle, I presumed, that would lead back to the front gate.

The library was a single large room. All of us worked together to shift tables and clear an area where a variety of stationary and rolling chairs could form a circle. This circle, snugly tucked into the center of the room among the displaced library tables and desks with computer monitors, had a view of double glass doors that opened onto a back deck and a thickly wooded area.

The Jacksonville Friends Meeting practiced an unprogrammed type of worship, no minister required. Quakers believe that all Friends have the Light of God within, so they often gather in silence to listen meditatively for God’s voice. If anyone feels called to share the Light, that one may do so.  I admit there were times when the silent meditation seemed to stretch on forever, and I became concerned that instead of the Light of God, the sound of my stomach growling would break the peace. It might not have been audible; nearly every week one or several of the computers would jolt awake with a high-pitched hum. Perhaps they meant to introduce a little quiet singing into the Meeting.

One week, when the silence ended and we greeted each other as if suddenly arising from a refreshing nap (as indeed I was), one of the Friends said, “I wanted so much to say something, but I knew it was not from God. It’s just that I opened my eyes for a second, and saw a big raccoon on the deck. He stood up on his hind legs, pressed his front paws against the glass, and looked right in at us. I wonder what he thought.”

I wish I had opened my eyes at the right time so that I could have enjoyed the sight of the raccoon peeking in on a Quaker Meeting.  But there you are; whenever there is something happening, my eyes are sure to be tightly shut.

Here is my favorite passage from Faith and Practice, in a chapter titled “Experience.” It was written by Elizabeth Yates in 1976:

(5 a.m.)  Something is happening around me: the dark is less dark, the silence is less deep. Even the air is changing. It is damper, sweeter. Morning is at hand. Light will soon come flowing over the edge of the world, bringing with it the day. What a gift! Whether wrapped in streamers of color or folded in tissues of mist, it will be mine to use in ways that I can foresee and in those that are unexpected. The day will make its own revelation, bring its own challenge; my part will be to respond with joy and gladness.

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Last weekend we went to the St. Louis Art Fair, which is held just a few miles up the road from us. We bought a pottery sculpture called “Stacked Primitive.” He’s a guy with a sort of Easter Island head, and when we spotted him he had his arms up and his tongue stuck out.  We admired his attitude, and decided to take him home.

The artists, Ken and Pam Larson of Larson ClayWorks, told us that the purpose of this little guy is to say, “Pffffftttt!” to critics. There are even hieroglyphs carved on his base that read For the Critics in Larson ClayWorksese. I expect the Larsons intended him to  razz art critics, but I bet he’ll be equally effective against literary, fashion, and food critics.

I need a visible talisman against negative criticism, because otherwise I tend to let it stick in my head and interfere with my work. This is, of course, silly.  Critics don’t know everything, after all. This fact was proven with a vengeance during the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction competition. Ultimately, in spite of the jurors’ passion for the three choices they submitted to the Higher Powers, those Powers cruelly decided not to award a winner at all!  Stunned by this fecklessness, one of the jurors wrote about the experience in The New Yorker, and concluded:

Utter objectivity… is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

– Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year

“Pffffftttt!” to the Pulitzer Powers.  What’s wrong with them? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to keep Cunningham’s words in mind as I continue to try to light my own fictional fires. Our cheeky little sculpture will help.

As Ken was wrapping the little fellow for surviving the drive home, he demonstrated how little we understood of its raw power. He proved to be a sort of primitive action figure:  His head comes off, and you can turn his arms so that they point down rather than up. We can even remove his little wooden tongue!  Now I can use him to reflect how I feel about how a writing project is going—hands up, tongue sticking out on a day of triumph and joy. Hands down, tongue removed and placed in a drawer for safekeeping on days of sadness or low spirits.  

To see him in action, you can visit Larson ClayWorks online and check out the video.  Don’t you agree that he, too, contains trace elements of magic?  

Of course, he needs a name….

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Earlier this summer I noticed a natural arched doorway in my neighbor’s side yard.  It looks as if it leads to an alternate reality. I find myself constantly walking past it, looking for it (because maybe I imagined it), and wondering about it. The portal looks particularly nice at about 5:30 in the evening, when the sun angles toward it and illuminates the pale bark.

I recently came across a quote which may help explain my fascination with that little archway and the path that lies beyond it:  “Of all the things I am not very good at,” Bill Bryson wrote, “living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.”

Me, too.  And given a choice between, for example, achieving a full and true understanding of the finances of potential retirement and walking through a mysterious doorway that leads to a strange path, I’ll choose the mysterious doorway every time. Because that’s where the good stories are.

I have become my own version of an optimist.
If I can’t make it through one door,
I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door.
Something terrific will come
no matter how dark the present.

— from “See it for the first time,” by Rabindranath Tagore

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Pound cake under glass: Making life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant.

I complained to my parents recently that, finding myself at home on a work day, I had to get up three separate times to answer the doorbell. “There was a flower delivery, which was fine, a political survey regarding Todd Akin, and a Jehovah’s Witness,” I told them. “You can’t imagine how many times the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in our neighborhood, spreading around copies of The Watchtower.”

“You should write up some tracts of your own, and give those out in return,” my dad said.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. It’s a brilliant idea. I have plenty of advice that I’d like to dispense, and mine is less aggravating and more useful than what I’ve seen in The Watchtower. And since Jennifer Stuart commented recently that she would like to try my pound cake recipe, and I am very fond of Jennifer, I decided to start with it. So I bring you Tract #1 in the Pleasant Life Series: Pound Cake.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #1: Pound Cake

This recipe is my favorite for pound cake. It comes from Carolina Cooking (1990), produced by the North Carolina chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America (“Answering the call of those in need”). It is important to note the following printed disclaimer:  “This cookbook is a collection of our favorite recipes which are not necessarily original recipes.”

Heavenly Pound Cake was contributed by Mable Bullard. I have rewritten her recipe to include some of my own notes, but the general idea, original or not, is all Mable.

Heavenly Pound Cake

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 box confectioner’s sugar (1 lb.)
5 eggs
2 cups sifted cake flour (or 2 cups regular flour, with 2 tablespoons removed)
½ teaspoon lemon extract (or almond extract, if you prefer)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10″ tube or bundt pan. (I use Baker’s Joy, a spray-on flour and oil mixture. It may not be nice to inhale, but it’s much less messy to apply and the cake pops out of the pan beautifully.)

Cream butter with sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Alternate adding flavorings with flour, beating very well between each addition. Beat an additional 2-3 minutes just for good luck, and because a stern beating makes for a finer cake.  Bake for approximately 1 hour, until golden brown.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate or wire rack to cool completely. If chunks of crust fall off, it is natural—indeed, expected—that the baker shall eat them.

[Note: The photo above is of a smaller pound cake baked in June 2012. I almost made a Heavenly Pound Cake today; I went so far as to take five eggs out of the refrigerator. But ultimately I didn’t feel much like it so I put the eggs back and dug up this photo instead.]

The recipe and photo would appear on the front of my tract. The reverse side would contain the following text:

Now That I’ve Baked a Pound Cake, What’s the Most Pleasant Use for It?

Having successfully baked a pound cake, you may find yourself asking this question and puzzling over the very pleasant possibilities:

  1. You can eat the entire thing by yourself (not necessarily in a single sitting).
  2. You can share it with others.
  3. You can give it away entirely.
  4. You can freeze it  and decide later.

There are no wrong answers, but all of us here at Tracts for the Pleasant Life (i.e., me) would submit that sharing it or giving it away—now or in the future—will be most satisfying in the long run. Plus, either course of action conforms nicely with the philosophy of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

If you are still not convinced, then we ask you to consider this quote from Aldous Huxley, who as far as we know was not acquainted with either Mable Bullard or the Telephone Pioneers of America, but whose words seem tailor-made for this occasion (to a frightening degree):

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.

Indeed.  Thus endeth Tract #1.

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