Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

still-life-2

The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Pilot Mtn

View from Pilot Mountain 11/6/15

Back on February 9th I made a note in my journal:

I am working on my bear story, which grows more complex and then slims down again. I think that the gain/loss cycle is healthy for a story, though, even if it’s bad news for people.

Today my bear story (which in fact did end up quite slim) has been posted in Deep South Magazine, an online publication.  It has actually been finished since August, but they have held onto it because it is set in November. If you have time, head over there and read “The Last Bear,” then let me know what you think.

Here’s an excerpt, a small taste of what can happen when a beloved member of a Southern community passes away:  

Granddaddy Sloane’s refrigerator was full to bursting. The table and counters held all that they could. Extra tea, lemonade, orange juice, soft drinks, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of milk were stashed in two large coolers outside the back door. Apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies were stacked on top of the refrigerator. A pound cake, a chocolate pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, cornbread, and a dozen doughnuts were in the living room.

Anything that could be frozen for later consumption went straight to the chest freezer in the laundry room, and we piled more food on top of the washer and dryer. Finally, Graham and Scott emptied four bags of ice into the bathtub, and now a flotilla of cream- and meringue-topped pies sailed on the surface. It made a pretty sight.

That’s just straight-up bragging. I am excessively proud of having written those cream pies into the bathtub.

(The photograph has nothing to do with the story, of course. But it is a nice memento of my early-November visit to Pilot Mountain.)

Read Full Post »

Peace No Parts (2)

Proof that I did not make this place up.

Some time back we went to lunch in Edenton, NC with my Uncle Jimmy. He suggested that we eat at a place called the Nothing Fancy Café. It was an excellent choice, because not only was the food good, but it was also right next door to the Shalom International Church. The awning of its storefront location read: “The Place of Peace, Contentment, Fulfillment, and No Parts Missing.” So much peace, contentment, and fulfillment are available there that it has run over into the Nothing Fancy Café. We had a wonderful time there, and left both content and fulfilled—in fact, stuffed. Uncle Jimmy entertained us with stories about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He was 24 years old and on the strength of his college education received a top-secret clearance. He then spent most of his time in Japan locked in a cage with a revolver, acting as a librarian in charge of receiving and giving out classified documents.

But I am here to talk not about war, but peace—and the inspiring nature of stillness.

There was once a book about artist Joan Miró called Miró: I Work Like a Gardener, which is no longer in print but may be available in your local library (it’s not in mine). I only know about this book through the amazing website Brainpickings. Blogger Maria Popova chose some passages from the book to highlight. This is one quote from Miró:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble.

I know what he means. Last spring we arrived in Pine Knoll Shores, NC in late afternoon, happy to have a long weekend ahead of us. We went straight out to the beach for a walk, and right away I found some pretty, smooth beach pebbles. At first I picked up a few, thrilled to find them glistening in the sun on the wet sand. Pretty soon I realized that pebbles were scattered along the high-tide mark for nearly the entire length of the beach, though some areas were more fruitful than others. Finding them less rare made them no less valuable to me, and Ernesto helped me collect them for three days. It was pure joy. Most were white or a sort of milky translucent material, probably quartz. Others were shades of tranquil gray. They made me intensely happy.

At one point, as I walked along with my head down, I nearly collided with a woman coming from the opposite direction, with her head down, too.

“I’m collecting pebbles,” I said, showing her a few in my palm. I was anxious that we might be in competition, fearful she would think I was taking more than my share.

She opened her hand and showed me a scattering of tiny angel-wing shells. “I collected pebbles yesterday,” she said, “so now I’m collecting angel-wings.” What a relief.

I now have two full jars of pebbles in the house. They are as peaceful to contemplate as a still pool of water, but they are also, curiously, alive. They still make me happy. Miró considered objects to be alive, in the way that they “set loose great movements” in his mind. All that liveliness, translated into his art, required careful husbandry:

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.

Yes. When I’m trying to write, a great deal of ripening is necessary in my mind, too. In fact, sometimes I require entire seasons of ripening and pruning and grafting and watering and mulching and uprooting before anything at all happens—punctuated by long spells of stillness (okay, staring into space). This process does not usually fill me with peace, but with an anxious casting about—where are the pebbles on the beach? Why are my plants not growing? When will the right word, a better simile, a more interesting plot come to fruition? Is that alarming woman snatching up my pebbles and putting them into her pocket? Are all the most wonderful ideas locked inside a cage and guarded by a young soldier with a revolver?

On the other hand, if I could walk into a storefront and purchase a measure of peace, contentment, and fulfillment to replace the angst, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful. Maybe there have to be a few parts missing, a little bit of something lacking, to force myself to think differently, weave a connection, bridge the divide, and write something fresh.

 

Read Full Post »

peach ice cream.43.45

So much depends upon the peach ice cream, tucked with a spoon in a blue willow bowl

I have been too busy making frozen summer treats to write. Some weeks ago we bought a peck of peaches from Roland’s farm up the way. There were 22 peaches in our peck, and I made a peach cobbler and two batches of peach ice cream.

Ernesto admired Roland’s tomatoes, which were large and picture-perfect. The day after we bought the peaches I was talking peaches at church with Margie. Margie had purchased some of Roland’s peaches, too. “Did you get any tomatoes?” I asked her. “We didn’t buy any, but Ernesto said his tomatoes were beautiful.”

Margie sniffed. “Roland didn’t grow those tomatoes,” she said. I went straight home and told Ernesto this news, and he nodded as if he were not surprised. “He probably doesn’t grow the peaches, either,” he said, which seemed unfair because Roland has about five acres of peach trees.

And in fact, later that afternoon we witnessed Roland crossing the road in his four-wheeler, hauling several half-bushels of peaches from the orchard to his house. So unless Roland is so devious that he places California peaches from Food Lion in his orchard then carts them around to make it appear as if he has picked them from his own trees, we can be sure that we had been eating fresh local peaches. I have to say, Roland doesn’t look one bit devious.

There’s nothing devious about this ice cream recipe, either: It’s simple and delicious. I had forgotten how much I loved peach ice cream.

Peach Ice Cream

Peel, pit, and slice 2 pounds of very ripe peaches (6-8 medium peaches).
Puree the peaches in a blender, then pour into a large bowl. Stir in:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Stir thoroughly until the sugar has dissolved. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, stir 1/3 cup of sugar into 3 cups of light cream. When the peach mixture and the cream mixture are both free of sugary grit, pour the cream into the peaches and mix thoroughly. Some people who are more patient than I am suggest that you must chill the mixture in the refrigerator until ready to proceed. I am always ready to proceed right away, and if you follow my instructions and stir thoroughly, you’ll be ready, too. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Once the ice cream is ready, spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer.

Once the peaches were gone, we moved on to cantaloupes. Our garden produced about seven excellent cantaloupes this year, and I found a nice recipe for a sorbet which I am tampering with, adding various herbs from our patch.

Herbed Cantaloupe Sorbet

First, make a sugar syrup by mixing one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small pot over medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring the mixture to a boil. Throw in a handful of mint or basil and allow the syrup to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, pour into a jar or bowl. Cover and chill. Yes, you heard me: This time you really do have to wait for the stuff to chill.

When the syrup is chilled, strain out the herbs and pour the syrup over 4 cups of cubed cantaloupe. Add the juice of one small lemon. Place the cantaloupe mixture in a blender and purée until smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker, then spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer. This is smooth and silky on the first day; later it will become icier and won’t scoop quite so prettily, but it will still be good. You don’t have to include any herbs if you prefer not to.

Even though I haven’t been writing much while in the middle of turning fruit into frozen desserts, I have been reading quite a bit on the side. First, I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. It’s hard to explain why I loved it so much, except that I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses, playing house, nests, shells,  and daydreaming–all of which Bachelard discusses at length. Then he wins my heart by saying:

Words–I often imagine this–are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down in the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life.

Enchanted, I immediately tried to find every other book G. B. had ever written. I came across a different title in the Kindle Store, and glanced at the reviews before buying it. One reviewer gave the book four stars, but wrote: “I’ve been reading all of Bachelard. No reason to. Read Poetics of Space. Then he repeats a lot.”

While the Kindle Store sent me a list of Bachelard books, it also spat out a book by e.e. cummings: The Enormous Room, a memoir about his time as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I. I don’t know why in the world it came up—it was a miracle, plus it was free or maybe only 99 cents on Kindle, so I got it. I’ve always liked cummings’ strange modern poetry, but I really love his prose. For example, one of his fellow inmates (cummings is in a French prison, more or less by mistake) is a man he calls the Schoolmaster, a thin man in too-large clothes, who is “quietly writing at a three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand.” 

I might have something more to say about the cummings book when I’ve had a chance to finish it, but in the meantime here is a snippet of an e.e. cummings poem, one that fits rather well with August and summer:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

No, I have to give the last poetic word to William Carlos Williams, as we wait for our fruits and sugar syrups to chill:

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Read Full Post »

 

IMG_2392 IMG_2393 IMG_2394

When I ran into Roosevelt in the housewares aisle of Goodwill, he was grieving over a small box. “Why would someone get rid of this?” he asked, showing me the box, which held a pewter-colored cross with “On Your Graduation” engraved at the top and various other words following, which I was unable to read before he had pulled it back to gaze at it again, sadly. “It’s brand new!” he said, shaking his head. He pointed out that the cross was still fastened to the bottom of the box with its original plastic ties. “Now, you know that someone meant to give that to a graduate and for them to keep it, and here it is in the Goodwill. I imagine there’s a story behind that.”

Roosevelt introduced himself, and within seconds we were fast friends, imagining the stories behind some of the other offerings that cluttered the metal shelves of housewares. He showed me a gadget that puzzled him. It was a red and white plastic thing, with a mechanism that allowed it to be clamped to a table or countertop. While he and I were able to figure that much out, we were not able to understand what the gadget actually did. There was a crank, and when you turned it two spool-like pieces rotated and scratched each other’s backs, as it were. It was similar to an apple peeler, but with no place to put an apple and no blade.

“Could it be to make pasta?” Roosevelt wondered, and it was possible to imagine strips of dough curling gently through the spools. He urged me to buy it—at 99 cents, it was certainly affordable—but at that moment I didn’t have the good sense to snap it up, and when I returned to Goodwill the next week, after failing to get it out of my head, I couldn’t find it. I had tarried too long. Someone who knew what it was or who was quicker to grasp its possibilities had beaten me to it. Just as well—I only wanted it as a curiosity, and as a reminder of Roosevelt.

Not that I’m likely to forget him, because bumping into Roosevelt at the Goodwill was a rich experience. While he bemoaned the pitifulness of a discarded graduation gift, I picked up a set of four dessert plates, each with a different fruit in the center. He admired them, saying, “Wouldn’t those look pretty on a table? I love a nice table setting.” He told me that he does most of his family’s cooking, and that at Thanksgiving one of his sons had begged him to carve the turkey and serve the side dishes early, since he had to move on to a gathering at his in-laws’ house. This, to Roosevelt, was an outrage. “We had 12 more people coming!” he said. “I told him I wasn’t going to take spoonfuls out of the dressing, or the squash casserole, and then put the dishes on the table later with mouseholes in them!”

I interrupted him to dig a pen and pad of paper from the bottom of my purse and write “mouseholes in the dressing and squash casserole” so I wouldn’t forget it.

“Here’s something you won’t forget,” he said, and he pulled out his phone and thumbed through the photos it held. “That’s my granddaughter,” he said, pausing at a shot of a cute 16-year-old in a high school basketball jersey, “and here’s what I want you to see.” He held out the phone, and I saw a close-up of a bee stuck on a barbed-wire fence.

“Can you believe that?” Roosevelt asked. “He flew straight into that fence, head first, and impaled himself with his wings still spread!”

“He bumbled,” I said, mesmerized.

Lately I’ve been running into all sorts of interesting people and stories. I came across a post on Maria Popova’s amazing site, brainpickings.org, that mentioned Luke Howard, an amateur scientist (and Quaker!) who created the names of clouds. The true focus of the piece was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and lover of clouds who was thrilled almost beyond all reason at the cloud classification system Howard developed. It inspired Goethe to write poems about each type of cloud. My favorite of the poems is “Nimbus.”

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

That would make an interesting hymn.

I had never heard of Luke Howard, so I went looking for more of his story. This led me, in turn, to the Cloudman. The Cloudman is (or was) the late Dr. John A. Day, a professor of meteorology and cloud-lover whose website includes information on Howard, photographs of clouds by classification, and tips on how to photograph the Near Sky. “Look up and see!” the Cloudman urged, and still urges through the power of the Internet, several years after his death at age 95.

While considering clouds, I came across a silly play by Aristophanes called The Clouds. The entire thing is online, but I refuse to link to it because I couldn’t believe what I was reading—surely it was a joke? Socrates is a main character, and he is treated with shabby disrespect. But no, the play is real: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and was glad to learn that it was unpopular when first performed. That was satisfying. I did like Wikipedia’s description of the play’s Chorus: “…a parade of the Clouds, the patron goddesses of thinkers and other layabouts.”

It is pleasant to layabout and look up at the clouds, watching them shift and change before our eyes, whether we’re doing any actual thinking or not. It is equally pleasant to layabout and remember folks like Roosevelt, Luke Howard, and the Cloudman, who drift into view and then drift out again. Sometimes it isn’t even a whole person who floats past; sometimes it’s the merest wisp of a personality. While shopping online recently, I read a review of a cotton matelassé coverlet. The reviewer gave the coverlet four stars, adding: The delivery was on time except for the shams; they came a few days later, due to the tornado.

I imagine there’s a story behind that.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »