From the Frontispiece

(although, it's not an illustration, so ... is it a frontispiece?)

Yesterday afternoon, between my appointment for setting up the end of my PLA adventure and the coming Mary Catherine Bateson lecture, I found the library's book sale. I found a pristine copy of The World's Great Letters (1940), and I bought it. Best dollar I ever spent. From the frontispiece,

The post is the consolation of life. Voltaire

The earth has nothing like a she epistle. Byron

As long as there are postmen, life will have zest. William James

In a man's letters, you know, madam, his soul lies naked. Dr. Johnson

The public will always give up its dinner to read love letters. George Jean Nathan

Letters, such as written by wise men, are, of all the words of men, in my judgment, the best. Francis Bacon

I forgot to say that one of the pleasures of reading old letters is the knowledge that they need no answer. Byron

The need of composing letters was the earliest and most constant incentive to terseness, clarity, and exactitude of statement. R. L. Megroz

Let those who may complain that it (the Shaw-Ellen Terry "romantic correspondence") was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love. George Bernard Shaw


That Thread

Re-reading In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden. (The Loyola Classics edition that was at the library is a very nice edition. I may look for one of these to buy.) As I started to say something about it to my husband this morning, it suddenly clanged into my head ... hey! I have several favorite books that have as a central theme a woman ready to reinvent herself. I've never noticed the thread before.

In this book, the main character has decided to enter a convent rather than continue in her successful career in public service. In Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water, the woman leaves a public service career to move out into the country when she inherits a house from a distant cousin (and the house turns out to have been part of the old monastery destroyed by the infamous Henry VIII). In Madeleine L'Engle's book, A Severed Wasp, the main character has retired from her career as a concert pianist, and intends to weave the threads of her life together into something she can know and love. She thinks she will have a quiet retirement in which to do this, but finds herself deeply involved in the ongoing lives of others in and around the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

For awhile now, I've been actively seeking books that will talk to me about this phase of my life. What am I supposed to do with it? I have a reasonable expectation of a second career, decades stretching before me, a wider life possible because of a life so far ... what am I supposed to do? This is very much like the teen years in some ways. It's obvious that some new part of life is on the horizon. I want to get ready. I want to know. Where are the books? Who are the authors?

Well, it turns out that there are many such books and authors. Tonight I'll go to Marylhurst to listen to Mary Catherine Bateson - one of the experts answering this question. But ... this morning, I see now that I have been reading and getting ready for a long time. I just didn't know it. Godden, Goudge and L'Engle brought me Phillipa, Mary and Katherine, and they've been my friends and teachers all along.


I wonder which one it is?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Aaahhh... good old Robert Frost. I do love him. I thought of him today, and of this poem that caught my imagination for the first time about forty years ago. I have thought of "the one less traveled by" a lot of times in my life, and apparently, it's come 'round again. Two things, here before me, unexpected, obvious, and both branching off to parts unknown. Which to follow, I wonder? Which one is the one less traveled by? (And - poetic heresy, for sure - do I want to be on the one less traveled by?)

Road the First:
  • my still fascinating rock-paper-scissors model of the human person. Somehow, I still want to include it in this degree I'm composing and assembling. We are what we are (the "rock" part); we cover ourselves in socialized behavior (the "paper"); and we choose and can alter our socialized selves (the "scissors"). Our social selves can alter the very composition of our "what we are" selves -- at least, to a point. Our core selves can be used in such a manner as to bend, or even to destroy our wills (prison camps, torture, or the child raised with no limits or guidance ... of these things mess with our basic composition and can smash our will so that we have a very hard time with our choice-making).
  • This idea sits like a paper weight on the desktop of my brain, waiting for the best place in the arrangement of things. I still don't know where to put it, but it's just too attractive to throw away.
Road the Second:
  • I have only just this weekend discovered that there is a new literary model emerging in the academic world. It's called Darwinian Literary Theory or literary studies.
  • (background: I've finally hammered out what on earth the discussion actually says when it comes to evolution and the resistance to the idea of evolution in the natural world (thanks to a class that forced me to find these things out for myself if I wanted an A ... which I did ...). I suspected I would find out that I'd been handed a straw man to defeat, and this was true. Christians really and truly need not fear anything with Darwin's name or the word "evolution" attached to it.)
  • Here's are sentences that makes me just about come to pieces in excitement:
    Many literary Darwinists aim not just at creating another “approach” or “movement” in literary theory; they aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted. They want to establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to encompass all other possible approaches to literary study.
  • and this bit here, too:
    Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories, 2009) argues that the arts are forms of cognitive “play” that enhance pattern recognition. In company with Ellen Dissanayake (Art and Intimacy, 2000), Boyd also argues that the arts provide means of creating shared social identity. Dissanayake, Joseph Carroll (Literary Darwinism 2004), and Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct, 2009) all argue that the arts help organize the human mind by giving emotionally and aesthetically modulated form to the relations among the elements of human experience.
Is that gibberish without some kind of background or a little reading? I'm not sure I would have been able to see this even just a year ago. But I see it now.

My degree is called "Composing the Human Experience." If there are people who are currently figuring out that narrative is as vital to the understanding of humans as more traditionally quantifiable science is, and if I can get in on the discussion ... well, I think sparks have started to fly out of my scalp, and words have failed me.

So ... which road?

Or, better yet, do these two ideas converge?



Today's Challenge: What's in your Art Pile?

So ... something interesting just came of a facebook conversation. It was one of those art, the arts, and trading movie titles conversations.

Here's the Challenge:

If you made a pile of art (of any kind) to represent you, what would be in your Art Pile? These are not necessarily your Top Ten of anything - nor are they titles of things you've enjoyed or even love. Your Art Pile is supposed to be YOU, in Art.

Here's one way I could do mine (there are different ways):
A box of movies would be on the bottom of the pile, and there would be books on top of the box, and on top of the books would be a few poems.

The movies in the box of me are:

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967):
"You listen to me. You say you don't want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you've been doing? You tell me what rights I've got or haven't got, and what I owe to you for what you've done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you're supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don't own me! You can't tell me when or where I'm out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don't even know what I am, Dad, you don't know who I am. You don't know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it's got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you've got to get off my back! Dad... Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I've got a decision to make, hm? And I've got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?"
The Big Kahuna (1994):
"I'm saying you've already done plenty of things to regret, you just don't know what they are. It's when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you've done, and you wish that you had it do over, but you know you can't, because it's too late. So you pick that thing up, and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don't matter in the end. Then you will gain character, because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face."

The Forgotten (2004):
"I had life inside me. I had life. I have a child. I have a son. I have a son, and his name is Sam, you son of a bitch."

The Village (2004):
"Heartache is a part of life, we know that now."

The Family Man (2000):
"I choose us."

Proof (2005):
"How many days have I lost? How can I get back to the place where I started? I'm outside a house, trying to find my way in. But it is locked and the blinds are down, and I've lost the key, and I can't remember what the rooms look like or where I put anything. And if I dare go in inside, I wonder... will I ever be able to find my way out? If I go back to the beginning, I could start it over again. I could go line by line, try and find a shorter way. I could try to make it... better."
On top of the box, I'd stack:

the Emily of New Moon trilogy, by L. M. Montgomery

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
, by Joanne Greenberg

The Scent of Water
, by Elizabeth Goudge

Beach Music,
by Pat Conroy

and I'd top it off by some of Pablo Neruda's poetry.

Leaning against the pile are the works of painters who capture a source of light - and from deep inside, there is music coming out.

And I notice something: I notice the triumph of love over confusion, oppression, and fear. I notice the power of articulated love. The honesty of love, and the love that is honesty.

Okay ---- Now YOU go. What's in your Art Pile?


Probably, not fifty more

In this, my fifty-first autumn, I find that I have started to count.

There is no way to know how many autumns I'll see, and there never was any way to know. Young people do die, after all. And people also live to be over a hundred years old. The counting I have started to do feels very like the counting of a child pulling beads or buttons from a drawstring bag. There's just no way to know how many are in there, or what they look like glinting in the sun or laid side by side on the step until they've all been pulled out and counted. This is what I am doing - counting.

48 ...

49 ...


51 ...

And they're so beautiful!

This one here has that beautiful dark teal and black plaid wool in it. My mom made me a pleated skirt jumper out of that fabric one fall when I was seven or eight, I think. And this one has this crack right across it, but you can't see the crack unless you hold it up and look through it from a certain angle. That was the fall when my daughter was in Afghanistan and my son had moved out for college and it seemed difficult to take in enough air when I breathed. Oh! See this one? See how it's darker in the middle and paler pink at the edges? How it's shot through with this odd gold fleck? That's the fall when September 18 saw our first baby born. That button is 26 years old now, and it's a favorite. (click on the pic for a cool project done with buttons)

There are metal-edged buttons that look somehow like guitar music, and there are buttons in here that are the color of tears - because I wanted to finish school, but I wanted to stay home with my future husband and plan our wedding, and every time I got back onto the plane to leave him, I cried and cried.

One more, and one more, and one more, I pull them out in the days when the sun comes out. I hold them up against the turning leaves that stand against the evergreens at the edges of our field. I sit here, on this front step, at the house that saw great-grandma's children born, and raised, and flown, and now all gone. There is no way to know how many there will be. Each fall adds another, after all. And they are so beautiful.


Ask me!

I need to start a book recommendation service - a sort of library's Information Services/Book Advisory for people who aren't in the library at the moment. I need to do this because I am doing it!

Last week at the dentist - the tech was a young mom, and I told her about Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Her pediatrician had recommended more milk for her children - for the sake of the calcium - which is so far behind current research it made me say, "Well, that never made much sense to me," and then we had this conversation, which included the young mom talking about all the web research she's been doing, and in reference to herself and her husband, "because we don't know" - as if creating the healthy family table is as specialized a knowledge and skills set at building a house or designing a working windmill. Idiosyncratic, even. And fraught with peril because of things like eating disorders and parenting and power relationships and taste buds (kids have more of them than adults do).

I recommend a book to someone every time I'm at the dentist, I think. And I do it in ordinary conversations with people all the time. I do it when I'm getting my hair cut - or talking to one of my kids - or even when I'm working at the library, where all the books are! (And I think it's a little amusing that one of the conversations the coworkers have all day long at the library is the one about books and which ones we are reading and which ones we are waiting for and which ones we have on hold and which ones other people are reading. Libraries are havens for Geeks Like Me.)

I don't think I'm being obnoxious about it. The people I talk to don't smile faintly, nod their heads placatingly, or "uh-huh" me into silence. They write down titles and authors and thank me pretty earnestly. (Or, in the case of library coworkers, they place holds.)

So I think this whole thing might be more useful if I could figure out how to start an "Ask Me" site.

If you could log on to a site and type in a situation or question or interest, and then click the button that says, "Recommendation Please," would you use it? If the real person on the other end was not using a computer generated method, but was personally finding material for you, would you be okay with an email asking for more specifics? I suspect I could generate income for this if I allowed advertisements on this site ... would ads be off-putting?

Whaddaya think? Comment - either privately or on this post. Is this a good idea?


Because the point of the story is the hero

In honor of my daughter's military service, and the service of the other soldiers we know and love;
In honor of every hero who pulled people and bodies from the wreckage on September the 11th nine years ago;
In honor of every mother who trains her child to struggle valiantly, "enduring the cross, despising the pain;"
In honor of everyone who turns away from saying, "They hate us," and turns toward generosity of spirit;

A re-posting of the following, from three years ago:

"Show me a hero,
and I'll write you a tragedy."

F. Scott Fitzgerald

And, of course, Fitzgerald could have written many a heroic story and tragedy. He knew that if you have the thing that gets your attention (the tragedy), then the writer or other artist fills in around it, and that background of tragedy makes the main point visible.

That's how background and foreground work. It is true if you are merely assembling a bulletin board in a classroom - you get the elements together, staple them on the board, and then you can "see" them. Get the elements together, back them with dark paper so that they're framed, and you will see them. It's the edges and the background and the contrast that show us a thing.

And this is true for heroes. Heroes are the ones that stand out in the foreground against the background of tragedy. During the last century, these have had names like Schindler - a Sudenten-German Catholic businessman who saved the lives of over one thousand Polish Jews during the Final Solution; and tenBoom, whose Dutch family helped Jews without forcing conversions, and even provided Kosher food and honored the Sabbath; and Rusesabagina.
Paul Rusesabagina.

This from Roger Ebert: In 1994 in Rwanda, a million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by members of the Hutu tribe in a massacre that took place while the world looked away. "Hotel Rwanda" is not the story of that massacre. It is the story of a hotel manager who saved the lives of 1,200 people by being, essentially, a very good hotel manager.

It would have been possible to reverse the effects in this movie, and to have filmed it so that the background was the heroism of this good man - but that is not the story they told. They told the story instead of a very good hotel manager. The background of genocide was the chaos against which the clarity of his goodness was startling.

And yet, being able to see the thing in the foreground seems to be a learned skill. We have to figure out what it is we're looking at. We have to train our inner eyes to see.

As youngsters of about the ages of ten and fifteen, my little brother and I went together to the theater and we saw the movie they'd made about Corrie ten Boom's life. A worse day I have rarely had. While I watched in an agony of nauseated fascination, poor Clark had to leave the theater over and over, going out to the concession stand to get more napkins for us to wipe our eyes and blow our noses on. (To his credit, he did keep bringing his stunned and terrified self back to the seat after these short breathers.)

When it was over, the scenes that haunted me for years afterwards were all scenes of helplessness in the face of great evil. I did not remember the foreground. To my youthful inner eye, that was a movie about evil. Good people try to stand up to it. Of course they do. What else would they do? And the evil crushes everything in its reach, killing babies in front of their mothers, and crushing hands with the butt of an angry gun. I tried to be brave. I tried to identify with the obvious heroes of the story. But to my inner self, that was a movie about the helplessness of good people.

Now I think I know why I heard a story of evil. Look at that poster! Does that look like a story of the power of a hero? Thinking back on it, I wonder now if the movie makers drew the background so much for effect that the foreground was lost to it. Now look back at the movie poster for Hotel Rwanda. Look at the way the main character is larger, and rises above the horrors he takes action to stop.

And what does the poster for Schindler's List say about the movie? Look closely. The list of Jews slated for death (or worse) in the prison camps marches across the trusting hand of a child, joined together with the grownup person who will rescue the little one. The threat is there. The menace is there. It's horrible. But it's not the point. The hero is the point.

And shame on the people who made the strength and power of evil the point of the beautiful and courageous story of Corrie ten Boom and her family. I can admit that my sheltered teenage life was little preparation for her story at all. But now that I have seen that poster again, I think I was not the only one with an unfocused inner eye. Shame on them.

Stories of heroes are by necessity stories of wars and disasters and great and grave difficulty. Of course they are. Heroes do strive for goodness in the face of evil. That is what a hero is. But the point of the story is not the background. The point of the story is the hero. There is nothing for Kenneth Branaugh to do (or Sir Laurence Olivier before him), and no story of Henry V to tell if there are no soldiers dying in agony on the fields of Agincourt.

Look at that poster. What is that story supposed to be about? War? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. The agony of dying men? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. The difficulty of knowing one's own courage in the face of terror? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. This is a movie about a heroic leader. A hero.

In the past few decades, I have heard these things about hero stories:

"When we saw The Sound of Music in the theaters, we really thought it would only be a little while before that would happen in America." (!!!) "What would happen?" "Communists would take over, and we would have to flee."

Uh-huh. A story about Nazis marching across Europe, and occupying Austria is to the viewer's inner eye a story about "Communists" on another continent coming across the ocean and ... marching us around? A story about restoration within a family and what it really means to serve God - a story about sacrifice and love of country and what romantic love is for ... that's a story that says to you "the Commies are coming, the Commies are coming"? Really? Wow. What kind of inner distortion sees that?

Here's another one, re: the movie Schindler's List. "Well, it was pretty good, but they didn't need to include all that nudity." Nudity? In a story about the heroism of one man in the face of the Nazi menace, amongst the terror of angry soldiers, and the horrors of the death camps, the viewer remembers gratuitous nudity?

Background and foreground. Getting them mixed up makes for some very bad story telling, and apparently it also makes for some very bad story hearing. Mythical or otherwise, modern or ancient, well-known or unknown, a hero is a person who "feels the fear and does it anyway." And the point of the story is the hero.


The Meaning of Intelligence, from NPR's Speaking of Faith

How 'bout we think about these things? I want to. Join me?

What if it opened?

What if you ran into a wardrobe because you needed to hide? What if you went in there and no one else knew you were there and you went further and further in and you got clear to the back and then ... what if it opened?

What if the back of the wardrobe opened? What if it opened into a world you thought you were imagining - only the snow is awfully cold for imagined snow...

What if you couldn't convince anyone you'd been somewhere else through the back of an ordinary wardrobe? What if it wouldn't open when you tried to show them? What if they thought you were imagining things (maybe as many as "six impossible things before breakfast")?

But what if it turned out to be true?

What if you polished up a manuscript of 2830 words in an essay and then you found a magazine you think might like its content and then you hit the "submit" button ... and suddenly you had an account and a verification and Narnia might be real after all?

(In case the above is too metaphorically nuts for you, here's the translation: I've finally submitted a real piece of work to real editors. White Witch, get ready for defeat! Oops. Sorry. I mean, Writing career, here I come.)



Outside my open window, not a breath of wind stirring anything, and the mist turned to finest rain makes a sound that makes me stop. Listen. Hold my own breath. Faintly and quietly, the first misting rain of the season is falling on trees and grass and blackberry brambles, making a completely peaceful sssshhhhhh sound.

The poor dog doesn't like it much. She's happier in the sun and activity of remodeling and hammers and men walking and driving around. Even the random noise of the air compressor's better than this, in her opinion. She's crying and yelping - I thought something was really wrong until I went to check just now. The dopey animal is standing near the house, crying out at the rain!

I bet she can hear it too. Dogs have good hearing, right? This is the sound of the summer color and heat being gently, quietly, truly soaked away until next year. A few good days of heat and blazing color in the next few weeks, and then this part of the round wide earth will rest again until spring.

Hello, September.