Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sorrowful Words

Sorrowful Words

Here in the states it seems as soon as we have slogged through the rank bogs of an election year, feeling battered and bruised, with the mud of the campaign still drying on our cheeks, we are immediately thrown right back into the fray. The rancorous fight continues. There is no longer even a pretense of bi-partisanship for the good of the country. Two years ago, my own state senator, in citing reasons to vote for him for re-election, declared it his mission to go to Washington and work to block the President’s policies, no matter what they were. And it seems he is not alone in this odd definition of his senatorial commission. Consequently, we are saddled with a maladroit congress, one impoverished of the sort of wisdom and intellectual dexterity that has, in the past, allowed our government to move forward, however incrementally, despite our well-defined differences. It is a frustrating time. It is an angry time. It is a sad time.
Even though the presidential election is still fourteen months away, the opposing party has been holding debates for the past several weeks, providing us with a glimpse into their ranks of supporters that has been eye-opening and, quite frankly, disturbing. First there were the audience cries of “let him die” when candidate Ron Paul was asked about those who become ill sans health insurance. Then came the audience cheers and whistles when Texas governor, Rick Perry, was asked about the 234 people his state has put to death during his time in office. Most recently, there was the booing and jeering of a gay soldier whose video taped question from Iraq was put to candidate Rick Santorum.
As chilling as these crowd reactions were, the most disturbing part was the lack of response from the candidates themselves, a silence that led me to conclude either they were in total agreement with those vociferous audience members or, equally unsettling, they lacked the moral courage to dispute them.
In speaking about these crowd reactions this past weekend President Obama said, “This is not reflective of who we are”. I fervently pray he is right. For I am finding it a sorrowful thing to be ashamed of my own countrymen.
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers to the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
W. Shakespeare

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Letter

The Letter

Lighter than breath, its paper as brittle as the skin of an onion, the letter had been written in pencil, not the wisest choice for an artifact. But no doubt its authoress never dreamt it would one day be placed in the hands of her great niece, a person she never even knew existed.
My great aunt Prudence died long before I was born, leaving it up to her remaining family members to distill and elucidate her personality for future generations of MacDonald women, of which I am one. I have been told she was “difficult”. There have even been strong intimations that hers was the sort of “difficult” that leaned towards “meanness”. But who really knows for certain? Family translations of one’s true essence are often suspect at best.

I stare at the unfamiliar handwriting on this old letter, carefully removing the pages from their faded sheath, curious to catch but a glimpse of this mysterious aunt I never knew, and am immediately startled to see that it was written from Glasgow. Reading further, I find that she and her husband lived in that Scottish city in 1917-18, something of which I was totally unaware. She is writing to her sister, my Aunt Susie - whose fervent wish to be known as Susan was forever denied by her family - and I read of her frustration at the lack of adequate embroidery thread as well as her newly realized need for a raincoat...”everybody has one of them for it rains nearly every day”. She mentions both the cold and the poor soul that died on the boat over, wrapped up in a sheet and thrown overboard in a burial she clearly finds unsettling. She describes the Scottish beds that are so tall she has to climb up on a stool just to get into one saying, “If you ever fell out you would kill yourself!”. Although she writes that “everything here is so different” there is not a hint of homesickness hiding behind her pencilled words. She is on an adventure, far, far away from her Tennessee home, and she appears to be enjoying herself.

Her sister, my great Aunt Susie, is the aunt I remember, for it was her home we frequently visited when I was a little girl. Sadly, she passed away before I could chisel conversations in memory, but I can vividly recall her candy-coloured hyacinth gardens and the ever-present pound cake that sat underneath the glass dome on her kitchen counter. I remember her rooms were shady and smelled of lemons. Having no children of her own, I think she found me a bit fascinating, much in the same way an anthropologist marvels at a creature heretofore seen only in books. I think I made her laugh. Aunt Susie married the local postman and they lived, very happily by all accounts, in the same house for the rest of their lives. I never heard of them taking exotic holidays, in fact I never knew them to leave their little village at all.

When I finished Aunt Prudie’s letter from Scotland, I sat for a long time in thought. Knowing I have the blood of both these women dancing threw my veins makes me wonder if my own dichotomy betwixt wanderlust and nesting comes in part from these two sisters. For even when I am most content amongst my books, my teapots, and my gardens, I still feel a longing to drag my suitcase out from the closet, fill it up with sweaters and shawls, and make a wild dash to the airport, clutching my blue passport in my hot little hand. The homebody rests on one shoulder, the adventurer on the other, and both constantly whisper their wishes into my all too receptive ears. Are these two sisters partly to blame?

Once, when I was feebly attempting to articulate the astonishing connection I have felt to the Highlands of Scotland from the moment I first stepped onto that soil, a friend told me I was experiencing “cellular memory”. I have thought a lot about that ever since, especially since practically all of my ancestors, both maternal and paternal, came from that country.
How much of who we are is immersed in the unfathomable parts of our being, far out of reach of analysis or x-ray?
How many of the songs that my heart loves to sing were once sung by someone centuries ago?
How old am I, really?

Aunt Prudie as a young girl, perhaps wistful for another voyage?

Aunt Susie on her sofa with me.

Painting above: The Letter by Norman Hepple

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Home and Garden Tour

The Home and Garden Tour

The House of Edward sits within a neighbourhood of old houses. The oldest was built around 1900 and whilst that may seem young as springtime to my friends in other countries, here in the southern states, it’s rather impressive. Our gardens are large, our trees ancient and massive, and every single house has a different design. About ten years ago, during the rapacious property mania here in America, our neighbourhood of old houses and park-like lots attracted the squint-eyed notice of salivating developers hungry to buy up several houses at once in order to carve out little over-stuffed kingdoms of mediocrity. One even tried to purchase one house and replace it with sixteen. Now, I rarely jump squarely in the middle of contention but this hit too close to home, so I girded my loins and opened my front door. The Songwriter and I joined in with other neighbours in a fight to protect our low density zoning, which the developers needed to change in order to achieve their goals of chockablock sameness. During this protracted battle, it occurred to me that perhaps we needed a bit of attention, a spotlight of sorts that would train its glow on our uniqueness and charm and educate the powers that be on all the reasons our neighbourhood deserved legislative protection. So, I organized a home and garden tour.

I will always be incredibly grateful for the homeowners who agreed to put their homes on that first tour. I’m not sure I would have been quite so eager to join in on that novice venture, led by a woman who’d never before attempted such a organizational feat. I well remember the trepidation I felt when I called a local florist to see if she might be willing to do the flowers for one house. As I waited for her to answer the phone I looked down at my list of florists, consoling myself with the thought that, if she refused, at least I had more possibilities. I couldn’t believe it when she said, “Don’t bother asking anyone else. I’ll be happy to do them all.” I designed and printed programs, I lined up volunteers to take tickets at each house, I did interviews with local papers, I tied balloons on mailboxes. The morning of the tour arrived and it hit me that I had assigned all the positions and now had nothing to do. The Songwriter headed out for his volunteer shift at one of the houses and left me sitting at the kitchen table, heart pounding. I wandered from room to room, wringing my hands, certain the day was destined to be a total flop. And then the phone rang. It was The Songwriter... “Hon, you won’t believe it. Cars are lined up and down the street. There are so many people coming!”. Relief, sweet teary-eyed relief.

That was ten years ago and believe it or not, the tour still continues. It’s become a village tradition, one celebrated and looked forward to by those inside our neighbourhood and out. Older people come back from all over to visit the places they once lived and it’s such a thrill to see them led through their former homes by the young folks who now reside there, all with big grins on their faces. And I’m happy to say that we are now recognized and appreciated by our city officials who point to our vintage neighbourhood as one of their crowning jewels, worthy of preservation and pride. The developers have slithered back from whence they came, at least for the present. I’ll be waiting if they return.

Today is tour day and we have some delightful homes this year. I will be hosting a party here at The House of Edward in the evening for all the homeowners, a time for them to relax and swap tour stories. We’ve been fluffing and pluffing all week long, raiding the garden for the last summer flowers, stirring chocolate, chilling wine. Edward, who loves nothing more than a party, knows something is up. I wish you all could join us, but as that’s not possible, here are a few photos to give you a taste of the evening to come!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Memory As Medicine

Memory As Medicine

It was getting rather late and a fine mist was falling as I zipped along down a famous Southern street on my way home from my knitting group, The Whiskey Knitters. (Never fear, knitting was all I did.) Just ahead on the left, I could see the art museum sitting up on the hill like an ivory treasure chest, silently soaking up the glow of its spotlights, its doors now locked up tight, its great works in repose till morning. Across its wide stone face stretched a banner advertising the new exhibition by artist Radcliffe Bailey, the title of which was “Memory As Medicine”, and though I was not drunk on whiskey, I did find these words intoxicating. They kept my mind buzzing all the way back home.

Memory as medicine. How marvelous. As someone who yammers on about the importance of creating wonderful memories, these three words were like catnip. For when one’s circumstances or surroundings lack the spiritual nourishment necessary for an unfettered mind and a happy heart, sweet memories can be sublime places of mental retreat. Good, good medicine indeed.

Dotted through my home are little reminders of wonderful hours that to a visitor’s eye might seem utterly unremarkable. To me, however, each one serves as a magical talisman capable of whisking me off to other places, other days, by the mere fact of its presence. See that tiny stone? The one the colour of a thundercloud, shaped like the newest moon? It was brought back to me from Tintagel by a delightful friend the year before he died. I keep it lying atop a stack of books on Arthurian legend and each time I hold it in my hand I hear the faint sound of sea wind rushing through Merlin’s cave; I see my friend grinning at me from the hilltop above. The gothic painting over the baby grand? I purchased that with my earnings from the only song The Songwriter and I ever wrote together. If it catches my eye when I enter the room, I am immediately transported to the afternoon we spent throwing lines back and forth, laughing like kids. That tiny conch shell was picked up on Edward’s first trip to the beach. That painted mirror was once hanging in a microscopic antique shop on a Paris side street - I carried it all over Europe in my luggage, wrapped up in sweaters and shawls - years ago.

And the photograph at the top of this post is one I keep hanging in my kitchen. Not the greatest picture ever taken, I realize. The composition is not particularly good. I am caught in mid-sentence, my cheeks flushed from a very long hike up a very long hill. So why is it special? Because if memory is medicine, this photograph is, for me, the healthiest elixir imaginable, for it represents one of the most perfect days of my life. A heavenly blue sky of a day, one in which every single second, from dawn until midnight, was one I could happily stay in forever. Come with me and I’ll show you just a little of what that day was like...

An early morning spent writing, always good....

A walk around a lake....

A hike in the hills....

Approaching a storybook house....

At the gate of a storybook garden....

Is that Peter over there?.....

Seconds after this photo was taken, came a thundering sound over the hill to my left as a black and white sheepdog herded his flock directly across our path, close enough to touch....

And I sat for quite a while drinking in this view from an tiny building where the great poet himself once wrote.
We share the same birthday.
I almost heard him whisper....

I could go on and on, but I know how boring it can be to wander around in the memories of others. That is the most wondrous thing about memory, I suppose. It is good medicine tailored specifically to the patient. My memories are not yours. Yours are not mine. But they all can serve as balms to bad days, antidotes to the disarray of modern life.
Take some time out and visit some of your own best memories.
See how much better you feel.

Oh yes, and if Edward could choose his favourite memory?
No doubt he would pick the day we brought his best friend Apple home to stay.
Just look at that smile on his face!
(We should have realized how big she would get by those paws.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Last Days of White Linen

The Last Days of White Linen

The boat gives a soft shudder as it runs onto the sand. Nudged awake from my reveries I am startled to see its sails rather tattered and torn, its once vibrant stripes of white and blue now faded into a tired grey. I rub my eyes and gaze around. When did the morning light, once so gauzy and pale, become sharp enough to paint the landscape with shadows? When did the pathways, once glittered with beach sand, find themselves strewn with soft yellow leaves?
Sighing, I gather my straw hats and sand buckets, my beach books and espadrilles, and clamber out of the weary summer ship.
These are the last days of white linen.
Any midnight now, the garden will fall silent, its orchestra of cicadas will have packed up and gone.
Soon the trees will tire of their gowns of green, and robe themselves in the fiery garments of fall.

I have begun the short journey into another season and my heart stirs with every step that I take. I pass through faded gardens and smile, knowing they are soon to be filled with purple cabbages and pumpkins. Placing my hands in my pockets, I pull out sharpened pencils, red apples, green gloves. From out of nowhere, a brisk wind begins to tousle my hair. My pace quickens as, from just around a curve in the road, comes the faintest fragrance of wood smoke and hot cocoa - cinnamon and fir.

Where only a few hours ago I sat with my wings folded, drenched in the languidness of August, I now feel the awakening of my imagination like the first day of school.
I want to run straight into the arms of autumn with a grin on my face.
Anyone wish to join me?

"Lord it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they should be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine."

Rainer Maria Rilke

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What a President Reads

What A President Reads

Here in the states it has become a tradition of sorts to publish the list of books our President is planning to read on his summer holiday. This year I was pleased to see President Obama bringing along Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, one of the best books I read last year, and a book I have mulled over many times since. Also included in the President’s book bag was To the End of the Land by David Grossman and The Warmth of Other Suns, a non-fiction work by Isabel Wilkerson. During his first day on Martha’s Vineyard, he stopped off at the Bunch of Grapes bookshop with his two daughters and increased his reading list by purchasing Emma Donoghue’s award winning book, Room, as well as a trilogy by the excellent writer, Daniel Woodrell.

Of course, as to be expected, when these titles were made public some in the press found the President’s book list worthy of strident, and somewhat amusing, criticism. He was taken to task by writer Robin Black for not reading enough women authors. Then, for the National Review, writer Tevi Troy composed a snarky little opinion piece that labeled the President’s list, as well as the Vineyard bookshop he patronized, as “liberal” and included this asinine sentence about the President’s choices:
“ First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president," he explains, "because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality."

Now, I recognize that there are those determined to deride President Obama on anything and everything possible, and while it would be quite entertaining to take on Mr. Tevi’s article point by irksome point, I’ll leave all that to others. You can read the entire article here and make your own judgments about the validity of his criticism. However, I am prepared to denounce his foolish assertion that to read fiction carries the implication that one is “out of touch with reality”.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, A Tale of Two Cities.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Grapes of Wrath.
Readers of these books, out of touch with reality?

Reading fiction, great fiction, requires not only a curious mind, but an open one as well. There is truth to be found in fiction, often inarticulate truth that hides between the lines of simple sentences, waiting to be discovered by a discerning and questioning eye. Fiction allows one to place oneself in the skin of others. It can create an empathy for our shared humanity that continues to unfold for the reader long after the books have closed.

Speaking for myself, I want my President to read fiction. I want his reading list to be deep and far-reaching. I want him to imagine what it’s like to walk around the world in the shoes of the poor and illiterate as well as the educated and powerful.
I want him to understand what motivated Atticus Finch to sit all night outside the jail cell of Tom Robinson.
I want him to consider both the desperation of Tom Joad and the idealism of Don Quixote.
I want him to know what made Septimus Warren Smith throw himself out that window in London and why Shylock demanded his pound of flesh.
I want him to contemplate what the green light meant to Jay Gatsby.
And in the case of one of President Obama’s choices for this year’s holiday, I want him reading To The End of the Land, to encounter a mother who sets off on a walk across the country of Israel while her son is called up for a 28 day military exercise just because she cannot bear being home if and when the authorities try to find her should he perish in combat. Yes, I want him to read that book.

If Mr. Tevi finds readers of fiction to be out of touch with reality, I can only shudder to think how he views those of us who read poetry.
But I’ll leave that to another day.

Fiction reveals truth reality obscures”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson