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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nostalgia is the luxury of survival

When I was a child, one of the highlights of the pre-holiday season was the arrival of the Sears Christmas Catalog. The cover, usually a family enjoying the aftermath of gift-opening frenzy or a pair of alert Nordic-looking children on the watch for Santa Claus, was itself entrancing. But the contents, page after page of toys and velvet dresses, prompted a consumerist rush and glut of possibility. Look at everything I could have! Dolls, play houses, my own girl-sized vanity! My siblings and I would pore over the pages, picking what we liked best and eying the packages under the tree in hopes of spotting a match.

This sort of  reminiscence usually propels me into a self-indulgent glow of reconstructed memories, featuring more what might-have-been than what was. This year, however, neither visions of sugar plums nor the gradual appearance of holiday lighting in the neighborhood summons the magic. I am just too sad. We all know about the 20 children who won't be able to build more memories, and the families for whom Christmas will forever be a different kind of anniversary.

Last week's slaughter of innocents in Connecticut lays heavy in the air and in my heart. I know I'm not alone in imagining their trees decorated, but unlit. Gifts wrapped for those who will never receive them. They may be gone, but their faces are familiar. I see them on every street, in every grocery line, on every playground I drive by.

Nostalgia is a luxury not everyone can afford. It's a reward for surviving, or at least reinventing, the past. But this is isn't quite what I'm experiencing. The Portuguese have a word for it, saudade. It's like nostalgia, but it also encompasses emptiness and longing for something that should be there, but is missing. It's a feeling of loss for something we may never had had, but yearn for all the same.

Most of us have lived through -- or at least lived past -- incidents of rage and violence, but when children are the victims we remember again that our world is sick. Worse than that, we know that it was bound to happen. Americans--not even 5% of the world's population-- own half the guns. Sooner or later they will fall into the hands of people who'll use them to blaze a trail of sorrow.

We can say what we like about too many guns, lack of regulation, poor funding for mental health. The fact is, however, that fear and violence are in the air we breathe in this country. Our games, our recreational media, our fictions abound with mayhem.

I know nice people who own guns and use them to hunt and target-shoot. I know others who want to protect their property. I also know if they God appeared to them in a glowing cloud and asked if they would give up their guns in exchange for the life of even one of these children, they'd do it in a heartbeat. But that's what it would take -- a divine intervention.

People ask why God allows such horrendous episodes as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary. Maybe it's not divine oversight or callousness. Maybe it's a message, a warning as to the people of the Old Testament: Forsake this idol you have made of the Second Amendment.

When I was a child, we'd go on drives in the country looking for old cemeteries, one of my mother's hobbies. Among the slanting stones we'd see little marble lambs, memorials for children who had succumbed to typhus, diphtheria, long winters. Lonely, abandoned lambs brought tears to my eyes then and now. I picture twenty of them in Connecticut. I never knew them. But I miss them. Saudade.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When paths converge, events are summoned

As we all know, life is very strange. For the last several weeks, I've been teaching writing for the first time in 20 years (hence, the dearth of blog entries). It was an odd circumstance that brought me back to the whiteboard jungle. I had been home from Brazil for less than a day, still jet-lagged and wobbly, when I received a call from someone at the local community college.
Voice: Hello! Is this Mary Chase?
I assured her it was.
Voice: Is there any chance you could teach a writing class on Monday?
Me: Silence.
Voice: I found your resume at the bottom of a pile. It looks like you're a fit and I am desperate.
How compelling, I think. I have floated up from the bottom of the barrel and attracted attention like a floater across an eyeball. I must know more about this.
Me: Can I have some details?
Voice: Blah, blah, blah.
"Step onto the path that opens before you," I always say. Do I mean it? Well, I had been missing teaching and, possibly because of the caller's informality and desperation, I accepted a one-term, one class offer to teach Writing 121, whatever that was.  I had to drive over to the campus and sign a contract that same day. No one I could find knew what the position paid or what the content was supposed to be other than "English Composition". The department secretary, after assigning me to Desk 7 for office hours twice a week, suggested that I look through a binder of old syllabi to see how others had taught in the past.

Informality is a kind of license and I am sufficiently advanced in age and resolution to ignore the syllabi of others.  We learn how to write by writing, so write we would. That was the syllabus. As I drove home, I recalled my former students tearing the tracker tape from the edges of their papers before turning them in, and my taking home piles of essays and journals to comment on. This time, I wouldn't have to see physical papers at all. This time we wouldn't even do essays. This time we would blog, and explore this interesting, emerging form.

All went well, and my students seemed happy enough, embraced the informality of the assignment and my calm (some would say comatose) demeanor.  They were mixed crew, typical of community colleges across the nation, veterans returning from the Middle East, the unemployed benefitting from ARRA and TARP funds, recent high school graduates and the requisite "old guy," a nice fellow about 15 years younger than I.  We did the usual writing process approach, starting with brainstorming, quick writes, absurd topics supplied by me when all else failed (If you could have a tail, what kind would it be?).  And then we were off.

Over the next few weeks, students explored topics that affected their lives--finding distance from selfish father, embracing Christianity, exploring Wicca, the loneliness of life after high school, what it means to be generous.  Then one day, on my way to Desk 7, I finally met the voice from the phone, the department chair as it turned out. She asked how class was going, and I said, "Great! We're blogging."

Her face froze. "The purpose of Writing 121 is to teach the academic essay and ensure that students know how to use the MLA citation form."


"Yes. This is our mandate from the college. If students come into their other classes without knowing this, there will be questions."

Hmmm. That sounded ominous. And unlikely.

"I taught high school for years," I told her.  "I know these students have all had a brush with the academic essay and some kind of citation system -- MLA, APA, Chicago Style--"

"The students we have here are not the students you taught."

At times like this, I fall back on the words of my late and sainted mentor, Don Graves.  Don was a great one for asking the questions that stopped conversations and made us all rethink what we were doing. However, he use to tell us that the two most important questions we could ask were: What's it for? and Does it make sense? "What's education for?" Don would ask. "It's an important question, because what it's for has everything to do with what we're for."

So, what was this course for? According the department chair, it was for learning the academic essay. Did that make sense? When was the last time you saw a job opening for an essayist, let alone an academic essayist? So, no. It didn't make sense. In my class, most students were at the point of writing what they really needed to write -- writing for exorcism. Writing for therapy. Writing for finding possibility. To me, what writing was for in my class made sense. (As for the MLA, there are resources online. Memorizing a style sheet makes about as much sense as memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. You can look it up.)

Last month I was in Las Vegas, that city of sin, Shriners' conventions and now academic conferences. Oddly enough, I was attending the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, and presenting as part of a panel on the life and work of Don Graves. Don was important to me, to teachers of English and to the world. He was a great and kind man, sweet and unassuming with a mind like razor wire. A friend of mine has described Don as "Che Guevera disguised as Mr. Rogers." The first time I heard him speak he was focusing on the horrors of dittoed hand-outs in lieu of real writing. "We've put kids on a writing welfare system," he said. "Anytime they need something we give them a hand-out. They need an idea, we give them a hand-out. They need structure, we give them a hand-out. We make them dependent on this system of hand-outs. We've made education a welfare system where students are never responsible for anything. We do so at our great peril."

The day of the presentation I still didn't know what I would say. Then, as I sat in my room that morning checking in on my students' blogs, I came across one that demonstrated why having had Graves in my life affected the lives of others. As I faced the audience that day, I told them about my recent return to teaching, using blogs instead of essays, about my class and about the writing: the unleashing of story and experience as powerful as a major meteorological event. I told them about the blog I'd read that morning, about the student who had had to tell the love of his life that he had AIDS.

Among the myriad connections we make in life, what seems accidental may be fated, capital F or small.  I worked with Graves, who taught me to think beyond syllabi and ask simple questions. Later, as a teacher, I crossed paths with students who needed to be healed--and the cure was inside them if only they had permission to find it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Thoughts on the veil between worlds

Harvest time extends its withered leavings and winter wolves are at the door. If, from the corner of your heart, you sense a different, colder light, you're not alone. It's almost Samhain, All Hallow's Eve, Dead Time. 

Most cultures seem to mark -- through ritual or celebration-- the hour when the world of the dead encroaches on the living world. Bears lumber past the shades of mastodons as they seek their caves. Bees slump into deathlike slumber and our human bones dance a lively jig beneath our slack skin.

What do we do when we sense this sepulchral nearness? Stoke the flames and seek the fire's warmth? Mock the spirits with our seasonal disguises? Read more into the black cat's glass-green gaze than the cat ever intended?  Yes. But more than that, we revel -- leap around the fire, paint our faces white and tell the tales that curdle blood, for that blood still runs. We are still alive.

Those we've loved and lost inch closer now, but we have not yet joined them. No matter that we die a little more each day, we also breathe, "Not yet, not yet."

Ubi Sunt motif 
ere in the year of fathers passing
in the month sweet-all must fade
dim days drain down their measured courses
and the birds rise up like leaves
When in the land that is always shadow
Last moments rise and fade
Bones rattle bleak in the windfall nightscape
While the darkling sun dreams the east 

From the light when birds sing sursum corda 
 Till we dance in the yew-tree night 
With brothers still and silent sisters
We will dream of our mother's bony arms

 Mary Chase 
[1] Ubi sunt motif (Latin, "Where are....?"): A literary motif dealing with the transience of life. The name comes from a longer Latin phrase, "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?" [Where are those who were before us?], a phrase that begins several medieval poems in Latin.[2] Sursum corda (Latin: "Lift up your hearts"); part of the Catholic mass.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Surrealism on the Road

I'm in a car with two men. They are arguing loudly in a language I don't know. I can decode some of the words, but not enough find meaning, and I am awash in their anger. Their voices rise as their shouts overlap, but suddenly they dissolve in laughter. It makes no sense. One of the men is my husband. 
We are in a strange city, too, surrounded by mountains. We head into the hills and begin to drive up a steep road, mottled with green and gold light. The foliage is foreign, dense, vines dropping down from branches, taking root in the ground and rising up to become swift growing trees. All are broad-leafed, no firs or pines. Some have enormous brown fruit the size of watermelons growing out of the trunks, like warts on an elephant. 
The car's engine keeps dying and the driver laughs, glancing back at me with a  mischievous smirk, as he tries to restart the car.  The car whines, then dies again, wheezes and then clicks on. We charge up the hill with a puff of blue smoke. It's then I see people emerging from among the trees. Their eyes are soft and dangerous. We should not be here. 
At a sudden turn in the road, a crowd has gathered. The driver screeches to a halt, the engine dies, and he gestures for me to get out of the car and see what they are looking at. I don't want to, but I skirt the edges of the gathering and see that a three-toed sloth is crossing the road. Everyone pulls out cameras, and I do too, even though I'm nervous to be outside the car.
The sloth has a face like a smiling coconut, but its claws longer than my fingers. This is his road, and he takes the time he needs to drag himself from one ditch to the other, arm over slow arm.  I am mesmerized. 
Suddenly, whispers of  "Autoridades, autoridades!" ripple through the crowd. Even I can tell that the cavalry has arrived. I see their uniforms: park rangers? But they carry AK-47s. I hurry back to the car and slide into the back seat. "Is it safe to be here?" I ask my husband. "What do you think?" he answers. "You saw the rangers. Imagine what the tourists are carrying." 
We continue to drive. The road slants almost straight up like a kid's drawing of a mountain. Just before we reach the top, the car dies again. My husband yells at the driver who gets out slowly and looks under the hood. I can see eyes in the trees and figures shifting among the branches. The hood slams down and we start again, gaining the crest and starting down to where the road ends at a Pagoda-like building with dragon heads at every corner. It is stunning against the blue sky. Below, islands float on the turquoise water. One of the islands is shaped like a whale. . .
This isn't a dream. It's a memory.  Much of what I experienced during my recent visit to Brazil retains a dreamlike quality.

Part of this is the fault of technology -- or rather, the lack of it. We stayed in the apartment of my late mother-in-law, Dona Roberta. It was elegant, enormous (only two apartments per floor, each with its own elevator) and airy. But there was no television. That was fine, for the most part. However, the third day of our stay, my laptop died. No mail, no blogs, no Facebook, no solitaire! Then I found that my Kindle wouldn't connect from the below the equator. There were thousands of books but all in Portuguese, except for a copy of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal, and, thankfully, over 800 pages. It was my link with the English language.

Much of our concept of the world rests in language, and therefore, our self-concepts and those of people we encounter. Most of the lovely people I met spoke some English, but only a few conversations went deeper than pleasantries. My shallow understanding of the world where I was a temporary inhabitant was both crippling and revealing. I paid more attention to what I saw than what I heard.

Brazil was nothing like I expected. I pictured bright colors and laughter, sounds of the samba, rare birds dropping like jewels from the sky, monkeys in every tree, buildings from the Colonial era, gilt-edged and crumbling. There was some of that, but everywhere interspersed I saw the tired clothing and faces of people who worked hard every day-- harder than I ever have -- and whom only the night brings alive with a sort of desperate hysteria. I'd also expected danger, and had been warned by everyone to look as if I had nothing to take. I knew that Brazil was a country where the gap between rich and poor was not only enormous, but I also learned that it was clearly visible to everyone. In the U.S.,  poverty, like racism, is less obvious and, somehow, less honest. 

From the windows of the apartment I could see both Sugarloaf and the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. There was  also a view of Santa Marta, a favela that cascaded down the mountain like a waterfall of displaced humanity. I first came across the word when I read Robert Coles', The Moral Life of Children. He calls the favelas "a collective tragedy" (p.96). And, indeed, the tragedy of  favelas seems to be public property in Brazil. There's no escaping them. Turn away from the ocean a moment, and the view becomes the mountains with their rivers of poverty. The poor look down on the rich and make their way down each day to eke out their livings from industriousness or crime. The cocaine trade makes its home in the favelas. Drug lords rule and shootouts are common. Children, though vulnerable to the ills that accompany poverty, are dangerous as well. It is a part of their survival.

In Rio, the rich prefer to live within walking distance of Ipanema and Copacaba beaches. The poor have the view property. These favela neighborhoods grew up, building by building and shack by shack, on the steep hillsides surrounding cities so that those who worked in the cities were close to their employment. There were no roads, and, until recently, little access to power and water.

From the window of the apartment one night, we looked through a pair of opera glasses we had found at the beginnings of a fire on the rooftops of Santa Marta. My husband told me it would simply burn because, without roads,  no help could get to them. We watched as the flames leapt from one dwelling to another, the night-time silence uninterrupted by sirens. Against the glare of the flames, however, we could see help coming. The denizens of Santa Marta came with buckets and pumps to fight the fire and, by morning, only a black scar remained. What seemed a lost cause was rescued by community with deep ties and mutual responsibilities.

I don't understand Brazil -- but I don't understand my own country either. Experience continues to teach me this, but so did the book I read on my trip: Lincoln.  The story in my head of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation was pure and generous, but the facts -- moral pragmatism, cronyism, corruption, politics as usual -- tempered my vision of my homeland, as well as the one I was visiting.

Even as I write, I know I'm making a fiction of experience. Putting images and impressions into words skews them past recognition. A trip up the side of a mountain becomes a surreal nightmare, while visions of a city become code for both fate and possibility. Always, truth runs faster than I can chase it, fleeting and ephemeral as dreams.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reunion in Rio

I have been neglecting this blog lately, partially because summer leaves me so uninspired -- I prefer the cold and gloom for blogging. In fact, the word blog might even be an etymological offspring of blustery+fog (except that we all know it's short for weblog). So, what's up with me? Oh, not much. Just flying down to Rio de Janeiro tomorrow morning.

In Rio, everyone dances on the wings!
Rio! Yes! The one in South America! The Rio that inspired that satisfyingly silly 1933 film I watch whenever it's on Turner: Flying Down to Rio. According to the film, which stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and, of course, Dolores del Rio (after all, Mexicans are almost the same as Brazilians), Rio is all about dancing and flirting and parodying the local culture. They dance all over the place, including the wings of a plane. This is the film that brought us that catchy tune, "The Carioca "-- which will be running my head until I get back from Rio. 

 Rio de Janeiro. I might just as well be going to the moon.

I have never been to Brazil before, but I have been headed there for fifteen years. My husband, Jose, is Brazilian, and even though I've been eating Brazilian food, listening to one-sided telephone conversations in Portuguese and interacting with Brazilian guests for that long, life interfered as it so often does and I was never well enough or had time enough to go with him. I've built mental pictures, of course, some spawned by bad movies, Blame It on Rio, Jose's stories of working with early bossa nova artists (Gilberto Gil, Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto), good movies about the crime that arises out of poverty (City of God  and Central Station) the entrancing and frightening practices of the voodoo-like candomblé. More than that, though, my conception of Brazil springs from the stories of Dona Roberta.

Jose's mother was born at an interesting time (only 40 years after slavery ended in Brazil and echoes of the old empire were still reverberating) into an interesting family (all diplomats except for my black sheep husband, who is an audio engineer). She grew up on an estate when that meant having a chauffeur, butler, nanny and gardeners.  From her bedroom window she could see the laundresses, former slaves and the daughters of slaves, coming up from the riverside, back from where everything had been washed by hand and spread to dry. They carried the baskets on their heads, the linens heaped with jasmine blossoms. "Ah, it was so fragrant!" she said.

When she was a girl, the family followed her father to his various diplomatic assignments in the Netherlands, Portugal, and finally Italy where he was the ambassador. She remembered disembarking the ship and standing with her parents on the dock as their trunks and other luggage was piled about them. Among these were four cages full of canaries her father loved, and she would blush with embarrassment as he took out his flute and played to make them sing. Then the delegation would arrive, her parents would leave, and she and her brothers would have to wait with the luggage. "So annoying! And all those canaries!"

While living in Europe, her father sent the children to English schools so they could learn another language and told them they had better be perfect. "You are Brazilians," he said, "and no one expects so much of us. Surprise them!"

When I met Roberta (she had come to Portland to visit her son ... and see who this American woman was) she was 84 and still spoke English beautifully -- as well as French, Italian and Spanish. And she told me stories -- simple stories, but with details that made them memorable. Despite her privileged upbringing, her life was not happy. She met Jose's father on the beach at Copacabana. "He was blond," she said. "That was so unusual and exotic to me. And he had green eyes, green like the sea. Our families knew each other -- yes, they were diplomatic corps too -- and soon enough we decided to marry."

It should have been a marriage made in heaven. When she came down the stairs to greet him before the wedding, "... he stood back and clasped his hands and said, 'Ah, I am marrying a princess!'" They were married in the most beautiful church in Brazil, the wedding witnessed by the most important people in the country. The next evening, he went out with friends and did not come back for two days. "I was frantic," she said. "I had no idea what to think or what to do." Can you imagine?

When he returned, he all he had to say was, "I have decided not to be married." He left and she never saw him again. As luck would have it, though, she was pregnant. She heard from him one more time, after she wrote to tell him he had a son. He sent a telegram. "It is better for the child to be with you. You will make him a man. You are strong and I am not."

And so, Dona Roberta was left to raise the baby on her own. She named him Jose Augusto (all the men in her family are given the first name Jose, because their sugar plantation was save from a devastating fire on St. Joseph's day). Divorce was not yet legal in Brazil and her father forbade her to work, so she went to live with her parents again. She and little Jose traveled with them to Europe and her life was subsumed into theirs once more. It must have been odd, uncomfortable and so humiliating. But she was strong. When her father died, she found a job doing social work and took no more money from the family.

She worked, studied art history, wrote stories for magazines and for the newspaper. She was courted by the poet, de Paiva, and even after Jose's father died, she refused to marry him until her son was grown and out of the house. "I didn't want any stranger to tell him what to do," she said. When she married the poet, though, it was a miserable life. He put a stop to her writing. "One writer in the family is enough," he told her. Jealous? Clearly. "I was so happy when my mother became ill," she told me. "Well, after all, she and I  had never gotten on, but  now I was able to tell de Paiva, 'I am sorry, but I must go to my mother. It is my duty.' And off I went."

"What became of the poet?" I asked. "Oh...eventually he died. I was not so fond of him after all."

Dona Roberta was her own woman, rare then and, in many ways, rare now. She was wise, yet still happy to learn and laugh. Kind. She paid for the retirement of all the servants who had been a part of her family -- and paid the education of all of their children.  She was small in size, coming only to my shoulder, and I'm only 5'4". She looked like she had just stepped out of a black and white photo of another time: her long white hair pulled back in a chignon, an elegant uniform of sensible shoes, straight dark skirt with a cashmere twin-set. Pearls, when she was not traveling. She  taught at the university until she was almost 90. "The students like to hear my stories," she would say with a shrug.

Dona Roberta died in her sleep more than a year ago, and it has taken me all this while to write about her. And now, time and bureaucracy moving more slowly in Brazil than anywhere else in the Cosmos, we are flying down to settle her worldly goods -- her writing, her books, her collections, and all the odds and ends her family accumulated since fleeing Portugal in the wake of Napoleon. It all came to her, and now to us.

So, we are flying down to Rio tomorrow, and I am excited to see the city, Sugar Loaf, the Christ that looks over land and sea, the markets, the people. But most of all I look forward to sitting in Dona Roberta's home at last,  having a long, long visit  and communing with the essence that remains.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tales from the Otherworld

When my grandmother was a little girl in the dark north woods of Minnesota, her parents sent her away from the farm and into town to go to school. In those days, the woods were full of wolves and ghosts, and it was too far for a child to walk. She boarded with two Norwegian women out on the edge of town, and they slept three to a bed in the frigid nights. One was fat old Mrs. Johnson and the other, Thone Gamle, the local witch.

The name was pronounced Tony Gomma, gamle being Norwegian for old and Thone a variant on Thora (the feminine form of the god, Thor). "Poor little grandma," my mother used to say. "I can just picture that skinny little red-haired girl squeezed between those two strange ladies. She must have been terrified." Story addition from my brother, Robert: Grandma also talked about Tramp Harold who the two ladies would fight over when he came to visit.

And why not? One time, the winter was so hard that the wolves came out of the forest and right into town, looking for something to eat. Their calls were close and little Grandma could hear them sniffing at the windows and doors. Thone Gamle, who wanted some peace, got up out of the warm bed and went out into the night to talk to them. Soon the wolves went away and bothered someone else.

Another time, there was a forest fire burning closer and closer the little town. Terrified, Mrs. Johnson begged Thone Gamle to do something about it.  The old woman went out through smoky air and walked all around the house three times, muttering and sprinkling a powder she had made.  In the morning, little Grandma could see how the fire had made a big circle around them, burning other houses, but not theirs.

When Grandma told her stories, I pictured her little girl life like an illustration in a fairy tale book. The world of 1910 was equally remote to me: long ago and far away. If she was in a good mood when we visited, Grandma would read our cards or tell ghost stories. If not, she'd say "Fee fie, children don't have fortunes" or "Your mama don't want me to scare you with such foolishness." And we did get scared. There was nothing more delicious than the thrill of hearing her stories, all of us grandchildren sitting on the floor in front of the fire that burned year-round and never needed stoking. "Tell us about the ghost dog!" we'd beg. "Tell us about the dead babies in the woods!"

Finally she'd agree, and begin by saying, "Strange things happened, in them days." And they did. We knew that back in Norway, her mother's aunt had been stolen by gypsies as a child and never heard from again. Her own sister, Leona, when chastised for playing cards on a Sunday, swore and said she didn't care. Then she was struck by lightning. Anything could happen.

The Story of the Ghost Dog
Once there was a family that lived near us that thought they'd try their hand at farming, but they had no luck. The farm went bust and they had to move on. They had a big Collie dog they couldn't take with them and couldn't find a home for, so the father shot it and buried it under the floor boards of the house.
A few years later we five kids was out in the fields playing, but it was getting on toward dusk and we knew we better get home. We decided to cut through the cow pasture near the deserted farmhouse, even though we'd been told not to. We was about half-way across when a bull spotted us and came running with his head down. We headed toward some trees, our little legs pumping. We was thinking we could climb, but them trees was a long ways off and we could hear the bull snorting.
 All of a sudden we seen this dog jump out through the broken window of the farmhouse. He ran into the pasture and got the bull's attention till we could get safely out, then that dog turned around and jumped through the window of the old house again. We knew it was the dog that'd been shot because we used to play with it, and we recognized him. He saved our lives, but we never seen him again.
Story addition from my sister, Nancy: Just as I remembered - but I always liked the part about her father going into the house to search for the dog ( it had a dirt floor) and seeing the dog foot prints in a circling pattern before it went back to sleep.

The Story of the Babies in the Woods
Once in the winter time us kids was coming home through the woods and it was getting dark. At first we thought it was the wind, but then we knew it was babies crying out there, all alone. We searched for them as we could, trying to follow the sound, but soon enough we decided to run home and tell our parents so they could help us rescue them.
When we ran in the door and told our parents, we were frantic. "There are little babies out in the woods. They're crying and crying!" They wouldn't listen to us and said it was just the wind, but they looked at each other strangely and wouldn't say more.

Later, when I was older, my mother told me the story. There used to be a school teacher in town, a pretty girl who lived with her mother, but she still got in the family way. The father left her, as they do, and she hid it as long as she could with her mother's help. When her time came, her mother delivered the twin babies, but she took them out into the woods and buried them in the snow, still crying from their birth. Folks hear them still to this day, and you will too if you ever get out that way.

If you dream of a bride, she told us, someone will die.
Clasp you hands above your head when you cross a bridge to keep the trolls away.
A black deuce means a sad message is coming.

My grandmother was a woman made of stories and lore from a deep place where dusk is always just  falling: the eldritch world.
eldritch: eerie; weird; spooky.
perhaps from Old English ælf elf  + rīce  realm;

Origin: 1500–10; of a strange country, pertaining to the Otherworld

Grandma may never have heard the word, but she knew it in her bones. She conjured the eldritch world for us as naturally as knot turns to gnarl in a forest of ancient trees. It is a world we'll never regain except through vicarious memory. That world faded when her daughters faced the horizon unafraid, wearing lipstick and dancing the jitterbug. Disappeared entirely as her grand-daughters wove love beads, learned irony and macrame, not knowing the pathway back was being swept away by a witch's broom. We can tell the stories to our yawning children but there'll be no fearsome awe. Journeys have all been undertaken where no first steps remain.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

I was shuffling through books the other day, trying to find something I can't remember now, when I came across my old childhood fairytale book, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. I opened it and the pages took me away. It wasn't the stories but the pictures, for my childhood was dreamily suspended in the imagination of artist Adrienne Ségur. There is more magic in one of her illustrations than in all of Grimm.
"The Tinderbox"
"Kip, the Enchanted Cat"

It's difficult to share one image without trying to share them all. Notice how still, how private, each of these images is. The heroines are beautiful, but unemotional. What better way for a child to superimpose her own dreams and emotions onto them?

"Vasilisa the Beautiful" with Baba Yaga
Even Baba Yaga, that most horrific and mysterious of fairyland's inhabitants, seems unconcerned as Vasilisa whispers to her doll in a garden surrounded by a fence of skulls. (Note: This illustration comes not from the Golden Book edition, but a lesser known French collection, Contes des Pays de Neige (Tales from the Land of Snow).)

It is only now that I noticed how passive, even resigned, these girls seem, despite the most compelling of circumstances: riding through the night on the back of a hound, nesting among wise winged creatures, accepting the enormous embrace of a magical cat. They seem as immune to their surroundings as dolls.

I know now that Ségur's depiction is appropriate. The tale of Vasilisa and many other fairy tales encompasses the feminine fate: the three inescapable stages--maiden, mother and crone-- through which each woman must pass. The flesh and blood creature is translated into the archetypal plaything of time. The heroine can't step off this path any more than the King can escape having three sons or three daughters, the youngest of whom is the apple of his eye.

There's no dearth of maidens in fairy tales, always in starring roles even if, like Snow White, they convey the appearance of death (or at least sleep) at the most important events of their lives. Mothers are likewise essential to the tales. That's where princesses come from. But when the story takes place, they are almost always absent: they have either died or morphed into the role if evil step-mother. In Vasilisa's story, her dead mother advises her through the voice of a doll which leads her safely to the prince and marriage.

And then what? Motherhood and death? Is that all there is to the maiden's journey? It seems to be so. Even Joseph Campbell identified the heroine's journey as one of biological imperative in the service of nature.

Old Mag in "Green Snake"
But what about crones? Baba Yaga rules them all, flying through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. Deep in the woods, in a hut supported by dancing chicken legs, she awaits the unwary traveler and the quest that burdens them. She holds her secrets close for every question she answers ages her another year. I know just how she feels.

Except for witches and fairies disguised as crones, there are a few old wise women and they don't seem to have been mothers. Is this what becomes of wicked step-sisters who miss out on the prince and marriage? Does the knowledge gained in the quiet of a spinster's life bring this transformation into the hideous yet powerful?

No wonder all the maidens in Ségur's images seem so ambivalent. They know their own stories. They best they can hope for is death or, if unmarried, a warm corner for cackling.
These are powerful stories, these tales of girls who achieve their quest through marriage and death.

I am well on my childless way to cronedom without regret. If I have only one bit of cronish wisdom to share with girls it's this: Be careful of fairy tales. Don't read them. Just look at the pictures. They'll tell you all you need to know.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

I Got the Foghorn Leghorn Blues

 "The blues isn't about feeling better. It's about making other people feel worse..."
   -- Bleeding Gums Murphy to Lisa in The Simpsons

Have you been reading Salon? Huffington Post? Watching the news on MSNBC? If you have, you know the Democrats have got the blues, and they've got them bad. The Democrats are good at having the blues. It keeps them from having to do anything substantive, but provides great talking points and finger pointing opportunities.

There are rules for having the blues and I highly suggest you read them here. The Democrat Blues differ somewhat, however:
  • You cannot have the blues on the back porch or "down by the river". You must have the blues in public, preferably in front of a camera.
  • Even if you shot a man in Memphis, it wasn't your fault -- but you can tell everyone which obstructionist Republican tripped you on the way to a meet & greet and made you fall on the gun he was carrying and it discharged, killing the man in Memphis (who, by the way didn't have health insurance).
  • Your blues tragedy cannot be brought about by hubris. Rather, you were done wrong by a low-lyin' Don't Tread on Me snake who had promised you his/her vote, but instead voted the other way after some soul searchin'.
  • Et cetera...
Politically, the blues are the irrefutable domain of the Democrats. But if the Dems have the blues, what's left for the Republicans? Well, there's no need to worry. They got something even better. Republicans got outrage. Luckily for them, outrage has no rules and the Republicans, those champions of deregulation, like this a lot. They can, will, and have been outraged over everything. They don't much like Bleeding Gums Murphy, for obvious reasons. Instead they've modeled themselves after the irascible Foghorn Leghorn.

There are no accidents in the universe, so it is not in the least surprising that Foghorn Leghorn was brought to us by Looney Tunes in the1950s. Foghorns don't need to make sense -- they just have to be loud. They can rev up indignation over anything: replacing crèche scenes with "holiday trees," Super Bowl ads, and video games that reward sustainable community choices.

They rant against and blame the current administration for our economic woes, blithely forgetting their role in its inception. In the name of protecting life, they can vilify a woman who defends access to health services and at the same time support the death penalty. They can spout a simplification of any complex problem into an endless loop of self-serving sound-bytes that appeal to the ignorant masses who are products of a school system they continue to cripple. Blather, wince, repeat. It really doesn't matter which side offends us the most or more slyly undercuts our liberties and livelihoods: there's not much to choose between them.

But where do we fit in? Don't fret. We also play a role in this cartoon show: the dependably trusting Yakky Doodle who doesn't realize his own peril until he's roasting in the Fibber Fox's oven, and finally quacks: "I think you're the FOX!"

In the series, Yakky was always rescued by his friend Chopper the Bulldog. But this is where my metaphor breaks down, as metaphors always do. However much politics in America may resemble the funnies, it's very real. And all of us are sitting in a pot waiting to be stewed again.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Time in a Bottle

The further I advance into my own Middle Ages, the more covetous I become of other people's youth. Perhaps worse, I am more frequently assailed by thoughts that begin with if only or what if?  Lately I've been asking people, "If you could go back to some previous point in your life, knowing what you know now, what would you do?" Answers vary. Some want to go back to handle their parents' investments. Others want to give former teachers a piece of their minds or smarten up about first marriages. Some say they are perfectly happy with the life they live now--I am particularly suspicious them-- and many would eat right instead of not, or learn an instrument, or take back words they wish unsaid.

So many options. According to Ambrose Bierce, a day is "a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent." Surely everyone must wonder how events might have changed. Perhaps even Mother Teresa speculated: what if I had smiled when that boy winked at me, instead of turning away? Take any memory that has stayed with you and ask, what would I change if I could? Open the forbidden door? Listen to the whispered conversation? Ignore the ravenous beast?

And yet. A lifetime of reading science fiction has taught me that we change the past at our peril. We have no idea of the tangential consequences our actions and inactions give rise to. (Just suppose I had had children instead of dogs!) One certainly doesn't want to interfere with the space-time continuum.

I am always the first to preach (and have done so here) that the best course, the only course, is living in the moment, that the past is gone and the future is a distant fiction. Easy enough to say when we're not looking in the mirror or a photo album.

Some years ago, my sister used to amuse herself by asking her twelve-year-old daughter and her friends how much they would sell a year of their youth for. She learned that for under a thousand dollars any one of the girls would have handed over her resilient energy and flexible joints. It is a very good thing -- for those girls at least-- that my sister wasn't a witch. They'd have advanced another year toward the horizon, my sister would be younger than me, and I would be waiting in line at the ATM.

Our bodies and minds betray us, giving rise to such speculation as I've been indulging. I used to think that if I didn't use my body it would stay nice for later. Not so, not so. Words escape me and my joints crackle like static. I adjust the volume in opposite ways than in the past. I still don't know how to ride a bike. And also, I am nearing a haunting convergence: this is the year I will out-live my mother. As Donald Hall writes in "The Day I Was Older":

…Now I have waked
More mornings to frost whitening the grass
Read the newspaper more times, and stood more times,
My hand on the doorknob without opening the door.
Whatever my complaints, this old road isn't really so bad or even lonely. Following in her steps, I know some of the things my mother knew but wasn't here to tell me. The company along the way is often convivial and always varied. And lovely time sloshes in a friendly bottle which we pass from mouth to mouth.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering the Sunshine

In these blue days of May it feels as if the world's a friend, the universe is kind and nothing can go amiss. History teaches us otherwise. The Hindenburg exploded into our collective visual memories on May 6, 1937. The Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Forty years ago today, May 13, 1972, the last bodies from the Sunshine Mine disaster in North Idaho, were recovered and made their way back into the springtime air. The fire in the Big Sunshine affected everyone in the Silver Valley in some way or another. In my family, we saw our father cry for the first and only time. We heard our mother say, "I swear, I'll never pray again."

No one thinks about a fire in a hard rock mine. That happens with coal, not silver. And yet, there's a lot of timber in a mine, and in the Sunshine, polyurethane bulkheads that, when ignited, spewed deadly carbon monoxide fumes. Aided by the ventilation system, it filled the mine--a mile deep with over 100 miles of tunnels -- and took 91 lives. These were fathers, sons and brothers of people I knew. This was the first time the word disaster meant anything to me.

Disaster. From the Latin, astrum, star. Prefix dis- apart from. Unfavorable to one's stars. Indeed. 
 People gathered at the mine, Red Cross workers and medical providers at the ready, miners from other companies to see if they could volunteer for the rescue, friends, curiosity seekers, and of course the families who waited and waited.. No one knew that all but two were already dead below. Reading the account of the mine disaster, Gregg Olsen's finely detailed The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine, I finally learned what happened after the fire was discovered, and of the many heroes who stayed or went back into the mine to help others to safety.

I have a permanent link with this tragedy, not because I lost anyone, but because my father was the mine manager. My father, the mild-mannered, stamp collector, a good guy who prayed on his knees every night. He wasn't there that day, but attending the annual stockholder's meeting being held forty miles over the mountains in Coeur d'Alene. By the time anyone realized how bad it was, by the time they reached him, it was all over underground. But the days of not knowing went on for everyone. The hoists and elevators full of the dead were stranded between the deep dark and the open air for days before anyone knew that hope was a wasted emotion.

And what caused the fire? A spark from an acetylene torch? A smoker's match? Arson? Here's a story:

Late one night, after midnight, about a month after the fire, our doorbell rang. We lived out by the mine, far from town. Everyone knew the mine manager's house, in those still-feudal days it was the biggest one for miles. I heard my parents go down the stairs, and saw from my window the sudden glow as the porch light flipped on. My brother had been awakened, too, and he and I sat at the top of the stairs in the darkness listening to the low conversation. The visitor was one of the Sunshine widows. She'd been drinking and said she had something she needed to tell.

She said her husband and another miner had decided to make a device to start a small fire underground. They'd experimented for weeks in the basement, and were ready to go on May 2 as they had planned. Just a little embarrassing smoke for the stockholder's meeting. She said survivors told her that her husband had escaped, but when he saw that his actions had gone way too far, he went back down to try to help, and didn't come back.

 The next day my father called the district attorney, told him the story, and then he let it go. It was his nature. But that night has haunted me ever since. It's with me now as I write. The investigation into the fire at the Sunshine determined the cause to be spontaneous combustion, an unsatisfying verdict implying that no one was responsible. It just happened. So it goes. The report devotes one line to the arson theory: There has been no substantial evidence provided that leads us to believe the fire was deliberately started.

The woman was vilified: a drunk and possibly a schizophrenic. Unreliable. That happens to a lot of whistle blowers, especially women. If I'd been through that, I'd be a drunk schizophrenic, too. But I can still recall the woman's voice, nervous, but full of conviction. It would have taken a lot of a courage in those days, regardless of blood alcohol level, for a woman to walk up to our big house and ring the bell. And I know that whenever I think back to that time, I will always be the girl sitting in the dark at the top of the stairs. Listening in the night to a chilling story that unraveled a mystery, and was then ignored.