Making Friends with EMMA.

EMMA. Dot. Yes, that’s what the director intended. The work is a “period” drama. Get it? We can let Autumn de Wilde have this in her directorial debut. That and all caps will set it apart from the six other movies with the same title; the delightful Clueless (1995 and 1996, film and TV) has no need, and the Indian Aisha in Hindi is Bollywood, on Amazon Prime, so I will watch it soon, choreography and all.

Emma. would have been my last movie in a theater, when we did such things, but one friend despised it and would have walked out if such a thing had been polite. So I was prepared not to like it. Reviews were mixed; Peter Travers in Rolling Stone likens the version to our times, but he errs in calling Emma manipulative, which requires intent and meanness, in my mind. Shelia O’Connor at RogerEbert.com loves it, but her statement, “Ambivalence, thy name is Austen” mystifies because it pertains to marriage. She’s just too young at the beginning to have much sense. Although the New York Times is behind a paywall, the title “Back on the Manor, but Still Clueless” probably says enough. The Guardian, a British publication, calls the production “colourful,” which is accurate for both the interpretation and the clothes.

Ah, the clothes. What colors! The designer, Alexandra Byrne, remains true to the Regency style (or so I’m told). Emma wears things the name of which we are unfamiliar: pelisses, muslins, and spencers, for example. The linked article reveals much more than you want to know, but its depth adds support to the idea that this production succeeds on several levels.

What about the novel’s presence? Austen can be hard to read. This English prof finds her “unreadable” and “insufferable,” clever but “Oscar Wilde’s inane older sister.” Ouch. Consider this lead-up to dialogue: “Mrs. Weston was looking so ill, and had an air of so much perturbation that Emma’s uneasiness increased…” And she can be a bit clunky. As she realizes Harriet is in love with Mr. Knightly, Emma comes to a realization: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Also, there are long pages with internal thoughts conversation, and the odd style of a discussion that is conversation but doesn’t look like it: “She asked after their mutual friends; they were all well..—When had he left them?—Only that morning. He must have had a wet ride.—Yes.—He meant to walk with her, she found. ‘He had just looked into the dining-room and as he was not wanted there, preferred being out of door.’” The screenwriter, Eleanor Catton, artfully blends the best of Austen, using her words, but also improves on her occasionally. Two examples are the snowfall scene at the Weston home and the Box Hill insult to Miss Bates. When snow is announced, the party immediately breaks up, and the flurry (excuse the pun) of activity transcends the long, slow discussion in the novel. Emma makes her rudeness much clearer in the movie.

It would be heresy to suggest that this movie is better than the book, and I’ll not do that. Some things happen in movies that cannot in books, however, as the music in Emma. Rather than simply background, we have new compositions by Isobell Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, some Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and hymns performed by Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band. The score is usually texture.  One scene does add commentary and is laugh-out-loud funny. Emma has played a lovely little ditty, singing along well enough. Jane Fairfax, her rival of sorts, plays next. It’s too bad she doesn’t have her music with her, sympathizes Emma, but Jane responds that she hopes she can recall the notes. She then sits down and whips out Mozart’s Sonata in F, III. Molto assai, heard here at 13:11. Yes, from memory, passionately and perfectly.

Good criticism should start with the negative and end with the positive. Laying that aside, a few quibbles. Although it’s historically accurate, the boarding school girls parade in red cloaks, looking for all the world like the women in The Handmaid’s Tale. We also have the surprise of Emma lifting her (many-layered) skirt to catch the fireplace heat on her bare bottom. I can’t feature it; layers would have kept said tush warm enough. We’ve seen a naked Mr. Knightley from the back as well, but he’d come in from riding and had sweaty clothes, with plenty of silent servants as required to help. The servants are worthy of an entire scholarly essay somewhere.

Finally, a mention of the title. Recently, someone talked of “making friends with May” following a series of events that rendered the month sad for her. The same is true for Emma in my mind. Austen purposefully wrote a heroine that no one else would like, she said. I just finished it again, after a long hiatus. The truth is that Austen’s are about the only novels I read. Last year, I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. I also read all the Jack Reacher novels, though that doesn’t count, they being more of an aberration. I recently learned about a style of therapy called Internal Family Systems developed by Richard Schwartz, speaking here at length and here very briefly. Simply put, we have our younger selves within us and must deal with their hurts and burdens even as we grow older. Like Emma, I was once a foolish 20-something. Not that I tried matchmaking, but I did feel full of myself. I wonder if I haven’t wanted to read Emma because it was too difficult to look back. I don’t know, still just a theory. It’s not that our dear Emma heals—that’s for the olders—but she does come to self-awareness. We would all benefit from that, and this delightful movie can only help.

 

Plainville, Conn.

World building and hobbies would seem to have little in common except that, these days, world building games like Minecraft (favored among my grandsons) and Fortnite (despised by same) take time, go nowhere, and build worlds. They carefully rejected my assessment of Terraria as world building explaining in simple words that survival was its object. I don’t even know how to turn the consoles on, or anything else.

Are hobbies not worthwhile? The definition, sadly, leads to that. Think of the word “hobby horse.” As such, I don’t have what I’d call hobbies. Instead, I have things that I do for various reasons: gardening, for example. Again sadly, no fruit or vegetables result from it, just flowers. One thing I do is hard to describe. It’s called indexing, and the result builds access to historical records that need to be digitized. I once worked on a 19th century British census, recording names and relationships for thousands of entries. The final result, after my results and those of others were completed and verified, made those handwritten documents searchable, i.e., indexed.

Yesterday’s project was much more simple. In 1917, men in Connecticut were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding their backgrounds, height and weight, marital status (married soon, one wrote), and so on, for the war effort. Pretty standard stuff. But the more interesting section, all heaped on at the end, included questions remote to us 100+ years later. Could he ride a horse? (Most could.) Manage a team? (Many could. And, hurray for YouTube, you can learn how here. It’s a horse or mule team, by the way, not soccer.) Drive a car? (Few, actually. Remember the year.) Understand telegraphy, have experience with steam engines, swim? It was quite the list. My job, however, was simply to input location, name, and age. A batch of 3 takes about a minute. And it’s a bit addictive. All the rest of the information will be available at some point, and gladly received, when someone searches out her great-grandfather, finds his name, and accesses the record. So, not a hobby, not world building, but something I do.

That’s where I came across the place named Plainville, Conn. (We don’t expand abbreviations.) We have a Plainview, Texas, and there are apparently several other places in the country with this name, but it struck me as a bit uncreative. The men’s names, however, were not plain at all: Nicolo Zoccos, Giovanni Cioto, Stazi Angelo. They were all short men, 5 feet tall or 5’3”. Italians, they reported. One man had the last name Przvizamavski. He was Polish. Others were from French Canada, Finland, Scotland, Russia, Austria. It was fascinating, even in as plain a place as Plainville.

So I decided to look into the current city view. It’s small, under 20,000 people. But the diversity is still there: Weinhofer and Alosso run departments. There are 30 justices of the peace (a different system than my little town, apparently), and their names reflect the area’s heritage too: Blanchette, Drezek, Romonow, Harper, Sawczuk, Winkoop, Zakrzewski.

My own great-great-grandparents were nearby, in fact. New Haven seems to be where they settled upon arriving from Scotland. My great-grandmother, born in 1865, lived there until her father died in 1879. She was then sent to Onion Creek, a little place near Austin, to live with her aunts because her mother had died in 1865. I remember they had a little hat shop. People wore hats then. That’s about all I know, but, if you think about it, that’s quite a lot, removed by time and space. Her name was Margaret Zuleika Tait, before she married. I do know that. Perhaps there is a picture somewhere. And, of course, because of her, I am here.

Indexing is a thing I do. You could, too, if you’re a bit bored and have a minute or two to spare. Someone looking for a great-grand might thank you, silently, someday. A hobby that helps someone else build a world. Even better than a hobby…

“…the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Watching the US Navy team called The Blue Angels fly over Dallas on a perfect spring day, I could think of only one word: stately. It wasn’t what I expected. Rather than booming, speeding, thundering, the jets came quietly, their sound trailing behind them. Many years ago, jets flying over my home town regularly broke the sound barrier, a phenomenon you can see (not hear) here or see (and hear) here. The Blue Angels’ flight path began in McKinney, came south 30 miles, made a loop, headed south again, turned north, then west, another loop and a flourish, and landed south of Fort Worth. It took 35 minutes. Again, stately, because they seemed so slow. Their lowest speed is 120 mph, which I find as hard to imagine as their fastest—700 mph during shows, faster when not around people because they’re not allowed to break the sound barrier (761 mph) for shows. Here is a video from a friend, used with permission. The perfect formation, the power of the machines, the occasion—something brought tears to my eyes. Considering their goal of honoring the first responders and health professionals, the beautiful and stately was appropriate.

Consider another stately performance: Peter Serkin strides onto a stage, slowly, in a church performance hall. It’s 2017, and he’s 70 years old. He will play J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Flawlessly. From memory. For 49 minutes and 47 seconds. With a delicate grace, without an embellishment of personality. Style is one thing, of course. Restraint is best, in my opinion. (Although I admire Glen Gould, and he plays distinctively, the self is keenly present.) The rest, however, reflects the best in art. The sheer magnificence of having that much music stored in one’s mind so far exceeds anything I can do that—like the Blue Angels—the perfection and power amaze. (You can get the gist with only the opening piece, as committing to the entire 49+ is a lot to ask. Serkin died last February. He came from a traditional musical family, famous father and grandfather, but he was also a champion of modern music, Olivier Messiaen in particular. Perhaps you will listen here to the Vocalise movement of the French composer’s Quartet for the End of Time. It has a simple ABA form for the Angel who announces the End; the musicians, all quite young, seem to understand their goal: harrowing us with the A sections, calm but clear for the lengthy B. A copy of the program from the prison of war camp where it was first performed combines the chilling and the orderly. No, I don’t think we’re at the End, but the quartet is arguably Messiaen’s most famous work, hence its inclusion.)

It’s not that I can’t do some things well, or that I don’t sometimes feel satisfied with an effort. In this performance of “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, John Williams conducts it with an appealing self-satisfaction. Once again, we could say the tempo is stately. The entire program was all Williams, of course, which you can see here. He noted that the brass players asked to play the march even though they’d had many demands for the rest of the evening. Of course, it was the perfect ending, and a crowd pleaser. It’s just that I am in awe of these things currently. I believe this achievement level influences our respect for the arts.

Today’s title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “The Windhover.” The yeloow-highlighted words link to definitions. He’s writing about a bird, more familiarly known as a kestrel or falcon. More accurately, he provides the reader with the experience of being one with the falcon in flight. Using words to do so takes my breath away. You can hear Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton read it here in his soft Virginia mountain accent, as a gift to his mother on her birthday; this teacher in India gives a lecture on Hopkins and the poem to an amazingly attentive class; here Jakia Shanel Probst participates in Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts initiative; new to me is this Irish form called sean-nós, produced here by Lorcán Mac Mathúna, stunningly and with art to accompany. But read it aloud to yourself. Fly.

Let me insert a shout out to actors: I who can barely recite the alphabet admire the ability not only to assume a character but also to memorize hundreds of lines of a play. Here Richard Burton recites another Hopkins poem, “The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo.” The first time I heard it, I was soon so lost I couldn’t even tell he was speaking English. Having the words helps, even though some aren’t familiar and need a dictionary dart. But it’s melodic magic, and all things considered, perhaps his most accessible poem: You won’t lose your beauty if you give it to God. Here you can watch a very fresh A Midsummer Night’s Dream by The Backroom Theater Project. Everyone is remotely connected, and the effects quite cleverly catch the theme “Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” Plus, Snug the Joiner/Lion is our own dear Katherine Bourne Taylor.

(Not to discount dancers and gymnasts and athletes and artists or any others whose minds command their bodies. That’s a rich area which, now that I think of it, needs its own column and possibly its own columnist.)

So, the Blue Angels brought tears and awe, and Peter Serkin cum Bach did the same, with a challenging poet following suit. Where does it leave me? With a deeper, fuller appreciation of “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” I understand more about the nature and purpose of Art with a capital A, regardless of its kind. If you can sew a beautiful straight line that ends in a quilt (or, these days, a mask), it should swell your heart with pride. I can’t do that either. I stand in awe of so many of you.

Interpretation and Godzilla: Notes and Asides

Last weekend, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) aired while the grandsons were here. We’d seen it at the theater together when people did such things, so we had a déjà vu plus nostalgia. In the movie just previous, Godzilla (2014), we learned much about this cultural phenom. Most importantly, I came to understand that he (or she, there’s that possibility) is actually a hero, a protector, a restorer. The younger two of the group were so impressed they committed to watching all the earlier movies available on YouTube. The number remains a mystery, though since 1954 there will have been 36 when Godzilla vs. King Kong opens (?) this year. This trailer is vague enough and includes the opening of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”  The reader has what may be a British accent but mispronounces “gyre” as “guyre” a point which I find upsetting, of course, since the UK and US pronunciations are the same. Hence, “gyrate.”

Back to the grandsons. The oldest was asked by the youngest something about Godzilla and responded with the spot on official version of the symbolism: After the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, Godzilla became the face of nuclear war and its potential to destroy. When I looked at him, puzzled, he continued: Or he can just be a really big lizard who eats cities. Both are correct, and enjoyment can result with either. We’re probably doomed anyway, so we might as well watch. (Side note: Apparently there is a sequel to Avatar, cleverly titled Avatar 2 so far, featuring a baby since apparently that was a good look for a baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. Trailer here, more flames and such.)

That response reminded me of a car trip during which we were listening to a horror novel on tape (mid-90s) and my oldest, on hearing that a passage in which some caged rabbits were brutally slaughtered, offered this analysis: “Oh—the slaughter of innocence.” I sighed. Maybe, but it could have just been a mean thing to do in order to show-don’t-tell how bad the bad guy was. Source forgotten. Stephen King maybe?

In another example of literature ruined, a student of mine once commented that she understood all the symbols in The Wizard of Oz because her teacher had taught the class about them. Her second insight was that this “information” had ruined what had been her favorite movie. It was sad. My analogy is that too much of that kind of thing can kill a work if done poorly. Mark Twain (may have) said, “Dissecting humor is a lot like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” I’ll allow that sometimes a deeper meaning can enhance enjoyment, but tread carefully lest you get carried away.

I don’t have a great transition for my next bit. For years, I’ve puzzled over this passage from Ecclesiastes 9: 14 “There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.” Its inclusion seems random, on some level. Again, it’s vague and remote. We know nothing, no location, no names of kings or wise men, no time. As often happens in Ecclesiastes, more is said, but the relevance is not clearly stated:  “16 Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. 17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.”

So it could be read as a simple tale and an admonition to be wise even with the knowledge that you are likely to be forgotten. This series of explanations goes all out in helping us see something that may or may not be there. I don’t think it will ruin anything, however, since the story itself is so simple. A companion story—not connected in any way except for plot—involves a woman, also unnamed, who saves a similar little city. The details, however, would make a good action movie: The bad guy’s head gets thrown over the wall as the sign all has been accomplished. The wise woman is anonymous, but everyone else and their scribe gets named. 2 Samuel 20, in case you’re interested. Sheba is the bad-then-headless guy.

And without a good transition, a conclusion becomes difficult. I’m really not in any way shape or form an Old Testament scholar, but one of the clearest favorites is this from Jeremiah 12:5 “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” Clear enough, even with the metaphors. It could be worse, and if it is, you should be prepared because you know it could be worse. Right now, I’m watching here and there and muted Star Wars: A New Hope. It’s the first, but they’ve changed it. Oh well. The entire series is open to interpretation, for better or worse. For now, I’m going to come out opposed to that impulse. If it doesn’t speak to you as it is, why would you care about it on a “deeper” level?

Cherish Is the Word

Last week a passing comment: “Sometimes people will buy something quicker than they will take something for free.” The issue at hand was a high-quality bunk bed. Offers on Craig’s List went either unanswered or spammed. A move to the FaceBook Marketplace yielded better results with a price tag of $100, a huge bargain for the nurse with four children who sealed the deal.

In a more complicated setting, an art event that was advertised as free with a reservation was so overwhelmed with responses that a waiting list was needed. Yet actual attendance surprised many with empty seats. Donors had generously paid all the fees, so the disappointment was tangible on several levels. The consensus included the observation that sometimes people take more seriously their commitment if they have paid. (See paragraph above. My topic today is value.)

College tuition, a current political issue, has increased exponentially in the decades since I attended. Mine was perhaps $400 at its highest and included extra fees for flute instruction and a higher hour load (20 hours—what was I thinking?). That was the total, not a per hour amount. In my Dallas Morning News days, I wrote about the plan to eliminate tuition for two-year colleges, opposing it on several levels. Sadly, I can’t locate that link just this minute. The gist was that, yes, you only value what you pay for: “skin in the game” was a controlling image. The chancellor came out in favor of the plan on the opposite page, but so far I’m ahead though perhaps not for the stated reasons.

Control of value is an interesting topic. (For the record, I forbid the word “interesting” in student essays. It’s too empty.) The famous case of the De Beers diamond cartel, a word more appropriate than monopoly. This scholarly paper discusses the history. Simply put, they own the mines and hence the supply. Since the 1870s, diamonds have not been at all rare. Their intrinsic value is limited to industrial use, but their ultimate cost depends on the regulated supply offered to consumers. Alternatively, a nice road trip to Arkansas allows anyone to look for diamonds in the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Over 33,000 diamonds found! We went but didn’t find anything. Of course. The earth continues to churn the gems up, however.

Musically speaking, this exploration reminded me of a song I hadn’t thought of in decades: “Cherish.” Out of context, I can’t remember anything about the group The Association or what was happening for the weeks this topped the chart. But I do love the word “cherish.” It’s based on the Latin carus, which put me in mind of the gorgeous aria from Puccini, “O mio babbino caro,” (Oh, my dear papa—it’s not bambino, reminder) sung here by a little girl, Amira Willighagen whose story is told in this documentary, or here by Maria Callas. But back to cherishing: We don’t do it enough.

In the light of current events, we are remembering to care more, hoping to be better in the future. Human nature being what it is, and fear being the poorest motivator, value will continue to have its seekers and its merits. Perhaps it is all relative. I wonder if right now we are learning to value more important things because we are paying for them, earning the privilege of having them, in ways we might not have without, well, the light of current events. The greater danger, as I’ve heard from multiple sources, is that we won’t learn. As always, in all ways, I remain hopeful we will.

The Kiss: Lost and Found

Lost somewhere in my house is a Ziploc bag of diamonds and emeralds. Yes, real ones, mined from older jewelry and meant for future projects. Not a fortune, to be sure, but a few hundred dollars’ worth. Perhaps one day they will resurface, as things tend to do around here: “Oh, that’s where they were, all this time.” Still, they are a treasure that I long for.

What have you lost of value? I’m going to report on something I lost once but found–love, in a word. I have only been inside my own marriage, no one else’s. I wonder, however, if you still have a sense of passion. Ours declined, a daily lessening until it was no longer expected. Those “pecks” like chickens, more or less.

It was recovered with a kiss. I can give the day and even the hour when it happened, but just trust me: it was real. The reason would be speculation, but I believe it was a spiritual experience for one of us, shared with the other. I’d felt the same years earlier, shared it, but at the time, it didn’t take. This time it did.

Words fail sometimes, in the reality of experience. I won’t try to use any of them to describe the beauty, the height, depth and breadth of the moment. It’s where it belongs, in my heart. You can plan it, however, perhaps like this, to your beloved (who may not seem so terribly beloved just this minute): “Hey, this person I know says that we need to consider getting some passion back in our relationship. She says the key is a kiss, a real one, full of the passion from days gone by.” That’s all really. The awkwardness surrounding such a suggestion may mean you wait for that initial discussion to pass. Find the right moment. Don’t worry about giving a report. If you are happier, I’ll be glad.

A few kiss links for today: Gustav Klimt’s famous painting, a rather gilded kiss, with the lovers’ clothing richly colored and decorated with gold, silver, and platinum. I rather prefer Francesco Hayez’s older painting for its gorgeous blue satin and the man’s hand upon the woman’s cheek. Here we have Rodin’s sculpture, also famous and as passionate as marble can be perhaps. This nice collection includes some other favorite artists. To get you in the mood.

For the musicians: Schubert’s lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade” as sung by the great New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa. Our Gretchen sits at a spinning wheel longing for her lover. She can work for effectively until she remembers his kiss. Then she—and the wheel’s spin—must pause until she hesitatingly begins again. That’s passion, people. Schubert was just shy of 18 when he wrote this song. Amazing.

But for Gretchen and Rodin’s lovers, loss is the real topic. You, however, can find and renew what may be missing. If my jewels turn up, it will be accidental. You, dear friends, can be intentional.

 

 

 

Sez who?

Last week I experienced a flurry of activity: I sewed a dozen masks and a huge window covering for a sliding glass door. I baked bread and a lemon meringue pie. I swept and mopped. I listened to four podcasts in one day while hoeing a flowerbed and spreading mulch. While taking a break from gardening, I talked a friend through the app SignUpGenius so she could set up phone calls with students who needed help with their thesis sentences. I participated in a training call for my media assessment job and ultimately analyzed 28 articles for slant. I watched an entire season of The Lost Room during one night—a long, mostly sleepless night. I wrote one sentence of a short story someone requested. Those were the things I reported because they were done within 24 hours.

Thinking I’d be clever, I posted this information on FaceBook because I had to speak to the Amazon guy when he delivered a large package that had been compromised. I was in painting pants (which is a genre I hope you’re familiar with), an old T-shirt with minimal underpinning (use less imagination or forget I mentioned it), no make-up (which also means no eyebrows), with my hair in a small bun on top (and the stragglers at 90 degrees out from my ears). I don’t think I actually smelled bad, but the front door was mostly closed anyway.

Obviously, there were many more activities in the week, from winding clocks to feeding animals, from cooking and eating to listening to a book on Audible and reading and praying and talking and sleeping extra. Texting, checking FB, watching news, doing laundry, and yes, cleaning my person including daily hair cuttings. The things we all do, every day, so regularly we call them the everyday chores. Maybe not the hair cutting. That’s never going to be okay until this is over.

I caught some flak. (Sorry, brief but necessary diversion: “flak” is the correct spelling. It comes from a word first used in 1940 when anti-aircraft fire was used, per OneLook, my favorite online dictionary which includes this condensation from the German Fliegerabwehrkanone literally “pilot warding-off cannon.” If you add the “c” it means something else entirely, a press agent. Don’t even think about taking the second “n” out of cannon.) Comments were many but fell into several categories. People with real jobs said they were doing real work. I know one person who has a truly international job and must be on the phone at all hours, for example. People who hadn’t done as much said I made them tired. People (a few) admired my energy.

The standout, however, was the person who commented she was also trying to get some writing done—a novel several decades in the making. My inclusion of that one sentence in the otherwise busy list meant something: of all the workaday report, just one sentence? And that was a hurdle. I thought of all the other unfinished or unbegun projects that bother me more than anything.

Luckily, one friend picked up the phone to tease me for making everyone feel guilty. I explained my intent. He reminded me he was teasing. When I shared the story of the fellow writer and lamented my things-undone-ness, he said he had gone through the same thing and came up with a term: Sez who? (Note the spelling.) He explained: We are too quick to say what we think we ought to be doing. It’s not helpful. It probably even holds us back. Do what you can, when you can. I felt encouraged. I agreed to work on the undone project I’d promised to do for him.

To polish what was concerned me: Ask enough of yourself to be happy with yourself. Don’t should on yourself (or others). So far, I have the first three sentences for my friend, and I hope to finish the short story today. Once I get out of my pajamas.

“Oh How Lovely Was the Morning”

Picture first our living room: A long addition to a formerly small two bedroom, one bath ranch house with small windows at the top of the west wall. Paneling like none I’ve ever seen before, fake pine-decorated sheetrock—hard to describe, obviously, since it wasn’t even a veneer that could be called fake. A picture window on the right that faced east, where I sprouted my pinto beans. Some bookshelves at the end, and a place where the previous family had built in a television. Square tan linoleum tiles that needed to be swept regularly and waxed occasionally. The couch and a chair were covered in cheap faux leather, green, with button tufts, some of which were missing. Our father’s pride and joy was the coffee table. He had glued a piece of hot pink laminate a friend had given him into a rectangular frame he’d refinished.

Into this came two missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My parents were heavy smokers and heavy coffee drinkers, so it must have been a bit unpleasant in that regard as well. All I can remember is a slide show, though this version from 1964 is a film called Man’s Search for Happiness. No one in my family joined the church then, or mine would be a much different story, of course. They weren’t spiritual people, really, but when I joined the church, my mother did tell me that she believed Joseph Smith really had seen the Father and the Son in that grove. She didn’t have any intention of joining the church even though that was true, but it did give me pause.

This spring marks the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s decision to seek answers to his questions through prayer. He had read James 1:5, a simple instruction: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” What followed when he voiced his concerns changed not just him but the world. The privilege of seeing God has been reserved to very few throughout history, and none of us has any expectation of that privilege. What we can expect, however, is answers, just as surely as that 14-year-old did when he went to a quiet grove of trees to pray. Here is a link to his various accounts of what happened. This hymn contains today’s title.

At first, I thought Joseph and I were much the same, actually. No one disabused me of the fact that I had little in common with someone who was a prophet and who eventually died for his beliefs. I, too, prayed and received an answer to my questions. I, too, suffered some (not much, a little) persecution. I, too, was willing to die for those beliefs, though I hoped not to have to. C.S. Lewis wrote about this feeling in his brief book The Screwtape Letters, well worth reading because of his own conversion.

That brings me to my conclusion. The Greek word martyr just means “witness.” We are all, ultimately, martyrs for what we believe in. Rarely are our lives taken from us; we more often just trudge through them and sigh them away. How will we be remembered? Will we have a legacy? Whether we expect to step into another life or blink out of existence, we want to have made a difference. Yet, that may not be the right question to ask. Rather let it be, have I searched for the divine? Have I assumed it doesn’t exist? Have I asked?

Today’s illustration is a print I just purchased called “Moonbeam” by Iwasaki Tsuneo. It’s impossible to capture the sense of immensity in the scale of a computer screen. The print is 40 inches long, after all. At the bottom is a tiny being with (her) hand raised to the heavens from which streams a message. I love it. I believe such things happen. Whether you join the church or not, at least consider asking if that Being is there. Lift up your hand, or your heart, or your mind. It doesn’t matter so much as the fact that today–any day–is a lovely morning when you get one.

 

April Fool’s: History and Intentions

Occasionally, and when one has little else to do, one happens upon a serendipitous connection.  Perhaps you know that Julius Caesar changed the calendar to allow for a leap year, but more importantly for this discussion, he established January 1 as the date for the new year to begin. Before that by 2000 years, the Babylonians began making New Year’s resolutions when crops were planted. Hence (one rarely gets to use that word), there may have been times when it was on April 1 for them and definitely was for the Romans: “In the Julian Calendar, as in the Hindu calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1.” Therefore, New Year’s resolutions were technically April Fool’s resolutions, if the two traditions cross-pollinated, which may or may not have happened. (The History Chanel has nice articles for April Fool’s Day and New Year’s resolutions.)

My family always took the activity of having resolutions seriously. (My paternal grandfather had written a pamphlet on the Julian/Gregorian calendar switch and used the word “humbug” in the title; I never quite understood the problem but he seemed quite adamant about it.) The practice seems to fallen out of use, though gyms do see a surge of attendance during January.

Although hoaxes have been common in the past, my expectation is that this year will be different. Levity is lost, for the moment. I suspected this might be the case when St. Patrick’s Day went uncelebrated on March 17. I happened to wear green because I remembered, and when people at the hospital noticed my attire, many commented, “Oh, yes, I forgot.” In that faraway yesterday of 2019, there would have been garlands of green shamrocks at the nurses’ station.

So if resolutions are not famous for lasting, what will? “Commitments” might. Using the phrase “Will you…?” works in many—if not all—circumstances. Energy levels being what they are, it sounds too formal and forbidding. Days being what they are, I submit the idea of April Fool’s Intentions. Think of all the cleaning and reading that have begun already. No gyms, obviously, but lots more walks, lots more serious things done. In real earnest, we can think of what we do when this sequestering ends.

My own short list:

  1. I intend to think/speak/act more slowly. Too often, I make a spur-of-the moment decision, blunder in with a remark, act on either of those, too quickly.
  2. I intend to call/write/interact with people I love more quickly and more often. While I can (and have) talked to them, that pervading loneliness is likely only to increase. I think of the store clerks where I do have to go for a time and wonder if they are as petrified as I would be to take someone’s cash, which we assume is dirty in the best of times.
  3. I intend to be more serious with my music/writing/gardening. Yes, I listen to music most days, but I rarely practice or play. And I write more than weekly but barely touch the surface of what I know I could be doing. Even gardening doesn’t get the attention it needs. I’d love to be a Master Naturalist, for example. Love, however, doesn’t always equal actual intention.
  4. I intend—and plan—and believe it must be—never to take anything or anyone for granted again. This isn’t an original thought, as I expect you’ve had the same intention. Happiness is one of the purposes of life, though we have so many ways to thwart it. For some reason, I’m hearing “Tomorrow” from Annie: “So ya gotta hang on!” You, too.

The Sleeping Beauty: Not a Metaphor for Now

Sunday morning last week, my husband became quite ill and had to be taken to the emergency room. I thought we might lose him that night. The next morning he was better, and the next. The world changed quickly, however. On Wednesday morning I woke up to the possibility that I wouldn’t see him alive after 8 a.m., and the distinct wish came that I’d rather sleep through the rest of our troubles. That’s a natural reaction; I can’t apologize for it. So I dutifully went to the hospital before 8, fed him breakfast, talked to apologetic hospital staff who were shutting the place down, and left. He would not go back to his residence until Friday afternoon, a place also closed to me.

That aside, I thought of Sleeping Beauty. That’s not her name, of course. Strictly speaking, she is THE Sleeping Beauty, the name of the fairy tale. Her name (at least in the Disney version) is Aurora, from Charles Perrault’s adaptation, which you can read here. It’s charming, and while the Disney changes are obvious, and some don’t completely make sense, they stay true to its spirit. Peter Tchaikovsky’s ballet uses the same version but adds lots of dances with other fairy tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood (whose name may have been Blanchette; this WPA poster from the 1930s is cool, though in Perrault she ends up eaten at the end of the story), four other suitors, some cats, and the Blue Bird. One final note: The theme song “Once Upon a Dream” throughout the Disney movie is actually from the Tchaikovsky—listen to them side by side here. If you want to watch the entire ballet, you can enjoy it lots of places. It’s interesting to watch as the same choreography is used, again something I didn’t know much about: The Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi, Italian, and a tiny trailer for the new Bolshoi version that was in theaters. Back when we went to such things…

Far afield, I know. I had to review the story so I could decide if it is a metaphor for our time or not, with one thing leading to another. I’m thinking it’s not. What happens in Disney and the other versions involves not only Aurora sleeping for many years but the same happening to all her loved ones. They pick up where they left off after true love’s kiss. In addition, the fairy who prevented Aurora’s death by blessing her to sleep (The Lilac Fairy or Merryweather) allowed them all to dream. But they missed everything else, all the reality that gets so daily.

So, what would we miss? The isolation, the deprivation, the losses. News of the hoarders (an Australian store accepting toilet paper as currency) and the scammers (targeting the vulnerable elderly, as usual, special place in Hell reserved, as usual). Fear of fear, most famously articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” You can read the entire speech here. It’s important to remember that this was 1933, well before the war that was to come. The country was in the midst of a Great Depression (good source including pictures here.) Deprivation, loss, isolation were very real.

What will we gain? Hard to say, but I thought of Mr. Rogers: “Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.” In this 58-second clip, we hear him as an older man retelling what his mother taught and extending advice for news media, suggesting that rescue teams be included in reporting disasters. That does happen so often, and I wonder if they took him to heart or just instinctively knew to do it. Children need comforting. We all need comforting. We give it when we can, but we should also accept it and even seek it when we need it. Lists of what to do when isolated crop up. More people than ever are on FaceBook and other sites, connecting and making the best of it. Creativity abounds. Families cook together again. Abandoned projects are reconsidered. Houses cleaned, gardens planted, dogs walked. The sweetness of life is savored.

In whatever form we choose to take it, Eden was a paradise of bliss through ignorance. We chose to leave, making the decision to endure the bad so that we could know the good. So that we could experience not the eternal nap of a cat, not caring which week it is or who feeds us. It was a kind of sleep, then, that we reject every day we wake up to life. We will see goodness.

When I was leaving the hospital, I saw a van with this message: “Until we meet again.” I smiled. Someone up there knows me and loves me. A tender mercy or a random coincidence? It doesn’t really matter. I’m not sleeping through this, although the occasional nap is a good thing.