And what would the sky say?

Y’all will be happy to hear that I’ve given up attempting to analyze the greatest American short stories of the last century (according to John Updike). Apparently Americans were screwed up then and guess what? 2020 has proven that the first twenty years into a new century, we ain’t getting any better.  What would Updike say?  Do I care anymore?  Nah.  

And … with uncommonly good weather forecast for the remainder of the week, I’m off to the teahouse.  

My attempt at the fields of Tuscany – looks more like the black hills of Mordor

I am a mediocre artist who’s been awfully lucky.  My husband, son, and father built this teahouse so that I would have a place to paint far from the house, the television, the telephone and the internet.  It wasn’t a hurried project.  I think it took them four years of working primarily on the weekends and holidays.  For years it was their man time while I entertained my stepmother who loved to shop.  Their reward would be a big meal and nice glass of wine in the evening.  (my step mother also loved to dine out so a home cooked meal was a real treat for Dad) 

The grossly over-engineered ceiling … built to withstand even an attack by Godzilla

Then I decided to write.  Such a great idea, follow one mediocre career with another, hey? But I never totally give up painting.  Every now and then, going down to the teahouse is like taking a sanity break. 

My sane place

Sometimes I’ve taken out my awe on the canvas.  Sometimes my grief.

Done shortly after a friend’s death through tears and much guilt.

Today I decided to take on my view.

View to the west
A rough sketch

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be brave enough to add some color! What do you think – purple branches? A marmalade sky?

 

The bitter underside of freedom

My husband’s father was a traveling salesman back in the 1940s.  He sold forms to small businesses: receipts, inventory logs, invoices, etc.  He was movie star handsome, along the lines of Tyrone Powers and used his charms to make enough in a few months on the road to stay home the rest of the year and drink.

Tyrone Power

And from what I’ve heard, that’s about all he did.   When she’d had enough, my mother-in-law took her three sons and moved a thousand miles away.  The only time I heard her mention his name was when we drove through Wells Nevada where, as a young couple, they’d hopped off the north south line and waited for the transcontinental.  “Frank and I stopped here once,” she said wistfully.  They must have really been in love.

Wells Nevada, once known as a railroad junction, is now known for Bella’s Gentlemen’s club which rents rooms by the hour.

John Updike included Eudora Welty’s tale of a traveling salesman in his volume of the Best American Short Stories of the Last Century which I am slowly making my way through. The protagonist of The Hitch-Hikers (first published in 1940 in the Southern Review) is thirty year old man “traveling in office supplies” and that’s about all we’re told.  He picks up a couple of drifters because “the recurring sight of hitch-hikers waiting against the sky gave him the flash of a sensation he had learned to experience when he was a child.”  One of the men has a guitar while the other is “bogged in inarticulate anger.”  For some reason he decides to buy them a hamburger and find them a place to sleep for the night. Maybe because he knows what it’s like to be a stranger in town or maybe he is tired of the dream-like monotony of being on the road, stopping in small towns that are “too like other towns, for him to move out of this lying undressed on the bed, even into comfort or despair.”  No matter, his intentions backfire and one of the drifters ends up dead.  To the townsfolk, the man’s murder is a bit of diversion which will be forgotten in a few days time.  They hardly seem to care as he lies dying. The salesman realizes that although he’s gotten to know people in the town and even scores an invitation to a private party, if he were to disappear the next day, the town would hardly notice.  

“…none of this was his, not his to keep, but belonging to the people of the towns he passed through, coming out of their rooted pasts, out of their remaining in one place, coming out of their time.  He himself had no time.  He was free; helpless.”

Previously I had only read Welty’s tragi-comic stories of life in the south and so this one threw me for a loop (along with a few professional literary critics, I might add). According to Updike, the phrase “free; helpless” means that “our American freedom … to thrive, to fail, to the road – has a bleak and bitter underside.” To this I wanted to say WTF does that mean? But I didn’t have a better analysis. So I gave up and moved onto The Death of a Favorite by JF Powers. Despite it’s name, a delightful story.

Although I’m afraid to read John Updike’s analysis. How could a story told by a clergyman’s cat possibly encapsulate a uniquely American experience? What do you think?

Living the least boring life

When I first read John Updike I was just starting on this grand adventure called life and therefore not prepared to appreciate the “mundane” which Updike strove to give “its beautiful due” (The Paris Review interview, #43, 1968). But his short story (The Gesturing) had been highly recommended so I gave it a shot. Here’s the plot in a nutshell: A man and wife are considering getting a divorce after many years and affairs. It’s not that either is miserably unhappy but they are simply looking for the “least boring” way to lead their lives.  When the man finally does move out he calls his wife to say “I feel I’ve given birth to a black hole.”  Nevertheless they forge ahead with a divorce.  Afterwards, they get together for sex from time to time and to gossip about their current lovers.  

Not surprisingly The Gesturing was first published in Playboy Magazine in 1980. Apparently, most publishers were still squeamish about the concept of guilt-free sex.

But Updike’s message is not about sex.  It’s about communication. There are gestures that are brave bluffs; there are wasteful and empty gestures, gestures without an audience, gestures that are helpless displays, and even unending gestures that would endure, cut into glass. Among the many definitions for the word “gesture” are: marking the rise or fall of the melody (music), expressing ourselves after utterances fail, and a perfunctory or symbolic action generally of little importance. Any or all could apply.

I was reminded of my parent’s marriage. They never argued.  There were never shouts or tears. They had affairs with other people. Not great love affairs that drove them apart but just “phases” (as my father would say).  In the post War prosperity that was suburbia, like Updike, they were just trying to lead the “least boring life.”

According to the book Generations by Strauss and Howe (a book my husband loves to quote), both my father and Updike were products of the so called Silent Generation, people who grew up during the greatest period of sustained economic growth that America has known and were “quietly grateful” to have escaped the horrors of the Depression and WWII. They preferred working within the system and were “incompetent of turning down an invitation to a party at which they are guaranteed to have a bad time.” (John Updike’s Couples, Christine Smallwood in Bookforum), Once I realized who he was writing for, I was able to read Updike with a bit more understanding.  I can’t say he’s my favorite but he did make me think.  And he did have a way with words.  Here are a couple of my favorite phrases:

“she was giddy amid the spinning mirrors of her betrayals.”

“encountering problematic wife substitutes at laundromats.”

“his smile was a gesture without an audience.”

I may reread his novels just for the pleasure of his words.  However, I do have another 80 short stories to go through first.  Next up, Eudora Welty’s The Hitchhikers.  Do you think it will be the light-hearted read which I badly need?

Little known fact: Besides being a great writer, Eudora Welty was also an accomplished photographer.

Seagull

Perfect read for these harrowing times!

tin hats

I was back at the lake with dad when I was about nine or ten, just me and him, nobody else around, and we were in Grandma’s cottage, a few months after it got moved down the hill closer to the water. He was heading out to fix her dock because a storm had torn it from its foundation. Before leaving the cottage he gave me a copy of Johnathon Livingston Seagull and with a look in his eye that I had never seen before, he told me to read it, so I did. It’s a thin book and I was able to finish it by sundown, when he got back. The first words he said to me upon re-entering the cottage weren’t words at all, as he was smiling not speaking. It wasn’t a big smile. He rarely smiled big. It was more of an approving glance. I remember…

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They Circled The City On Purpose

“half mad down suicide alley” – sounds so familiar. A beautiful read – all my love to Missa Him and all who lay dying.

tin hats

The rejection letter, an old piece of chewed meat, read, we never accept poems about dogs … never

Standing in the shadow of the peak, looking upward, I thought to myself, they must also mean no children with ripped skin, or butterflies on my head, or frozen breath at the edge of night

No insights into the twisting earth as the hot white hands of solar explosions drive us away, down into deeper holes

No running over ghosts in the old church graveyard, the ruin across the street, no far away sex in the dawn light like neither one of us is there

Yet, last night the rain storm came and we built a fire, the dog and I, our flames 7,500 feet high

Missa Him lay her head in my lap and her chest was rapid, struggling against the air, and as is my wont, I thought about death…

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Letters from Martha

Last night I finished The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which was recommended by one of my favorite blogging buddies, Yeah Another Blogger.  Yeah has another name as most of us do, one we were born with and which is on our driver’s licenses (which reminds me that mine is up for renewal – crap!)  To find out more about Yeah, check out his blog.  

I first heard of the Vietnam War when Rosalee A. (who lived across the road from me) announced that her brother – a graduate of West Point!  – was leaving the US to fight the communists who were rapidly taking over the world. Rosalee, who intended to one day become Mrs. George Harrison, knew very little about the communists except that they were against God.  She knew even less about Vietnam.  Leelee, as we all called her, would never travel the world and lives to this day in Fernley Nevada.  We were then, I think, thirteen.

For years Vietnam was a far off place until my friends’ older brothers began to disappear. It’s hard to explain that era to anyone who wasn’t alive back then. To our fathers, if your country asked you to serve, you served. No matter the reason or place. Young men went as ordered and came back profoundly changed. Other young men began to doubt the motive behind the war and their fathers wished them dead. The Things They Carried isn’t an anti-Vietnam war piece as much as a first hand account of what war does to soldiers.

Tim O’Brien

The focal point is First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who carries, along with his artillery and survival pack,  letters from Martha.  

“Lt. Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” 

Others in his platoon carry what gives them comfort: extra socks, hygiene products, tranquilizers, condoms, a diary, but Cross carries the hope that Martha, although she writes him steadily and always sign off with “love,” might someday really love him (and, of course, that she’s still a virgin).

The platoon navigates through a shared nightmare by focusing on what needs to be carried for the next mission.  “they would never be at a loss for things to carry.” Until the convergence of an unexpected stroke of luck followed a quick and sudden death … “[Lavender] just flat out fuck fell” … convinces Cross that he is clinging to a dream that will never be and he burns the letters from Martha.   He becomes another leader whose “… principles were in their feet.  Their calculations biological.”

It is a great, albeit depressing piece but there’s no need to search high and low for information about the author.  He’s alive and, aside from Vietnam, has led an accomplished and apparently, content life. Although one has to wonder if he ever gave “Martha” a second chance.  

Tonight I think I’ll try for something light and amusing.  Eudora Welty, don’t you let me down now girl!  

Light your lamp

My bedtime reading lately has been this collection of short stories that my father gave me shortly before his death.  

The stories were selected by John Updike, a man whose writing always seemed aimed at my father’s generation … but he did win a Pulitzer and so what the heck do I know?  It was edited by Katrina Kennison who now lives up in Northern New Hampshire where she focuses on “celebrating the gift of each ordinary day.”  One can only surmise that editing the likes of John Updike for a publishing giant like Houghton Mifflin would make anyone long for an ordinary day.  

Here is the list of authors whose work was selected as the best of the last century.

How many names do you recognize? I recognized 29. Many, to be honest,  because the author is better known for his or her novels. But as I navigate these disparate voices, I  find myself most intrigued by those “lost literary gems,” so called because the author’s name, once written in sand, has been washed out to sea.

Last night I read “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates, published originally in 1929 in The Frontier: a Magazine of the West.  It’s the story of a young girl forbidden to go on a plum-picking campout with a family her immigrant father considers vulgar and untrustworthy.

Grace Stone Coates

As the family returns home with a wagon full of wild plums, they throw a few to the young girl as they pass her home.  She takes them inside to her mother who tells her they’re not worth eating.  This is the unforgettable ending to the story:

“I went out quietly, knowing I would never tell her that they were strange on my tongue as wild honey, holding the warmth of sand that sun had fingered, and the mystery of water under leaning boughs.

For I had eaten one at the road.” 

From “Wild Plums”

From her two sentence bio in the appendix I learnt that Grace Stone Coates was an editor for The Frontier: a Magazine of the West who spent most of her life in Montana.  Well, that wasn’t enough for me so I went to the google machine.

As to what forces and events actually created this splendid writer, well, it depends the source.  According to Wikipedia, her father was a well educated German forced by circumstances to live in the rural midwest where she was born in 1881. She attended three different universities without taking a degree and then moved to Butte Montana where she managed to get a teaching certificate.  In 1910 she married and moved to Martinsdale, described as a “tiny ranching community” where her husband ran the general store and she began writing. She was encouraged by H.G. Merriam an academician who promoted regionalism (writing focused on “linguistic features peculiar to a specific region”) to publish a few books of poems which led to the novel “Dark Cherries,” published by Knopf in 1929.

The most recent edition, published by Bison

However, after her husband’s death in 1930 she gave up “serious writing” and focused on maintaining correspondence with fellow writers William Saroyan and Frank Bird Linderman.   She also began to hallucinate and wander the streets late at night. Finally in 1963 the townsfolk intervened and moved her to a retirement home in Bozeman Montana. The Wikipedia article implies that, after her husband’s death Coates went into a steady decline and gave up writing.  However, the real reason for her decline is more complicated according to Elaine Showalter who studied women writers of that time and place.     

To summarize Ms. Showalter’s theory, Coates had a miserable childhood with a father who was either overbearing or never around.  She lived most of her adult life in what she described as “an alien world” of isolation with a husband who more than likely frowned on her writing.  She went into a decline after her second novel was declined by Knopf as being “unsellable.”  That second novel, said to be auto-biographical, did not survive.  Fortunately her letters were saved by a young woman (Lee Rostad) who came to know her in the 1950s.  Rostad used those letters to write a biography of “the brilliant, passionate woman behind the demure housewife who wrote the local news for the county newspapers.” Unfortunately that book is out of print.  

Anyway, now you know more than you probably wanted (if you stuck with me) about an obscure, little-known writer.  It all brings me back to this firefly by R. Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore

So, go ahead and light your lamp. You never know who it will reach or when.

Anything … else … but

I have noticed that many of the bloggers whose writing I’ve come to enjoy over the past seven years are either paralyzed by the social turmoil all around them or are trying to focus on anything … else … but. Fires in the streets, virus in the air, the seas rising (the Native Americans were right: the devil has blue eyes) … the crap just doesn’t want to stop rolling in, does it? The Armageddon was supposed to be the quick and final punishment of mankind. Not years on life support hoping for some miracle drug.

But since there’s nothing I can do, I will focus on anything … else … but. My current AEB are the illustrations in a bible that literally crumbles when handled. Who were the artists? What did the original artwork look like before the book got into the hands of my less than pious mother?

Some artists perhaps felt it blasphemous to advertise their work in the Holy book. The illustration above simply reads Rebecca. I would guess the artist was a Pre-Raphaelite but I can’t find any matches.

I am not an expert on the Bible by any stretch but I identified this scene right away, did you? The artist was identified as Briton Riviere who was well-known in the 1850s for his animal studies. (This image reminds me of Duke Miller’s poem on Tinhats) Again, cannot find copies of the original.

According to a quote on the back, this illustration portrays Naomi imploring her mother-in-law “whither thou goest; I shall go.” Looks to me like she’s attempting to seduce Ruth. However, because the artist, identified as “Calderon,” was also well known in the 1850s (and the onetime Keeper of the Royal Academy) I was able to find a copy of the original. That’s Boas she’s rubbing up against while Ruth waits off to the side.

The only other illustration in the Old Testament not damaged beyond repair is this one.

The inscription on the back reads The Frieze of Prophets by J.S. Sargent. I googled and sure enough John Singer Sargent did create a frieze by that name, however this must have been an early study as the completed piece looks like a bit different.

Frieze of Prophets, by JS Singer

The New Testament seemed more inspirational to artists of the time:

I particularly like this one: “Christ and the Fisherman” by E. Zimmerman, a German artist. You can see the rough hands of the fisherman and feel the bond between the men.

And this one:

“The Arrival of the Shepherds” by Henri Li’rolle. The original probably had more color but I like the rawness that age and abuse have given the image.

I was able to find the original for this scene:

“The Lost Sheep” by Alf. U. Soard.

The Lost Sheep

The illustration in Mother’s bible was probably a study for the completed work. I have to say, the study is more powerful.

I will close with this image “Laborers in the Plain of Esdraelon.” Looks like an ominous place for the final battle between good and evil, doesn’t it? Half in this world and half in another.

The Days

tin hats

The days are like dark men, sitting in my bedroom. They are asking for information; they want to know my most personal thoughts. Who I have been fucking? Who have I been lying about? I can see their shoes beneath the table sticking out. The leather is scuffed and the soles are separating. The glue and stitching of the shoes come from dead horses, bobbing about in large metal vats, and the process is managed by out of shape people looking at their job through thick glasses. These dark, day men have the salaries of bureaucrats and indeed, they are bureaucrats, working in The Institution: a place of winding hallways that often lead nowhere, empty help desks, multiple screens on the walls showing good and bad dreams, silent rooms, large, open air foyers, white noise coming out of 55 gallon barrels, escalators, elevators, stairways, exit doors, sliding doors, endless windows…

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What’s in your Bible?

I am in possession of three Bibles.  Four if you count The Book of Mormon, which I do not. 

The first was sent to my mother by the State of California after her elderly cousin passed away while under their care.  “Cousin Gloria” loved animals (elephants in particular) but couldn’t stand most people.  She smoked unfiltered cigarettes and lived on a diet of cookies and soda.  She was obese, diabetic and towards the end, violent.  Mother tried, Gloria didn’t. And so when she stated her intention to leave all of her estate (including land in Hawaii) to the Elephant Assistance League, Mother threw up her hands in defeat.

This Bible was given to Cousin Gloria in 1935 by “Grandma” which would have been my great grandmother.  It’s the smallest of the three bibles, only about the size of my hand.  In Deuteronomy there’s a pressed leaf of some sort.  I have no idea what, if any, significance it had to her. 

In Job there are what remains of Tweedy, Cousin Gloria’s beloved parakeet who lived far beyond its normal life span. 

The bookmark will forever be in Psalms Prayer of the Poet in Affliction.

There is a slip of paper in Ephesians that reads Ephesians 4:32 “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

My mother’s Bible looks like it was put through the washing machine, which, knowing Mother, is probably true. It was given to her by Mrs. Rufus Cushinau in 1936, a woman I have never heard of.  Inside of Psalms is the home schedule for the Reno Renegades which is a mystery as she is not a sports fan. I’ll have to ask her about it. There are few special passages marked, most notably Thessalonians 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Mother is not one wit sentimental. But of the three bibles, I like the illustrations in this one the best.  Unfortunately they are all damaged.

Whoever Mrs. Cushinau was, she knew Mother.  This is the only Bible to contain Cliff Notes.

My Bible was given to me by the Methodist Church which I went to sporadically growing up.  It’s much larger that the others.  About the size of the one Trump held the other day in his photo op. Being quite sentimental, my bible is jammed with things.  A letter from my grandmother wishing me a Happy New Year and letting me know that, even though it was a Monday (her usual wash day) she would be postponing the wash because of cloudy skies. 

There’s a birthday card from years ago, someone I sadly lost contact with and later found out was going through a very rough time.

Pictures of my children, memorials, postcards … it’s just stuffed. In this version, revised in 1952, Jesus is a hippie who apparently likes to sit under trees and chat with his followers.

And my parents wondered how the hippie movement ever came to be!

Like the Hippie Jesus, I prefer to seek solace in nature. I do not believe God wrote the Bible up in his office in the sky and then transmitted his “orders” to a council of “holy” men sitting in the desert. But it is a work of prose and poetry that has evolved over the centuries to reflect human experience and, to many people, it provides solace. Even to those who aren’t believers, it is a necessary reference to understand many of the great works of literature. To use the Bible as a symbol of one’s political power is worse than burning it.