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 obeyed 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.

A Tale of Motor Vehicle Fatalities

Today is my birthday and the plan was to be in Ireland. I’m not sure where exactly although the county of Connemara was high on the list.  If not for the pandemic, I’d be on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the one my ancestors faced hundreds of years ago.  Tomorrow we face that grey abyss, that swallower of ships … battered and seasick to finally land where the mighty river narrows, Quebec.

I was born on a Friday afternoon in a small town in the middle of Massachusetts. If it wasn’t for the recklessness of  motor vehicle drivers I probably would have been born in Springfield which is closer to my grandparent’s house.  To explain, we go back to the year 1913.  In that year people drove “motor vehicles” on roads meant for horse and buggies with little or no instruction and zero regulation.

 

This led to an alarming number of accidents.

I can’t imagine why, can you?   In the small town of Palmer, which is on the main route from Boston to Springfield, there was no hospital. The nearest was in Springfield, a distance of thirty miles.  Thus most of the accidents were ultimately fatal.  The newspapers highlighted the need for a hospital and a local philanthropist by the name of Mrs. Emeline Wing stepped forward to donate her home to the cause and that is where I was born on this day many years ago.   My grandmother was the head nurse and I was her first grandchild. Shortly after I was born the hospital moved to a more modern building on the outskirts of town.  The house is no more.  Now there’s a bank. 

My parents were of the opinion that children only needed food, clothing and schooling.  They didn’t need big, fancy birthday parties.  However, for my sixteenth birthday they did take me to Trader Dick’s Kon Tiki Bar (across the street from the Sparks Nugget) and I had a virgin Mai Tai with a slice of pineapple and a miniature umbrella. I can’t remember what I ordered but it was probably a lot more exotic than pot roast (my mother’s speciality).

 I’ve had a few “unforgettable for all the wrong reasons” birthdays. One year we attempted to drive from Aspen to Reno in one day which would have been possible if the weather had cooperated.  By the time we got to Wendover Nevada we could go no further.  We had to stop.  Wendover is where your car breaks down after crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats and  Wendover is where the Mormons go to gamble, drink and hang out at strip clubs, particularly on Memorial Day weekend.  We had difficulty finding a room.  We couldn’t get a seat in any of the casino restaurants.  Dinner was buck fifty tacos from a stand and drug store gin and tonic. We sat in our hotel room and watched tumbleweeds blow into the hotel pool as sand storms went about the business of  destroying windshields. 

Wendover Nevada looking east toward the Salt Flats.

On the television we could only get three channels: Fox news, Spanish soap operas, and a marathon of Undercover Boss, a reality show that attempts to prove bosses really care about their employees.  The morning couldn’t come fast enough.

Today is supposed to be the hottest day of the week and so perhaps we’ll just stay home.  Water the green beans and the garlic and read a good book.  Ever have one of those birthdays you’d just assume forget?

 

Dressing

Another lovely post from Duke.

tin hats

When do scars become beautiful?  I have asked myself that question a number of times.  In fact, it is always on my mind.  I can’t shake it.  Love is part of the answer.  Beyond the scar we must look for the tatters of love and it is like a difficult book we have been assigned to read and the words make little sense, yet we struggle to find the true meaning of the red and white lines or in the mind where it shows with incalculable shiftings and footfalls of unexpected events.  We usually feel sorry for the person and there is madness or mistake or torture.  Without love, we are only left with the scar, and its permanence, and in typical fashion, we turn away.

Scars are like telescopes viewing a star in the sky.  There is the obvious outward appearance and then there is the distance between you…

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When Mother takes her pills

Today is my mother’s birthday.  She’s 94.  She lives in an assisted living facility although it’s only because she doesn’t like to take her pills. If she doesn’t take them, she gets all foggy.  If she does take them, Lord help the staff. She takes to trying to run the place. What can you do?

Today she was visited by a fellow “prisoner” who confided an urgent desire to escape and Mother alerted the front desk via her emergency button. Mother:  “They came and took her back home and then I looked out the window and there she was trying to get over the speed bumps again.” (I guess she was using a walker) “And I called the front desk and said, ‘whelp, she’s at it again’ and they all thanked me.”  Mother would generally be the first to try to escape but apparently my brother has managed to beguile the ladies at the front desk with his swaggering charm (the men in my family all age well … fuck that) and so Jimbo’s daring escapades keep her entertained.

The Dashing Jimbo in his favorite hat.

She used to live with my husband and me but we are very boring and we live at least a four hour drive from her beloved son who is always innovating, creating, partying, and exercising.  She lived with him briefly but he doesn’t own a television set and has lately become a vegetarian.  She needed and could afford to live someplace where she could have a television in every room, eat what she wanted, and meet with her friends to plan their little rebellions. Life is meaningless for mother unless there’s something to rebel against.

So, happy birthday Mom and enjoy that coffee ice cream you fought so hard for!

The Purity of Soft Ghost

tin hats

She dresses every morning in her invisible clothes.  They are sexy and mostly dark, black being preferred, and they are expensive because she has dreams and promises to keep.  No eyes will touch her true self, no one can see how she shines like the coat of a sleek horse in the sun.   The strangers, and most are strangers, will never know her beauty.  Yet, she must leave the house and face the day and so it is, year after year, up from the bed of her nightmare, until slowly she begins to tear along little dotted lines in her skin.  Again, few understand because they cannot see, but sometimes she shows others, those with right eyes, with long eyes, with deep eyes, and she points to where she bleeds and they become her friends and together she sleeps with the depressed and the destitute and all the bodies of…

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