Author Archives: Julie Larios

Hats, Hats and More Hats

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Before any musings about creativity, let me just say this: Be safe, stay well. We have an extraordinary health emergency unfolding locally, nationally, and globally; it’s a good time to defer to the ferocity of pathogens and to honor the advice of experts. I’ve been working on some poems (for adults) that are a bit glib about scientists (what they can’t know about The Soul) but in the last few weeks I’d say it’s the scientists who will tell us the truth about The Body.  Let’s try to support in any way we can the local health professionals who will be asked to respond to the crisis in ways we can hardly imagine, and to help out those who have dwindling resources to weather the storm. Let’s put pressure on our lawmakers to be thinking of “the least of our brethren.”

I keep thinking of Steven Johnson’s wonderful book, The Ghost Map, which tells the story of a terrifying epidemic of cholera which broke out in London in 1854. Officials obfuscated and ignored  it, not unlike what’s happening 150+ years later with Covid-19. If you haven’t read that book, see if you can get hold of it and read it now – it’s reassuring to know that scientists can uncover answers that are not politicized and can focus on finding solutions.

I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about scientists and artists in general, their covalent bonds. Both are attracted to mystery, I think. Both are attentive to detail. Many of the finest people in those two fields are shot through with astonishment at the real, touchable world we live in. Unlike Walt Whitman, who (uncharacteristically) asserted that poets had a corner on the astonishment market (at least in this poem) I think both types “look up in perfect wonder at the stars.”

Wonder at the Stars

Both scientists and writers are curious and creative. What is observable and what is not intrigues them both: the bird in the tree, the bird in the head, the bird in flight, the bird as a metaphor, the song of the bird – the long, looping red thread you see below. How we look at the world if we’re engaged and reflective.

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Speaking of engagement, wonder, creativity, curiosity, and the touchable world, I saw a show recently at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham which draws on all four. It’s titled The Global Language of Headwear: Cultural Identity, Rites of Passage, and Spirituality. You might think it odd to say that headgear speaks a language, but it’s true, isn’t it? Can we always translate what’s said? Well, we can use our imaginations. And like any exhibit that pulls samples from around the world, it helps museum-goers understand the commonality of diverse cultures: a desire to celebrate, a need to mourn, to play, to be colorful, to stay warm, and (maybe unfortunate but entirely human) to distinguish status.

Here are some of my favorites, with little commentary:

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(A Child’s Hat)

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Here are some closer up, to catch the detail:

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At the exhibit, many of the hats were paired with photos of the delightful people wearing them:

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Hat9 Man

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Just look at the joy and pride on those faces. Look at the smiles! As I’m writing this post, I’m also listening to the most recent press conference about the pandemic. Sorry to be a cynic, but what I hear is people congratulating themselves about how they’re addressing — better late than never? — this pandemic. Listening to it is irritating me. Such a lot of self-praise. Such hubris. Argggggghhhhh!  I’ll take artists and scientists over politicians any day. (Well, this recent exception:Katie Porter, Rep.-California, she’s a hero.)

Once again: Stay safe, be well. If you’re over 60 and staying home in general (as I am) let’s exercise our imaginations, examine our obsessions, trust our creativity, indulge our writing eccentricities, get out into the brisk spring air from time to time, look down for a few tulips, look up for a few hats, look everywhere for smiles to brighten things up. Be astonished.

Every Once in Awhile, a Pause

This week I’m going to recommend a movie, and I’m recommending it for a reason that’s a little odd.

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The movie is 1917. It’s one of the few movies I’ve gone to a theater to see in the last couple of years, and that’s because I tend to like quiet, small films, easily viewed via DVD. But I’ve always been drawn to books and movies about World War I, and everything about 1917 suggested it was going to be a “big” movie, in need of a big screen.

First impressions were right: it’s a powerful movie, deserving of a big screen, beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and it’s exhausting. Part of my exhaustion was due it being filmed as if it were one long unedited take, the action always driving forward, forward, forward. I was caught up and tense for almost the entire movie.

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“Almost” – that’s the key word. Because the two scenes I found the most powerful were the quietest, and those are the scenes I want to write about and recommend to you. Those are the scenes that pause and step back from the action for a brief moment. For  writers aiming at page-turners, thinking about constant forward movement, maybe it would it be worthwhile to think about pausing for a quiet moment from time to time.

About half way through the movie, a soldier — desperate to get a message through enemy territory to a battalion of British soldiers on another front line — runs through a burning village in France. German soldiers, feigning a retreat, have destroyed their own ammunition and left the entire village in flames. It’s a scorched earth scenario.

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Hoping to escape snipers, the soldier runs into the basement of a building and discovers, in the darkness, a young woman who is caring for someone else’s baby. The woman begs this soldier to stay and comfort both the baby and herself for a moment. Against his better instincts, he draws close to them and begins to recite a poem  – “The Jumblies” by Edward Lear.

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An anti-war poem by Edward Lear? The silliest British poet of the 19th century? The soldier delivers this nonsense poem in the most mournful way, and the disturbing music that has accompanied all the running, shooting, exploding, pushing, and pounding scenes of warfare, is silenced. Watching this scene, I could suddenly take a breath. The entire theater audience was stilled.  And I was amazed by the words of a poem I thought I knew thoroughly.

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Here is the first verse:

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Of course, Lear’s poem deals in nonsense. Sam Mendes, who wrote the script and directed 1917, must believe war is also nonsense —  lethal nonsense.  The Jumblies are going to sea in a sieve, “in spite of all their friends could say,” and they will “all be drowned.” You hear the word “drowned,” but it registers on your heart as “killed.”   The soldier’s recital of the poem — was it only the first stanza? I think so  — is soft, sorrowful and melodic.  The foolish bravura of “we don’t care a button” and “we don’t care a fig!” comes through full force. And then comes the sorrowful refrain: “Far and few, few and far”  which suddenly sounds like a dirge.   The entire poem can be read here.   [ From the second of six verses : “And every one said, who saw them go, / ‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know! / For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long, /And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong’ “]

The second quiet scene is at the end of the movie. The young soldier, not sure of precisely where he is, joins a group of other soldiers listening to a single one among them singing “Wayfaring Stranger.”

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Like the audience in the theater, the soldiers are completely silent while they listen, whether it’s because they’re too exhausted to speak or because the words of this song suddenly have a new meaning for them. I could only find one clip of the song scene from the movie, but it will give you a feel for the paused moment. And here is a version that is similar, sung by the wonderful Doc Watson.

I really do hope you’ll see the movie. After all, Sunday the Oscars will be on – 1917 is nominated for Best Picture. In addition, it’s never a mistake to observe what a quiet pause can contribute to a story that moves relentlessly forward.

 

I Resolve…

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I resolve to read more.

There, that wasn’t hard. And I mean it, I do. I do. I resolve to read more.

Following through on that resolution shouldn’t be hard either, since I have loved to read all my life. And reading makes for better writing.

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But lately, what’s been happening? I pick up a book, I read five or ten pages, then I remember I had some charity donations to complete, I have some thank-you’s to write, I need to sweep the kitchen floor, I need to clean out the fridge. So I put down the book. Later, when the donations are made, thank-you’s written, floor swept, fridge cleaned, I pick the book up again.

Then I remember I told my sister I would call her, I put the book down. I make the call, I make dinner, I print out a list of TV shows nominated for Golden Globes, I watch too many episodes of one of those. The next day, I pick up the book again. Another ten pages in, I remember I missed the cold open on Saturday Night Live, decide to watch it on YouTube, put the book down. After YouTube (and a few Seth Meyer “Closer Looks”) I pick up the book, but I remember I haven’t read the Sunday NY Times Book Review yet, so I put the book down,

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I spend a long time reading reviews of books, probably more than is healthy. I put the books that sound intriguing on hold at our wonderful library. I have a long list of holds. But the book I’m (supposedly) reading right now is from the library and tomorrow it’s due, so I take the book back and pick up the new ones that have come in. My husband says I’m personally increasing the circulation of the library by a hefty percentage. But am I reading the books I check out? Bits of them. Pieces of them. But basically, no.

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Good thing I’m a member of a book discussion group, or I might never feel any pressure to finish a book. Just finished this month’s book, but it’s taken me six weeks to do it. So many books, so little…no…there isn’t so little time. I’m retired, and I have plenty of time, but I’m not reading. I’m nibbling.

Right now I have six great books out from the library:  Living in the Weather of the World by Richard Bausch, Flights by Olga Tarkaczuk, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley (it must have been hard growing up with that name), The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventures of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik (love every book he’s ever written – both content and style.) Each one of those books has gotten great reviews and piqued my interest.

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Maybe my problem is too many books at once? I tell myself I like having a lot of books to choose from, depending on my mood-  am I needing information (that weather book) or needing stories? But maybe too many at once contributes to the Nibbling Syndrome. Do I hear the siren call of other books (“Read me instead….”) as I’m trying to read just one?

No, that’s not it. And, Reader, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the answer to my original question, “What’s been happening?” (Better said, I don’t know the why behind what’s happening.) Can books be like some desserts – eat too much and you don’t feel good?

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When I thought about taking my turn here at Books Around the Table, I planned on recommending a good book for writers of childrens’ books to read. The title is A Velocity of Being : Letters to a Young Reader. It’s a collection of letters written by some very interesting people (musicians, anthropologists, physicists, Yo-Yo Ma and Jane Goodall among them) encouraging young readers to read, to love books, to engage their imaginations with the possibilities and the people they find in books. Each letter is illustrated by an artist (BATT’s own Julie Paschkis among them.) And the drawings in this post are all from the book. Published in 2018, A Velocity of Being was put together by the amazing Maria Popova of Brainpickings, and her friend, the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, Claudia Bedrick. It’s inspirational, and I deeply believe in its premise: that the great benefit of falling in love with books when you’re young is the development of empathy. Without empathy, we’re doomed.

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But after reading through the book to pick out a few inspirational passages to share with you here, I realized that I needed to be honest enough to say that maybe once in awhile, at least for adults, or at least for writers, or at least for me, one needs to go through some kind of deep cleansing process and forego reading temporarily…

Wait. I didn’t just write that, did I? Forego reading? After I’ve just resolved to read more books? Have I just set a record for how fast I can break a New Year’s Resolution?

Maybe I should make myself distraction-proof. Procrastination-proof? Maybe I should resolve to read fewer reviews? Check out fewer books at one time? Stop nibbling? Persist and persevere?

I don’t know the answer. There are many choices and life is complicated. What can I say? (Well, I could say Happy New Year! )

What say you? – finished any good books lately?

 

An Extra Piece of Pie

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Coney Island, aerial photograph at night – by Jeffrey Milstein

This is going to be sweet and brief – let’s call it a little extra slice of pie on the day after Thanksgiving. I’m just going to link you to the portfolio page of a photographer I recently discovered whose work I love because 1) it’s unique, 2) it explores patterns, which is something acknowledged to be true in formal poetry, and is probably true in many other creative endeavors, 3) it makes me feel like maybe mankind has an eye for beauty, and 4) it makes me remember that wonder – that is, a sense of wonder – is just as important as all the other senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound.

Other reasons spring to mind for loving Milstein’s photographs, but I’ll leave it there. He has a book out titled LA NY – it’s well worth spending an hour or two with. If you follow his website’s portfolio link, below, you’ll find other links that tell you about his background. But right now, I’m going to keep it visual. Scroll down past the photo samples to find the link, and to find out what you’re looking at from above.

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! And thank god – or God – for Wonder!

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Here’s the link to albums in Milstein’s portfolio: http://www.jeffreymilstein.com/portfolios/

 

“Lullabies for Maniacs”?

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While browsing and poking around over at The Poetry Foundation website, I came across an older article (2010) about the singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. She had just come out with a 2-cd set of children’s poems set to music. The title of the article (“Lullabies for Maniacs”) plays on the fact that Merchant once was lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs. But for the cd in question, titled Leave Your Sleep, the songwriter did a deep dive into 19th and 20th-century children’s ditties, nursery rhymes, lullabies, and nonsense poems that her own daughter responded to, picking out some verses written by well-known poets like Robert Graves and Robert Louis Stevenson, some by uncelebrated authors, and others by the ubiquitous (especially in rhymes for children) “Anonymous.”

Here’s one Merchant set to music:

‘maggy and milly and molly and may’

maggy and milly and molly and may 
went down to the beach(to play one day) 

and maggie discovered a shell that sang 
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and 

milly befriended a stranded star 
whose rays five languid fingers were; 

and molly was chased by a horrible thing 
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and 

may came home with a smooth round stone 
as small as a world and as large as alone. 

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) 
its always ourselves we find in the sea 

E. E. Cummings

The 2-disc set is still available at Amazon. I’m not trying to hawk the cd here, so I’ll just copy and paste the list of tracks – and when you have time, you might want to use it as a list of poems you can look up for fun.  [Added note: Do not miss the video of the Ted Talk performance where Merchant sings many of these poem-songs, including “maggy and milly….” Click here for the link to it . ]

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
  2. Equestrienne
  3. Calico Pie
  4. Bleezer’s Ice-Cream
  5. It Makes a Change
  6. The King of China’s Daughter
  7. The Dancing Bear
  8. The Man in the Wilderness
  9. maggie and milly and molly and may
  10. If No One Ever Marries Me
  11. The Sleepy Giant
  12. The Peppery Man
  13. The Blind Men and the Elephant

Disc: 2

  1. Adventures of Isabel
  2. The Walloping Window Blind
  3. Topsyturvey-World
  4. The Janitor’s Boy
  5. Griselda
  6. The Land of Nod
  7. Vain and Careless
  8. Crying, My Little One
  9. Sweet and a Lullaby
  10. I Saw a Ship A-Sailing
  11. Autumn Lullaby
  12. Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
  13. Indian Names
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The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by Karen Edmisten. Head over to her blog to see what other people have posted.

Like Cats and Dogs

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In 2012 – yikes, seven years ago, already? –  I wrote a blog post for the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ faculty blog, Write At Your Own Risk. I wrote that post the day after the 2012 elections, ruminating about how hopeful I was feeling, and trying to evaluate the lessons I’d learned about friends, family, community and politics. You might say the people in the country then  (and the political pundits) had been fighting like cats and dogs. In that 2012 blog, I said, “As with many lessons we learn on the path to responsible behavior as neighbors and citizens, it comes in the form of a poem for children.” The poem I had in mind was Eugene Field’s wonderful “The Duel” (commonly called “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.”)

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I’ll offer that poem up to you now because it’s been on my mind again lately, Maybe it’s a poem that wiggles its way into my subconscious every year there’s a national election? Maybe it’s bubbling up again because my nephew and I had a conversation about our diverging political opinions that made me lose sleep.

Maybe the poem will bubble up into your minds over the next few months, too. Similarities between ourselves and our gingham-and-calico counterparts abound.

As a writer whose audience consists of children, I’m going to reread All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Learning to share, learning to be generous, learning to offer a helping hand to people less fortunate than ourselves, learning to take turns, learning not to be bullies.  Lots of lessons to re-learn amidst the meows and the bow-wow-wows.

THE DUEL

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!
)

The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I ‘m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!
)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
I got my news from the Chinese plate!
)

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.
)

–Eugene Field

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It’s Poetry Friday, by the way. Click here to head over to Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance, to see what people are posting.

 

 

And How! Etc.

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Pleased as punch….

Inspired by Julie Paschkis (one of my Books Around the Table co-conspirators) questioning how the phrase “And how!” might have come into existence, I spent a wonderful afternoon looking at websites which trace the origin of strange phrases in English.  If one person says to another, “Pistachio ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet!” and the other responds “And how!” you have to scratch your head and wonder about that (well, you don’t have to, but if you’re a writer with any curiosity about your language, you probably do.) How on earth did “And how!” come to mean “Absolutely! Amen to that!” Nothing on the surface of the phrase – definitions or etymologies of individual words, for example – explains it. So I scratched my head and began to explore.

There’s no doubt anymore, thanks to the internet, that if I wonder about something, many other people have wondered about it, too.  I googled “origins” and “phrases” and “English”  and in less time than it takes to blink (7/10ths of one second, to be precise) I had 68,500,000 hits. Granted, not all the hits would tell me about the curious origins of English phrases, but even if I only looked at a millionth of them, I would have a nice 68 to spend my day on.

Websites from Bored Panda to the Oxford Royale Academy (that’s quite a spread, yes?) have posted articles about phrase origins. Ever scratched your head and wondered about the following?

  • “Pleased as punch….” The word “punch” used to be capitalized, as far back as the 1600’s, because it came from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, where two puppets fought it out in front of a delighted audience. Punch was a mean cuss, always playing tricks on Judy or banging on her head with a stick, and he always took pleasure doing it. I found the long literary history of the phrase (back to Charles !! of England, who – in 1662 – ordered a command performance of the puppet show from an Italian puppeteer known by the alias Pollicinella) at a site called Idiomation: Historically Speaking. Punch and Judy were also the origin of the words “punch line” and “slapstick.” If you head over there after this, be sure to read about the woman who researches and writes the entries – her own history is impressive.
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  • “Go haywire…” I love this phrase, maybe because I know how it feels to do it? Here’s what Mental Floss says about it in their list of 16 curious phrases: “What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the ‘messed up’ sense of the word.”
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I definitely go more haywire than this….

  • “The whole shebang….” Another favorite phrase of mine. Mental Floss is less sure of the origin of this, but says, “The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.” That sounds right to me, especially given how many Irish were coming to America before and during the Civil War.
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    The whole shebang of a shebeen in Ballybeg House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

  • “Minding your P’s and Q’s…” Speaking of drinking establishments, P’s and Q’s refer to pints and quarts, which barmaids had to keep track of serving so that the bills would be correct. To mind your p’s and q’s means to get things right, to be careful and do what you should be doing.  You can find it in the list of curious phrases over at Owlcation, a site of “engineers, product and community advocates, moderators, and editors that are passionate about writing and online know-how. In addition to our official team, we are a tight-knit community of thousands of writers and enthusiasts.” If you visit, you’ll see articles as diverse as “The Many Uses of Cow Dung” and “The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture.”
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  • “Mad as a hatter….”   You might think you know the origin of this one. But according to Grammarly, “No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Carroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The ‘Mad Hatter Disease’ was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad.'”
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  • I’m going to end here and say toodle-oo. If you want to know where “toodle-oo” came from, you’ll be astounded by the length of the article about it over at The Phrase Finder.
  • Toodle-oo

 

 

 

A Summer Frame of Mind

Well, we’ve had a rainy summer so far, with temperatures below normal – that’s okay with me. I’m a cool-weather type, preferring a swim in ice-cold Puget Sound to a swim in tropical waters, and preferring a rocky log-strewn beach to palm trees and white sand. This preference bewilders and disappoints my kids, I think, since they’re sure (and have told me) that the Mayan Riviera is closer to paradise.

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Certainly each heart beats faster for whatever speaks directly to it, and the lush Yucatan calls to many souls. I will join my sweet kids from time to time when they spend an afternoon snorkeling alongside sea turtles. Meanwhile, my heart beats pretty fast when I  lean down and pick up an agate on a Whidbey Island beach. (And it doesn’t have to be either/or, does it? The Pacific Northwest vs. the Tropics? I only meant to explain why I don’t mind a little July rain!)

Cama Beach

When I’m in a summer frame of mind, I resist most things of a scholarly nature. Or, better said, I resist large thoughts that challenge my brain. Little bits and pieces of things satisfy me from late June through to the end of August. I tinker, I play. Long walks are left to autumn, and the reading of War and Peace left to winter.

In that spirit, I offer those of you reading Books Around the Table today some recent bits and pieces that delighted m. One is specifically about writing, though all are about writing, since writing is basically about wonder. Links are included.

1. Did you know that a large cloud of ladybugs is called a bloom? And that some blooms are so large they show up on radar screens? What a world! Read more about it over at Atlas Obscura, which is fast becoming one of my favorite websites. For poets, that website provides so much inspiration.

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2. Do you have certain obsessions? I mean the kind of obsessions that you often can’t explain? I love old flashlights. Collect them, who knows why. Love the names of marbles, keep a list of those. Always intrigued by pairs of dice. Or photos of people I don’t know having picnics. Collect old cameras in general but especially old Brownie cameras or cameras that fold in and out. Can’t get enough of true crime documentaries – well sometimes I fill up, but I’m puzzled about being so attracted to these. Another obsession? I would love to have every wall in my house papered with architectural plans.  So I’m cheered by this article from the New York Times about authors’ obsessions.

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Family Picnic

3. Isn’t there always room for something about the moon? Summer, autumn, winter, spring.  Always. Always. So here, thanks again to the New York Times (what would I do without you?)  is something a little moonish.

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4. Finally, a summer poem. Always room for a poem, too, right? Thanks to Poetry Magazine, March 2010. And thanks to Carlo Betocchi – 1899-1986 –  a surveyor and engineer who built bridges and canals…and poems. He might have been obsessed with magnolia trees. Or with the wind.

Summer

Translated by Geoffrey Brock
And it grows, the vain
summer,
even for us with our
bright green sins:
behold the dry guest,
the wind,
as it stirs up quarrels
among magnolia boughs
and plays its serene
tune on
the prows of all the leaves—
and then is gone,
leaving the leaves
still there,
the tree still green, but breaking
the heart of the air.

magnolia tree

Words We Don’t Have Words For

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Just when I’ve decided I’m a Luddite, allergic to new technology, and just when I’m thinking it would be nice to be unplugged and unconnected and off every grid imaginable, and just when I believe that if I had a magic wand I would eliminate my iPad and my Internet connection (and eliminate cell phones – please, somebody, give me an old-fashioned phone I can dial number-by-number, how I loved the sound of that dial) – just when all the above happens, I’m left stunned and delighted by something wonderful that comes to me via the aforementioned Evil Internet. Usually it’s something I would have missed entirely if I were off the grid.

Here is the latest: A Glossary of Happiness.

A glossary of happiness? Yes, it exists. Last week the New Yorker emailed me a link to an article about a psychologist named Tim Lomas who has been compiling an “online lexicography of untranslatable words” dealing with happiness. Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, put together 216 words from 49 languages. Each word on his list fits the bill – we lack a suitable single word which translates it into English. Since he published the list, the number of words has grown to over 400.

What takes Lomas’s list into deeper territory is the theory that the words which different cultures come up with speak to ““things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”

I’m not sure we often think of happiness as something that is “constructed.” But in a culture where many people teach their children that being happy involves status, winning, and wealth, it’s worth wondering why we don’t have a word like “gumusservi” which is Turkish for moonlight shining across water, or like “boketto,” a Japanese word for someone who is gazing vacantly – somewhat stupefied – into the sky.

If you’re interested in other links to untranslatable words try  this list at Mental Floss (which offers you “iktsaurpok,” an Inuit word for “the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet”)  and at Rocket Languages (including “sobremesa,” the time spent after a meal when you sit contentedly and talk with friends around the table.) Also, these books looks great:

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Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

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Other-Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak

Words do matter. As writers, we know that the right words, in the right order, make for great writing, writing that stirs up emotional reactions from our readers. Lomas thinks it’s possible that if we share this glossary of happiness, we might come up with ways to articulate states of being and feelings that – put simply – make us happier. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them.”

“Linguistic natural selection” – I love the sound of that. I’m going to go exploring for words. And maybe I should invent a word for the happiness I felt when I dialed a telephone number and heard the sound of the dial returning to its resting place – if you’re old enough, you know that sound. I don’t have a word for it.  Not yet.

 

The Trouble with Joy

My husband and I recently sold our 2400 sf house (too big for us, too vertical, too modern, too too-too.) And now we’re considering making an offer on a 1000 sf house in an older part of town. People lived small in 1905, the year it was built. If we get it, it will be less than half the size of the house we just sold, and downsizing to that degree would be daunting. I own a lot of stuff and love most of it. I don’t mean big furniture stuff. I mean stuff like this little ruler, stuff some people call clutter:

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Of course, loving rulers can lead to stuff like this, too many rulers, all mine. I’m like a crow collecting things, only now the nest is getting smaller. Three-cornered rulers. Rulers marked in centimeters. School rulers. Big, little, chunky, skinny rulers. Love them.

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The same goes for flashlights:

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Which leads to this:

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A sensible voice in my head chants “Declutter, simplify.” The voice has been amplified recently by helping empty out my late mother’s house. She was 92 and had accumulated a lot of meaningful things, things which Marie Kondo, of Tidying Up with Marie Condo fame, would say, “sparked joy” in her. According to Kondo, if it sparks joy, it’s fair to keep it. Do I have that right?

I watched just two episodes of that show, trying to complete the job at my mom’s house cheerfully as well as prepare for the soon-to-be-job of moving into a smaller house. “Does it spark joy?” I kept asking myself, repeating it like a mantra.

And, of course, almost everything I own sparks joy. If it didn’t spark joy, I wouldn’t own it. I could probably put together one box of items that I’m ready to give away – a wooden spoon or two, some old sneakers, afew tape cassettes (though not all: Perry Como sings Christmas carols, love that.) So there’s not much I’m ready to part with. Not enough to fit all my things into a 1000sf house. “It’s darling,” I said when I went to the Open House, but I’m not sure how darling it will be when I have to get rid of so many items that spark joy. I guess the key to doing it is to determine the degree of joy something sparks…?

Well, on a scale of one to ten, rocks and good fortune-cookie fortunes spark 10 units of joy:

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And on the same scale, old pitchers spark 10:

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Ditto marbles and other round things, like paper globes and glass spheres:

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And what about all my books, and, oh – old cameras! Definitely 10’s on the joy scale.

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Plus photos of perfect strangers, all of whom seem to have interesting stories in their past, especially the one of a woman who resembles Eleanor Roosevelt riding a donkey.

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A few photographs don’t take up much room, do they? But I have several shoe boxes full. Declutter? Wait! Do they spark joy? Every single one of them does. Just look at that farmer, and at those two men in their Depression-era caps (Are they out of work? Can they feed their families? There’s a story there….) and the man by the door of his grocery-store-filling-station, or the young man in the striped jacket sitting on the hood of his car so nonchalantly, the moms and kids playing in the water…..

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What about old binoculars?

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Old ink bottles?

Everything is sparking a 10. So I’m in a bind if we buy that 1000 sf house.

Now the question occurs: How do we get rid of the things we are too fond of? In writing workshops, I often heard students say (and maybe I’ve even said it a few times) “Kill your darlings.” If you’re over-fond of something in your story, if you’re too attached, that might mean something’s wrong, something needs reviewing and revising.  Revision is perhaps the closest writers come to decluttering. Killing your darlings is not bad advice. Now if I could just do it.

But I’m in love with words, objects, images. I collect them. I use them (yes, quite a few are functional!) and quite a few inspire me in my writing. But no excuses – I just love stuff. And I think the writing advice I listened to most was “Follow your eccentricities.” Which I’m doing when I buy flashlights or when I write poetry. It conflicts with “Kill your darlings,” doesn’t it?

My mother collected the programs of every single play she went to, from about 1960 to 2018. She went to a lot of plays each year, and now I’m looking at a big box full of programs. I will probably throw them out or, if possible, offer them to drama departments or theaters. Mom couldn’t toss them, because she loved what they represented. They were a record of her life, and I know some of those plays inspired her, changed her, mystified her, challenged her, made her laugh. She wanted to get the programs out and look at them every once in awhile. She wanted to review her life.

What do we keep, what do we give away? And what do we just toss because we don’t need it and who is going to want it? Ouch, that one hurts.

It’s never about needing the things that spark joy, is it? It’s about beauty and where you find it. But what if too many things in the world around you are beautiful? What do you do then? What if you own too many of them and you’re moving into a 1000sf house? Oi.

If you’ve got an answer for me, if you can tolerate Marie Kondo, if you know how to tidy up, or if you’ve figured out how to kill your darlings, how to own only what you need, how to get rid of what you’re over-fond of, if you’ve learned how to toss stuff out, to avoid excess, let me know – put it in the comments!