Author Archives: Julie Larios

Addicted to the News

As I write this, I’m headed into my 58th hour of election coverage. Not that I’ve watched or listened to all 58 hours of it….maybe just 56 or 57.

Tuesday ….
Wednesday
Thursday…..
Friday…..

No, I’m kidding. I’ve slept in the last few days, so 15-16 hours over the last couple of days I’ve been in bed dreaming strange dreams of being lost. I’ve also fixed a few meals, washed & dried the dishes. I’ve sat quietly and read my email each day & responded (most interestingly, a message from a friend in Australia who seems to know every detail about our election.) I’ve driven once to the curbside pickup location of the library and gotten several books by Lynda Barry and several films by Alfred Hitchcock.

I’ve showered twice. I’ve washed a couple of loads of clothes. I’ve had a few Zooms with my writing friends in Seattle and my writing friends in Canada, Vermont and Oregon. God bless them one and all for the conversations, and for the laughter which has kept me sane. I’ve watched and re-watched a wonderful loop of short-short videos called Election Distractor which was put together by the New York Times — thank you for the link, Julie Paschkis, that was delightful!

Steve Kornacki at MSNBC’s Big Board

But the fact is that at least part of my heart and mind were on the election news during each one of those other activities. I’m a news addict, especially when it comes to history-making news. The addiction probably began when I was 11 and watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates, continued when I was 14 and John Kennedy was assassinated – my family and I listened to Walter Cronkite report that for four days straight.

Walter Cronkite
Announces the Death of John Kennedy

I’ve always watched Presidential election coverage, from 1960 through the one I’ve been watching now….maybe a dozen national elections?….no, sixteen!

Add in the coverage of rocket launches, John Glenn circling the earth, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Watergate testimony – a whole summer of that kept me riveted. The coverage of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. The O.J. Simpson trial – I felt guilty about being so addicted to that trial coverage, though guilt didn’t keep me from being glued to it, fascinated by the characters as if it were a novel. The terrorist attack on 9/11 – exhausting to watch the videos – over and over again – of those planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, but there I was, watching it, one day, two days, it became a blur. There was (and continues to be) heartbreaking and nerve-wracking coverage of riots and/or protests all around the country, through the decades.

John Dean Testifies at the Watergate Hearings

Many of these were chilling events. Some were confusing. I watched some of the coverage with friends or family. I watched some of it alone. A few history-making moments were thrilling. All fourteen of the elections were mysterious and compelling, with candidates whose body language I studied, whose words I analyzed. I include the journalists and commentators and pundits – who are these people? What pulls them into this drama?

Friends have told me they were emotionally so drained by both the long months of the pandemic and long months of nasty politics that they couldn’t watch the 2020 debates, much less hours of the actual election night(s) coverage. I have to say that several days of it is now wearing me out. But as I type, Steve Kornacki is over at the Big Board on MSNBC explaining results in Pennsylvania – sounds like he’s going to put up numbers soon which will signify the election of Joe Biden. I’d like to stay up long enough to see the look on his face when he does that. The narrative of these events is all about character – McVeigh, Simpson, Biden, Trump, Nixon, Kennedy, Cronkite, Kornacki. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that History is Character.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debate

The books I read over and over again as a child were biographies – Genevieve Foster’s George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, even Augustus Caesar’s World. I wanted to know who these people were, the clothes they wore, the food they ate. I read historical fiction – Blue Willow by Doris Gates, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Read everything I get my hands on that involved children in the Holocaust. I wanted to see people in their everyday lives, hear their stories. I now collect, in the same spirit, mid-20th century photographs of people I don’t know. People at picnics, people sitting on big boulders, people next to their old cars, people waving from parade floats, people hanging up their laundry. Who are they? I want the details! I want the history.

There are children out there as hungry for history as I’ve always been. I’d die happy (well, I will anyway, but….) if I could write a historical novel for kids. How wonderful it would be to have the 2020 version of my ten-year-old self walk into the library and pull my book off the shelf….you know, that sounds a little surreal – a time-traveling doppleganger who reads a book I haven’t yet written……?

Whoa. I’m getting a little ditzy waiting for election returns from Pennsylvania. It’s now 3:00 a.m. and Thursday night is well on its way to Friday morning. Time to say goodnight to Steve Kornacki who has been on mute in the background as I write. Time for me to get to bed and dream another dream about being lost. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and see history happening. History keeps doing that.

Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah!

It’s the official launch day of my new picture book EEK!, co-written by good friend and talented artist Julie Paschkis, and published by Peachtree Books. I am whoop-dee-doing because there is just something special about this story of a mouse who persists through thick and thin (and jring and kabonk) on a journey to deliver a flower to a friend. During a time of staying safe/staying home, and a time when in-person school days are on hold, it offers up a burst of much-needed energy and playfulness.

Sometimes, as a poet, my work turns introspective – poetry can be a walk on the quiet side of things. But EEK!’s subtitle tells it all: A Noisy Journey from A to Z.

For this Books Around the Table post, I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration, because Julie Paschkis, who illustrated two of my previous four picture books, has now joined me as co-author of the fifth.

As Julie P. told you in the last Books Around the Table post, I came up with the idea of an alphabet of sounds. Version #1 was all mine – random sounds, no story. Julie P. shaped it into a narrative. The journey, from “achoo” to “zzzzz,” reads as effortless – the best writing usually does – but believe me, Julie P. had a huge task, introducing sense to the nonsense I imagined.

What I find most exciting about this collaboration is that Julie P. and I have the same desire for playfulness and the same response to the delights of language. If you’re going to collaborate, it’s important to find someone in sync with your priorities, and Julie P. definitely responds the way I do to the pure joy of hearing what a language can do, down to the level of individual words and syllables. I’ve always known she was part poet – we’ve been critique group partners for many years – but I’ve never heard her articulate this joy in words better than she did for the Author’s Note at the end of her wonderful book Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido (animal poems in both English and Spanish):

I am a painter and a lover of words. A few years ago I illustrated a book about Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. I began to learn Spanish in order to illustrate that book, and I fell in love with the language. At the same time as I was struggling to learn the difference between ser and estar and between para and por I immersed myself in Neruda’s poetry. Later I read many more prosaic things, but he was my gateway to Spanish.
Somehow my unfamiliarity with Spanish freed me to write poetry. I felt like a visitor wandering through a forest of Spanish words, marveling at the beauty of sound, meaning and syntax.

If you haven’t read Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido, get a copy and look carefully at the love of the sound of words that Julie P. shares with me.

As the novelist Anne Enright once said, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.”

Julie P. also has a new book in the works titled The Wordy Book, coming out next fall, full of paintings that include many words. In it, she expands on this explanation about her love of language:

A word can be savored for its sound and shape as well as for its meaning. When you hear a word the meaning usually arrives first; sometimes the meaning obliterates the other qualities of a word. When words are in paintings the other qualities can surface: sound and shape. The words still have meaning, but the meaning can be fluid. The words bump into each other and they bump into the images in the painting. They ask questions as well as giving answers.

Aha – there is another priority Julie P. and I share – a desire to ask questions!

Quick last thought: Are you one of those people who sits until the final credit rolls by at the end of a movie before you get up to leave the theater? I am. I like to see not just the whole cast list and the director, but also who did the casting, who the cinematographer was, who held the grip, who handled sound, who wrote the score, who handled the catering, who gets thanked, who did everything. If you sit through the credits, too, aren’t you amazed by how many people it takes, all working together, all doing their part, to make a 90-minute film? Isn’t that kind of group cooperation a little thrilling?

But in writing, the assumption is that you sit alone, imagine alone, write alone. I understand it’s a solid model – thus it has been and ever will be, amen. An author offers up a work that comes solely from his or her own imagination. But does it need to be that way always? How about a little experimentation? How about children’s book writers being the pioneers we usually are? How about taking on the model-breaking enterprise of collaboration every once in awhile? Put two authors’ names (or more!) on the cover of your next picture book. Two imaginations can be twice the fun of one.

Happy reading to you, happy end of summer. Stay safe and healthy. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re covered with smoke from wildfires. But when the air clears, I’m going to use EEK! as my get-up-and-go book: If a little mouse can handle the fwumps and grrrs, so can I!

Three Little Nudges

If you’ve been feeling uncharacteristically un-creative, you’re not alone. This pandemic has got a lot of us stymied creatively, and understandably so.  But isn’t it true that all we need sometimes are little nudges to get us going again?

So I’ll keep things brief today and just send three nudges your direction.

#1. Best nudge for me lately: WindowSwap – a website that shares photos of views from people’s windows all around the world. Some of the views are simple and domestic, others are sweeping. For example, the view from Lina’s window in Aeschiried, Switzerland…D5088323-D691-4A9F-A83D-C41BEB0AB0F3

…and from Rexina’s window in Bangalore, India…

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…from Simone’s window in Villongo, Italy….

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…and from Ula’s window in Doha, Qatar…

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This WindowSwap nudge is meant to lift your spirits in general, but it can also get your imaginations going.  Just think: Who are Lina, Rexina, Ula, and Simone? Who would you be if one of those views were yours?  What would someone imagine about you if you submitted a photo of the view out a window in your house? When you see the phrase “We’re all in this together,” it’s this kind of sharing that forms connections between people and cultures in times of crisis. We have more in common than some people think.

 

Will you consider your own window view in a new way if you take a photo of it and submit it online for people around the world to see? Here’s the view I might submit, taken from the upstairs bedroom of our house during the neighborhood Sidewalk Chalk Festival.

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#2.  Get inspired tomorrow (Saturday the 18th – 7:30-9:00 EST) when there will be free streaming access to a dance performance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur. It will feature dance companies from India and Sri Lanka – the setting in the Sackler Wing of the Met, and the heady colors of the outfits worn by the dancers, should get your heart racing and your creative juices flowing.

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The New York Times said “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.” If the phrase “down in the doldrums” has been echoing around in your head since March, this performance should chase it off. And if you miss it tomorrow, I think the Met is making it available soon on YouTube.

#3. Last nudge – this one will make you giddy. Or dizzy. Or both. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is providing 3-D looks at objects in their collection online via a company called Sketchfab. You can turn the on-screen object around 360 degrees, look at it from underneath and from above, you can zoom in….you can practically feel it,  as if you in the museum viewing it, or even better, as if were holding it in your hand. Be sure to go to full-screen mode to get a really close up look. Try the tiny netsuke of a shoki (a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings) capturing an oni (an ogre.) This photo of it is not 3-D, but you’ll find one at the link.

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I’m a great believer in the power of one sense to heighten another. Music, sculpture, dance, good food  – all can inspire us to be better writers.  If we hit bad writing snags, we can venture outside the world of writing to unsnag ourselves. We can look out a window in Barcelona or Singapore. We can hold a netsuke in our virtual hands. We can watch as East Indian dancers move to the music of a bamboo flute. .

Disjointed

 

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A scene from Wayne Wang’s Smoke. Have you been looking at old photos, too?

 

Have you been doing lots of things you haven’t felt like doing before?  I have. Apparently a lot of people are baking bread, and I’m trying to work up the courage to make some New York rye. Baking is not my thing, but I found a recipe for making rye bread with pickle juice – that sounds irresistable.

I’ve also been listening to audiobooks, not because I prefer them but because the library in closed during this pandemic and only ebooks and downloadable audiobooks books are available.

On Mother’s Day, I did a lot of looking at old photos. My bet is a lot of people did the same.

Life since the end of February has been a bit disjointed, with old patterns flying out the window and new patterns flying in, then the new ones sneaking out, replaced by others sneaking in, then those new ones sneaking out and…well, you get my drift. Are you feeling like the “pattern” during our Stay Home, Stay Safe pandemic seems to be no pattern at all? Is that a good thing or bad thing? Who knows? (she says, shrugging her shoulders….)

My thoughts are a little scattered, possibly becauset the boundaries of my world are now more restricted. There are lots of new rules. But how can a day be simultaneously “More of the same” and “Everything’s different”? I’m confused. What’s new? (she says, shrugging her shoulders….)

As writers we’re used to being at home when we work. But we’re not used to the whole neighborhood, town, county, state, country staying home. It’s more than eerie – it’s serious business. True, change presents opportunities as long as we’re healthy. There’s space for innovation,  creativity, new choices. There is also space for insomnia because we feel a sea change coming, and we know the pandemic is no metaphor, it’s real, it’s out there.

Like I said, life’s been disjointed – could be a chance for change, could be a mess, most likely both.  Whatever is coming, the present passes a bit more slowly in ways I can’t quite figure out. Same for you? Despite the slow pace, does your day end without you being able to figure out what you did all day – how did you get from morning to night? In some ways, does life seem to be in slow-motion? Or even no-motion?

Of course, slowing down has always been something I’ve recommended to my creative writing students. Good writing – especially poetry, as far as I’m concerned – requires it.  “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend” – that’s a line from Wayne Wang’s fascinating movie, Smoke, which I also recommended to my students. It’s based on a book by Paul Auster, who also wrote the screenplay. Auggie, played by Harvey Keitel, has scrapbooks full of snapshots of his smoke shop in Brooklyn, and when he shares the scrapbooks with a friend (see the photo above)  the friend points out that all the photos look the same. But Auggie disagrees. On the surface, yes, the photos seem identical. But his smoke shop, his “little spot” in the world, is different every day, if you know how to look carefully. Different people pass by, or the same people pass by but they look different from the day before. The air each day is different, the light is different, the weather and the seasons are different, colors, noises, conversations, the details are different.

Harvey Keitel

So I’m living in my little corner of a Smoke world right now. The same each day but different. Forget-me-nots blooming, carrots coming up in the raised bed, chickadees building a nest in a wooden birdhouse. The white lilac has come into its glory and is about to go out of it, as it does each year.

My grandson turned thirteen yesterday. I love him to the moon and back, and I can’t imagine being thirteen, even though I once was. When I go for my walk later today, I’ll try to remember what being thirteen was like. And when I go to bed, I’ll still be trying, because I like to get the details right. I remember slowly.  I might fall asleep thinking about that, or I might be thinking about taking weekly photos of my little yellow house because it’s the same but different every day. Or I might fall asleep thinking about the word “disjointed.” It’s a word that makes you believe your skeleton could be rearranged so your knee bones switch places with your wrists. Or the knuckles of your thumbs get attached to your ankles. “Dis-jointed.” I’m sure there’s a poem in that somewhere.

 

 

Radishes and Prayer Wheels: Looking for Something New

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Seen on my walk: a startled Little Library

These are strange times. Maybe even startling times. Are we all doing a few things we’ve never done before? Sure we are. Social distancing? New to me.  Zoom-ing instead of having a cuppa coffee with a friend? Never heard of Zoom before all this.  Wiping down the groceries before adding them to the pantry? Never done that before, definitely not, nope. Strange, strange.

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Seed packets a little worse for wear….

But also, for the first time in my life, I’m planting a kitchen garden: broccoli, kohlrabi, gold and red beets, orange and red carrots, radishes, four kinds of peas (I’m sure there’s a poem in that list somewhere.. or there will be by the time the seeds germinate.)  Before sundown tomorrow I’ll have the cilantro, parsley, basil, and lettuce in. If I have room, I’ll spread some snapdragon seeds. The sun’s been out – there’s been no rain in our neck of the woods since April 1st –  that’s seventeen days! (Even the weather is doing new things!) So I’ve been in my garden with a shovel, a hoe, a bucket for the weeds, a sieve for the dirt, a trowel, some twine, and my seed packets.  I’m not just thinking about planting flowers and vegetables – I’m doing it. That’s new.

I’m  also going for (not just thinking about going for) a daily neighborhood walk.. My  post today is filled with some of the strange, sweet, mysterious, hilarious and beautiful things I saw as I walked three blocks north on Williams St., two blocks west on Illinois, five blocks south on Henry, two blocks east on Washington, and two blocks north again on Williams, back to the Little Yellow House that my husband and I call home. There were a few detours down alleys, to be honest. Irresistible. I love alleys.

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Little Yellow House – my home base.

I wrote a poem after I came home from my walk. That often feels like the right thing to do if I’ve been looking carefully at the world around me. If you’re looking for something new to do and you’ve never written a poem, how about using some of the photographs I took as a springboard to a poem of your own? If you have kids at home who are looking for new things to do, how about getting outside with them, walking, photographing, going home and writing stories or poems of their own about what they saw? Try for the littlest or strangest or most unusual discoveries you find, things you only see if you linger a bit, things you see up in a tree or at your feet, on a fence post or down an alley. And please, share them with me in the Comments section below.

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Is it a spaceship – or is it a butterfly ?

BATT 3 Prayer Wheel

A Buddhist prayer wheel – “Always spin clockwise.”

BATT 6 Bike in a Tree

Bicycle in a tree (sign supporting local whistle-blower, Dr. Ming Lin)

BATT 6 Animal Fence

A gate made of animals….

BATT Balls in Leaf

Three ceramic balls in a cement leaf….

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Bottles (and a glass chicken!) on bare branches…..

Batt 9 Sink in the Dirt

A flower-filled sink in the dirt…

BATT 2 Chalk Lightning

Lightning hits the sidewalk….

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Red fence, white blossoms….

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Goose and Duck waiting for the rocks to hatch….

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Message from our neighbors (notice the yellow house, blue door….)

Sometimes it’s comforting to stay inside and do familiar things. Other times, it’s exciting to try something new. Plant some kohlrabi and carrots, or head three blocks this way, five blocks that way, savor the creativity of your neighbors, take a few photographs. Then write a poem.

 

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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Hat1

(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.