June 8, 2012
“You take all your interests and all your preoccupations and you kind of fill up a bucket. And the stuff that runs off, over the top, is a song, or is a novel.” -Josh Ritter
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” -Ray Bradbury
Two men whose writing has meant the world to me.
Josh had just better plan on sticking around a while longer….
April 13, 2012
Keep a list
See what needs doing
Build a fire
Do my own taxes
Walk a long way
Stage manage a dance, a play
Read a map
Spring at a chance
Watch and learn
Make it up along the way
Write a poem, a letter, a research paper
Eat with chopsticks
Hold a grudge
Carry a torch
Carve a pumpkin
Type 80 words a minute
Fold a paper airplane
Love a broken thing
Travel by bus and train
Give first aid
Hide in plain sight
Play “Blackbird” on the guitar
Patch a shirt
Recite “The Fairy Reel”
Grow a window box of herbs
Cook comfort food
Wear out a pair of shoes
Use a scale rule
Rock a baby to sleep
Befriend a stray cat, a wary goose
Braid hair into pigtail buns
Knot a clover chain
Climb a magnolia tree
Read stage directions
Trust to intuition
Curse like a sailor
Name the phases of the moon
Find my own way home
Recognize edible wild things
Onions, wild carrots, crabapples, dandelion greens
And the calls of a mourning dove, robin, owl, chickadee
January 29, 2012
“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie
So I got a Kindle for Christmas. I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.
I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect. A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked. Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.
I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50. Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.
So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum includes a note at the start of the book:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900]. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me. Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.
But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery. Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for. The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.
There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.
Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.
It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children. Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.
When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things? And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?
Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage. Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does: examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.
I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.
The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.
In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties. Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger. Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous. There is no escapism here. Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache. Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.
If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside. It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets. And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise. (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)
When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.
What happens in a book can’t hurt you. What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it. People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to. Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time. That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.
“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature. But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.
November 9, 2011
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
-George R. R. Martin, author
I feel much the same way as GRRM about fantasy—that it connects us to a deep internal knowledge and history of our own psyches, and recalls something huge and eternal in us. Epic fantasy, when I was in middle and high school, assured me that there was so much more worth living for than my schools and community were trying to tell me.
But I’m not sure about his dim view of reality…as opposed to the disposable and shallow nature of much of what is sold to us as “reality,” and told we have to accept as the scope of our adult lives.
May I suggest, that if strip malls, plastic and plywood define your reality, and you don’t like it…you’re doing reality wrong.
Because reality is all that stuff, George, but reality is also—
The whistle and rumbling murmur of an early-morning train.
Reality is the first pale green shoots of peppermint pushing up through the dirt in March.
Reality is the guy who plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” on Peruvian pan pipes in the Times Square subway station.
Reality is the stunning silence of a great blue heron taking flight.
Reality is the old Hispanic men in my neighborhood who sit outside in the summertime, playing an eternal sidewalk game of dominos with their boomboxes turned up loud.
Reality is sunset over the Hudson River.
Reality is moonlight, starlight, candle light, lantern light.
Reality is creaky old bookstores, and the thrill of reading a forbidden book hidden between the shelves.
Reality is the feel of sand as soft as cake flour under your feet.
Reality is the smell of wood smoke on the first cold night of fall.
Reality is stained glass, dark coffee, red wine, rosewood incense. The brush of a fat cat around your ankles, the way evening light moves over the Brooklyn Bridge and tops of the sycamore trees, rooftop Fourth of July parties with the sky on fire around you, waking up on a foggy morning in the Catskill mountains, the sound of the concertmaster tuning an orchestra, tiny cemeteries behind old churches, hidden waterfalls, thunder in a snowstorm, the way deer’s eyes shine in the dark in a flashlight beam.
Nurture magic, wonder, and beauty wherever they occur in your life. They are real—far more real than strip malls, suburban office parks, and Disneyland—whatever anyone tells you.
July 8, 2011
I have not meant to take such a long break from blogging. I wish I could say I’ve been accomplishing something immense and impressive, but I have not been. I’ve been job hunting, resume-updating, and finally filing for unemployment, thinking, cleaning my apartment, getting ready for an upcoming dance tour, and doing a lot of coffee shop sitting and reading.
Now I’m sort of out in the country, just outside the village of Pawling, New York. It’s about two hours away from Grand Central Station by train, and a world away in other respects. I’m dogsitting for a very sweet Australian shepherd named Patches, who, true to his sheepdog breeding, will not let me go anywhere alone, even just to the kitchen for another cup of tea. He enjoys Parmesan cheese on his food, understands mostly words that start with ‘b,’ and doesn’t understand why we would go outside for any reason–like reading by the pond or pulling weeds in the garden–other than playing frisbee.
It’s raining softly outside while fireflies wink over the grass, which I just stood outside on the porch watching for a while. The humidity is nearly tangible, and the entire small world of this little community is a deep twilight blue-gray color. I’m writing and listening to the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. I’ve determined that it’s actually impossible to get anything else done with the TV on in the background (I’m way too visually-oriented)…I’ve probably watched more ludicrous television this week alone than I have in the entirety of the last 8 or 10 years (My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Intervention, House, The Matrix Reloaded) and remembered why I do not have and do not want one in my apartment. Actually, I’m semi-seriously developing a hypothesis that depression is so rampant these days because American television is depressing…I swear, even the commercials for anti-depressants are depressing in their absurdity, to say nothing of the commercials for household cleaning products.
I see deer and rabbits in the yard almost every day, and get almost no usable cell phone signal. I realize how much I miss seeing stars.
I’ve made cupcakes and given myself a very unfortunate and painful sunburn across my lower back while out working in the garden. I didn’t think to put sunscreen where there was a gap between my jeans and tank top when I was leaning over.
I’ve become certain, from the distinctly purposeful-sounding rustling and crinkling sounds, that there’s some kind of small nocturnal creature making a home in some stacked grocery bags of junk in my corner of the living room. The dog is not roused to do anything about this situation for me. And I don’t just move away, because this is the only place in the house where I can pick up a wi-fi signal.
And I’m wondering out of nowhere if anyone else remembers a certain children’s book.
I remember this book from the year I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, but I’m sure the book was much older than that. It was on the classroom bookshelf, and I was totally entranced with it. I read it over and over again. And yet cannot remember the name of it.
It was told in the style of a series of fables, about a very wise old legal adviser in the Japanese royal court. People brought seemingly impossible cases to him, and like Solomon, he always had the fair and clever solution. One case was about a wiseguy trying to circumvent a progressive tax law that taxed people based on the number of doors their homes contained by building a house with only windows. One was about a court servant who accidentally broke a priceless vase, for which the normal penalty would be death since she couldn’t hope to repay the cost with all the money that she’d ever earn in her life, and one, my favorite, was about a poor man who lived above a noodle shop. He was starving, but said that as he ate his plain white rice every night, he felt like he was eating a more substantial meal because he enjoyed the smells of the cooking from below so much, they flavored his own meal. So the noodle shop guy wanted to charge him for the food he hadn’t eaten, since he claimed he had enjoyed it just as much as if he had.
I don’t even remember the actual resolution of any of the cases. I don’t remember the title of the book or the author. Googling “children’s book wise old japanese guy” gets me nowhere. So for my blog friends and pen pals old and young, a crowdsource question: Does anyone else recall this book?
June 15, 2011
“Today we don’t remember kings and queens…but we remember our poets and we remember our musicians and artists.”
I could listen to that man talk forever. I really could.
Full interview with Tift Merritt here.
June 4, 2011
While it may sound like an appeal to emotion and romanticism rather than practicality to protest at the decline of cursive that kids won’t be able to read their grandparents’ diaries, I can’t help but find it a compelling appeal. Recently, my dad, knowing that I’ve become interested in digging into and preserving family history, sent me a box of stuff that someone found in someone’s basement. Paperclipped inside a typed and 3-ring-bound collection of stories and autobiographies was this little envelope.
It’s a letter from my great-great-great-grandfather Albert Darius, who served as an army nurse and then hospital steward during the Civil War, to his son Edward. After the war, as he was finishing medical school, struggling to set up a practice, and being divorced by his wife, Albert Darius was unable ever to keep all of his children with him, and they were fostered out to various neighbors and friends. (Clarence, mentioned in the second paragraph, was my great-great grandfather.)
I would scan it in its entirety and make you all try to read it, but my scanner is broken, so I transcribe it here….
May 27th 1869
My Dear Son,
I have been so very anxiously awaiting a letter from you for some time; at last Mr. Wilson wrote me that you had gone to live in Shelbyville with Mr. O. A. Andrews so now I can know where to write you and I hope you will write me as soon as you get this.
I want to know how you like living in the country–what you do–and all about the people you live with–how many in the family, and their names–and how far you live from the post office and which way. And all about your place there–and how you like it. Mr. Flowers writes that Miner has gone to live with Mr. Evans at Garden City. I hope you and Miner will write to each other and to me often. I expect Clarence will stay with me.
I hope Eddie you will not form bad habits, use no profane language. It is very foolish and wrong and no one will ever use in good society. Don’t use tobbaco (sic) in any form. Shun it as you would poison. And remember to be true and faithful. Ask advice of older persons on all subjects which you may be undecided upon. Strive to please, but act true to principles of right, whether it pleases or displeases, and you will be respected for it.
O Eddie I am very sorry we cannot all be together in our own home. It is almost killing me to think of you and Miner and Clarence and little Eva being scattered so but I know sometime we will be together, if we live, but where I know not. Oh how much I think of you every day and every night. And wish the good angels to watch over you and help you always, and I know they will if you are true and good.
I want you to keep all my letters. You will want them sometime.
I send you Harpers Monthly and in this I send you one dollar, to buy stamps and paper or anything you may need, and I do wish Eddie you would write me when you need money, and I can send you some, a little most any time but remember it is for yourself and no one else–write me if the folks will get you some clothes for summer, and all about everything–write a long letter a whole sheet-full anyway–and then I will be so happy.
From Your Affectionate
Father, A. D. Ballou
Yes, the Constitution has been propagated endlessly in print and online, but stuff like this has not. Our own emotional and personal history, not just the stuff that’s in textbooks, is written in cursive, and risks being lost by a generation who is simply incapable of reading it.
June 2, 2011
I got busy and haven’t had much time for writing lately, though I was following with interest the debate that broke out over the course of a couple weeks, across internet news sources, about, of all things, writing. Specifically, on the value of cursive. Whether we should still be teaching it, what its value is, whether it’s effectively a dead language, an art form but with little practical utility in the age of ubiquitous keyboards, a waste of teaching time or whether it’s still a necessary skill.
Dozens of commenters attempted the argument that we shouldn’t waste time on cursive anymore because they never have to use it in their work. But that would be like me saying that because I don’t use calculus on a day to day basis, we should stop teaching it. I don’t use calculus; that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who need to use calculus.
And I need to write by hand on a nearly daily basis: Aside from this blog, I still keep a personal journal. At rehearsals, while I mostly type notes immediately into my laptop, I can’t always have it with me, and the ability to write notes quickly and understandably is indispensable. In college, I never took class notes on my laptop, even though I can type faster than writing, not only to avoid carrying a computer around all day but because somehow the physical act of writing makes me visually absorb and retain the information better than typing it does. I still keep a paper planner for the same reason despite the easy and free availability of a number of computerized options. If I haven’t written it, I haven’t actually remembered it quite the same way. I write to my grandparents–both of my grandmothers have gorgeous cursive handwriting–and also to friends. A Facebook message, fantastic as I think Facebook is, can’t beat the time and attention inherent in a real letter for some kinds of personal communication. I love the idea of something being physically carried between two people, an artifact of affection. There’s note-taking in circumstances where it would be rude to whip out a computer, but I can do so discretely and quietly with a notebook.
But more importantly that all of that for me, none of which is totally insurmountable without cursive, is this. Most of this debate has been conducted as if the content or quality of writing or communication exists independently of its format or medium, and I don’t think that’s true. I think that the physical process by which we communicate deeply affects the quality of the communication. Not only do I write much differently than I speak, but there are things that I actually cannot speak, that I can only write. Someone once described the phenomenon very succinctly when she wrote of her own daughter, “It’s like her hands know a language her mouth doesn’t.” (Laura, this happened somewhere on your blog, but I cannot for the life of me find the post or the comment to link to it.) Most people apparently can talk through their problems and uncertainties; I can’t. Speaking is too much work for me to engage in problem-solving at the same time. It requires a level of translation that writing somehow doesn’t. I can’t problem-solve by speaking, but I can problem-solve by writing.
And within the realm of writing, I not only write very differently when I’m typing as opposed to writing by hand, but there are things that I cannot articulate by typing, only by handwriting, and vice versa. There are thoughts that I can only will into existence with pen and paper. Almost any creative, emotional or personal writing, I must do by hand. When I write poetry (which I still do very occasionally), I can only do a first draft by hand. I literally can’t type it; the words and the meter won’t come. And something about the quality of thinking that requires complex or deep reflection matches the speed of writing in cursive for me. Printing is far too slow to be useful for much of anything to me. Typing is too fast; my fingers can get ahead of my brain to the point that what I type is meaningless. Writing in cursive matches up to the speed of my train of thought.
It’s like how in Harry Potter’s universe, wizards require a wand to do magic. Children can express a kind of vague and disorganized magic by will alone, but a real wizard has to use a wand for any purposeful, articulated magic. For some kinds of writing and some kinds of thinking, my hand needs a pen the way a wizard needs a wand.
(But for other kinds of writing, typing is much better than writing by hand: anything fairly factual and straightforward, requiring the transcription of a large amount of information or detail, or when I basically already know what I want to say and only need to fine-tune it, such as when I have a longer paper or essay already extensively outlined.)
For me, the ability to write in cursive isn’t just a technical one, a compromise in speed between printing and typing, or an artistic one. Cursive is a key to my own mind and my own creativity that’s granted by nothing else. For me, saying that we shouldn’t teach or use cursive anymore is like saying that an entire mode of thought, practically an entire language, and one I think we can ill-afford to lose, should be eliminated. And I think that’s something worth resisting, for more than aesthetic or romantic reasons.