BACK IN CHICAGO…

BACK IN CHICAGO...

The ability to love everyone starts with children. We are blank slates. We see the world bathed in equality—until, as we grow, we begin to become aware of differences. Or they are pointed out to us. Regardless, there is always hope.

In a world where we are truly now a global nation, where we could look like the United Nations, differences should not be an issue.

But there is something in an individual’s DNA that makes them cling to those first times when we see differences or feel different or are taught to claim a difference. Why? I don’t have an answer. 

EVERYONE HAS SOME PREJUDICE 

There are people on this earth who claim that they have no prejudices. That everything in their purview is equal. I say, that’s impossible. Maybe you are or have always been comfortable with the differences that exist in humanity regarding skin color. Awesome. Wonderful. But I proport there isn’t a person walking this earth that isn’t prejudiced in some way. And it may be as simple as food choices.

Because life is about choice and within each of us is some small voice telling us that THIS is better than THIS. It just depends on what we are talking about. But we must be honest.

HOW PREJUDICE BEGINS 

As a child, I lived on the southside of Chicago. But—in a neighborhood that was all white. The people of color I knew were few. There was Jenny, the Sioux Native American who cared for us when we were very young. (read here). And there were the two Black women who cleaned and ironed for us. (read: here.)

OPENING MY EYES

But what did I notice as I grew up in Chicago? (I am doing my best to be honest.)

  • That all our neighbors, the people who worked in stores, the kids in school, the people in church, our doctors—they were all white.
  • That when my mother drove me through neighborhoods to downtown Chicago (before the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was geographically laid out to separate many Black neighborhoods from white ones) that the sidewalks were crowded with people walking; that there were people missing limbs, people in wheel chairs, maybe even people who had lost hope. READ: people who had to rely on public transportation; people without good healthcare. People who lived in food deserts and healthcare deserts. Please note that in certain decades THE CAR was everything. This was before we began to look on public transportation as a positive way to travel. I did live three blocks from the Rock Island train that zipped my mother into Chicago for her job. From that train, I could look out upon housing, old apartments, yards bare of grass, sometimes filled with trash… Okay—poverty.

What did I notice during my years of education?

  • Well, I’m certain I would never have looked around for a Black child in my grade school. That possibility wasn’t even on our radar. There were two girls in my class whose skin was actually tan all year long: read, darker than mine. Damn, that I noticed that. Is there something in our DNA that points that out?
  • But after high school, working in the city every summer in downtown Chicago, the variety of people along the sidewalks was fascinating.

What did I notice off and on just living and working in Chicago and its suburbs?

  • That even though I was white, there were sales women in high-end stores that were not interested in helping me return a blouse or search for a size. Because prejudice can move through all tribes—I obviously wasn’t dressed in a way that indicated my buying power. That memory still stings. But GET OVER IT, You Privileged White Woman.
  • That working in an integrated high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then much later working as an RN at Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, were some of the best years of my life. If there was some ignorant, leery, unsure person hidden inside me—those career choices made me push her aside.

MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW 

“Some of our students have knives,” the Superintendent of the high school where I was interviewing told me. I needed the job. I said that was okay. I spoke out of ignorance. What did I know about dealing with a student who might be carrying a knife? I learned to be open and caring of all my students. Was I lucky? Yes. But there were so many students throughout my teaching years that showed me their humanity.

It was the same at Mercy Hospital when I first started working in maternity. I might be nervous walking into a room to help a stranger deliver her child. But the bond of the female species, of motherhood, of helping someone in pain—damn, humanity was flowing through those rooms and continued to do so.

NOTE: It is 2021, and thank God, Mercy Hospital, that will always serve minority families, was saved from the wrecking ball. But close by in Bronzeville, Michael Reese Hospital did not survive. (read: Life and Death in Englewood by Linda Villarosa, New York Times.) 

WHEN THINGS CAME TOGETHER–FOR ME

“Gresham went over night.” You would have to live in Chicago (or maybe a different urban city) to know what THE HELL that means. Translation: the white folks moved out and the Black folks moved in. THIS IS OUR HISTORY. It’s Chicago’s history and it is the history of many cities in this country. It is wrong. 

Other terms are contained in one blistering sentence (a friend said this): “Yes, for sure there is gentrification going on in that neighborhood, cause they are getting rid of the slum.”

Definition of Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. 

Actual Definition: an area of a city where people unable to find good-paying jobs are forced to live. And regarding history, people of color are forced to live there, a place where houses are abandoned because of job loss; stores and hospitals close. When I grew up, the hospital where I was born was a quick drive away. I took that for granted. Again, from a recent article in the New York Times: Now you drive through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot…  And I recently learned that the south suburbs of Chicago do NOT have a trauma center. They have hospitals, but not a trauma center. The trauma center is   Christ Advocate Trauma Center which is three miles from me, within the city limits. 

EDUCATING MYSELF BY READING…

There was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. But now there is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Then I read WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, which wasn’t just about the Obama era, but about Reconstruction, the freedoms initially given to freed people of color and then taken away. The continuation of brutality, of lynching and home burning. The device of red-lining which is to refuse (a loan or insurance) to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. Short version, because they are Black. 

When Black folks left the South, looking for employment and better lives for their families, white men devised ways to isolate them in run-down neighborhoods, to prevent the breadwinner of the family from getting ahead. White people have always been able to get ahead by buying a home for their family, which provides them with shelter, but also the possibility of increasing their initial investment.

Getting ahead is the key to everything, for everyone. In America, each one of us should have that chance.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?              

From Kitchenette Building by Chicago Black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks

PS Fighting prejudice must be an ongoing but oh so worthy effort. 

Photo: Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois. Honoring the World War I 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.

Hearing Voices on Mother’s Day

Hearing Voices on Mother's DayI will be able to hear my mother’s voice on Mother’s Day, even though she died in 2013. And no, I’m not hallucinating, but I did receive an early Mother’s Day gift from my brother Bill. The gift: being able in 2021 to hear the voices of my mother and father which were recorded when I was only two.

My father loved new inventions and taught himself how to “cut a record”. These recordings were later preserved on tape and eventually digitized. My younger brother, a musician and music producer, knew how to do this magic. Thus the gift of hearing my mother’s lovely voice.

I am wishing for all of you this Mother’s Day, some meaningful connection with family. It might be talking with your mother, grandmother, daughter. It might be carving out those quiet moments for yourself that include a favorite tea, a glass of wine or some chocolate. It might include a walk to enjoy the bounty of spring or even a nap!

Whatever your choice today, I wish you connection with those voices in your life that give you joy.

Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

What does a book published in 2002 by Alice McDermott have to do with a new release by Margot Livesey? The answer: they reveal the strong and vivid seeds of adulthood in their adolescent characters.

Alice McDermott captured my attention with her short but amazing novel, THAT NIGHT. Published in 1987, McDermott explores suburbia of post WWII where life should be perfect, where parents have created families and a culture that cannot be challenged. But when it is, when a “guy” who doesn’t meet the picture of a future husband is determined to have a family’s daughter, we read this:

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried get limp in their hands.”  We can picture that era, the leather jackets, the sideburns. But the passion translates into any age.

In a CHILD OF MY HEART, published in 2000, McDermott’s the main character, Theresa, is on the cusp of change, wavering between the security of childhood and the lure of the life that adults lead, and of course, sex. The novel begins with Theresa’s voice:

“I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits…They were wet and blind,…so small it was difficult to know if their bodies moved with the beating of their hearts or the rise of their breaths.”

And maybe it was difficult for Theresa to know where her developing body, her own beating heart’s growth might take her. She watched these children on the seashore in summer. People bare their skin. Children do too, and she is there to protect them. Because later in the novel, when Theresa finds herself enthrall to an older man, she tells us: “You could reimagine, rename things all you wanted, but it was flesh somehow, that would not relent.”

Adolescence is definitely that period in life where you are torn between the rubric of home and the lure of any place, activity, person—who is not a metaphor for family, rules and order. It’s a vivid, surprising time. No wonder talented authors take advantage of it.

Thus, I fell in love with the writing of Margot Livesey when first reading EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE. The tale begins on the day of Eva’s birth, which is also the day of her mother’s death. But over time, some companions that Eva cannot see, arrive to protect and guide her. Eva reflects: “…but my loneliness was like the slow gas bubbling up from the pond in the woods, poisoning even the sweetest of days. How could I turn away those two who wanted to be my friends when no one else did?’‘ The novel is the story of the choices Eva makes and how the “companions” guide her in those choices. It is a beautiful story. 

Livesey’s latest novel, THE BOY IN THE FIELD, once again probes the whims, fevers and worries of adolescence. It also casts a darker cloud over what can be a tempestuous time in life.

Reviews promise: (thanks to Jenny Rosenstrach in the NYT)   In the broadest sense, Margot Livesey’s …“The Boy in the Field” is a whodunit. Who attacked this boy in the middle of the day and left him for dead in a field? What would have happened if three unsuspecting siblings walking home from school hadn’t caught a glimpse of his red sock from the road? Why this boy?

Three sibling, Mathew, Zoe and Duncan come upon the above scene. They do what they can: one stays with the boy, one waves down a car on the road to call for help. One wanders the scene. Their gestures are open and fearless. Their gestures are the seeds to their growing. But what they do not know, and what Livesey probes in this fascinating story, is that seeing the “boy in the field” will change all of their lives. That change will even spread to their parents, the mother a solicitor (this is England) and their father who works a forge.

“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.

The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.

Each of them caught it. No more words followed.

But that was all it took for these three children’s lives to become attached to change. 

A VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

 

An VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

The Rosebud Landscape with Horses

While raising my children, I found time to write. No longer working OUTSIDE my home, I would get up early, write before my beauties had arisen. During that time, I started a memoir of my own life. Though my age did not require that decision, my mother was a treasure of memory, information. I needed to mine that knowledge sooner than later. Below is an excerpt from 10055 Wood Street, my memoir. It emphasizes how isolated we were from diversity, from people of color. How singular life was. Thank God for my mother’s open heart, for books, and for travel to the crowded streets of downtown Chicago where the real and true world was growing.

NOTE: In the memoir, SHE is my mother, who became a widow with three children in her early 30’s.

*   *   *

She needs help and so weeks after my father dies, there are borders. Our first is Jenny Mae, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, who we first meet when she comes out of my bedroom wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. My brothers and I are in the upstairs hallway, the oldest, John, who at his young age knows a little about much, reveals right away that he is disappointed. He was expecting Jenny Mae to appear in feathers and he tells her so. She smiles, a beautiful quiet smile. He explains that he reads, that he has seen Indians on television, and doesn’t she at least have a headdress?

Jenny will live with us for about four years, her major duty being to help take care of the youngest, Bill. He is only three months. 

It was not uncommon in our neighborhood for families to have young Indian women from the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud Reservations working for them. I only learn much later that it’s a mixed blessing for these women, because in that time period, they are paid very little. Sadly, even rather “enlightened” families are eager to take advantage. As she becomes more comfortable with us, Jenny tells my mother that the family she previously worked for had her doing laundry, cooking and cleaning their entire home. And for this she was paid only fifteen dollars a month. Deciding she was done, Jenny packed her things, boarded a train to Ohio to visit her brother, a doctor with a wife and eight children.

But when my father dies, a good friend of our family, Jay Adler, arranges for Jenny to come back to Chicago and work for us. Jay has promised better wages. Yes, my mother will pay Jenny $15.00 a week.

Jenny folds Bill’s laundry, changes him, gives him a bottle, walks him in his buggy. Bill is as blonde as a shot of sunshine, Jenny as dusky as twilight. When people stop, admire her baby, they can’t help but remark that the baby’s father must be blonde. Jenny only smiles and says yes, he is.

But still angry at losing my father, and still very shy—it takes me a while. But when I am more comfortable, I let her hold me, and she talks to me about my dreams. We imagine. We build towers, castles and rose gardens. We make the princes come riding on their horses. Jenny is in her early twenties. Later, I will learn more about Indian reservations, her large family, their poverty, her eagerness to help herself, help her family.

The castles Jenny creates are real to me. The sound of her quivering voice forces these towers to break through piles of clouds. And though I am child and would not know—Jenny’s own dreams are rocky, like the hills of South Dakota.

Lovely and kind Jenny Mae is also intelligent and capable. Later she will leave us, use her long, graceful fingers to become a skilled dental hygienist. She will move to San Diego where she believes her dusky skin will be more accepted. There she will marry a man, Ken from Kentucky. They will have two children, a boy and a girl. But he will drink, call her names, leave her. Jenny will work hard to support her two children, take a bus and a train to come back and visit us, later die in her early fifties.

Back in Chicago, we will get this news, and my mother, always considerate and loving, will try to hold on to the threads of Jenny’s life, keeping in touch with her son and her daughter.

Post Script: We lived in a small community south of Chicago. It was through an acquaintance of my mother’s, a restaurant owner who had lots of “business dealings” going on, that we were able to invite Jenny into our home. Looking back, I smile. The restaurant business can be a tough one. His restaurant was bombed in the 60’s. But during all of this questionable stuff, this man had a large heart. He did much to help Native Americans.

Background Information from the Internet: About the Sicangu Sioux. Rosebud Reservation is home to Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. The Lakota were traditionally the ultimate representative of the Plains Indian culture, with organized bands, dependence on the buffalo for food, clothing, etc. and emphasis on warring and raiding.

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers make up the Siouan language family, which inhabited over 100 million acres of what is now Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century…The Lakota acquired horses around 1740 and shortly thereafter crossed the Missouri River. They arrived in the Black Hills area around 1775, and at about the same time they divided into seven tribes, one of which was the Sicangu. 

History of the Reservation. Under terms of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Lakota were placed on one large reservation that encompassed parts of North and South Dakota and four other states. After defeating the Indian tribes in the Plains Wars of the 1870s, the United States confiscated 7.7 million acres of the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills and created several smaller reservations. The Sicangu were assigned to live on the Rosebud Reservation.

For the rest of her life, my mother did what she could to fund organizations that supported our Native American Communities.

 

Easter/Spring: Remembering Innocence, Beginnings

Easter/Spring: Remembering Innocence, Beginnings

Open your life to spring possibilities…

Life is about movement, change. Spring is certainly about change, though often subtle, little by little change, green shoots beginning to flower. Time-lapse photography lets us see what is really going on, but truly, our lives are just like that. You bring your baby home from the hospital, and because you see your child every day, you accept the rapid changes that are happening right before you.

All of life is like that. I finally got my Covid19 hair cut—did it thrill me, kinda—but now I can see more clearly the changes in my face, my skin. Time works on us. But I’m still here.

CHANGES 

SPRING is awesome. Sometimes it breaks out overnight, it shouts out look at me! Any pause in the movement of our lives can spring change on us—the pause of going away; of not seeing your grandchildren. Then you come back, see them again, older, taller; you too are older, maybe shorter. The home you left behind looks at you from its front windows, whines in the wind, “You shouldn’t have left me. I have aged. The people here don’t love me like you did.”

BIRTH

In my years of raising my family, I have been a mom of the proper age, a mature mom, an older mom, every pregnancy wanted, yearned for. 

I knew our first child was a girl when I turned on the radio after dropping off my urine specimen at the lab; “Warm, touching warm, reaching out, touching you touching me, Sweet Caroline…” Caroline, our chosen name. YES!

She was a little late, but arrived healthy, eager to become our child. And though she had colic and I got little sleep, each morning I pushed myself out of bed, eager to bring this sweet child into the light. Each day I became more intoxicated with the experience of parenting, Caroline’s body movements changing, moving from unsure to agile—and her voice, her desire to talk and communicate—swift, delightful.   

NUMBER TWO

Four years later, Christine was born. We had moved into a charming older home, my husband had finished his Master’s Degree, Caroline was thriving–it was the perfect time. There were trips to the zoo, the park, Papa and Mama, each responsible for a child. Each watching as they grew.  

When Christine was six or seven, she said, “When I was three, I couldn’t ride a bike or catch a ball or turn on the lights. I thought you were magical because you could.”

We had a rather heavy discussion concerning her observations, we talked about life, the possibilities that for her would be endless, that she should embrace new beginnings wherever she found them, and that more and more the world would be opening up for her and her sister.

For both daughters, I wanted, needed to be a symbol of change, embracing the new: so I did aerobics at the local gym (different for me as I was like Janis Ian, no one chose me for basketball); then I went back to school, had even more homework than they did as I worked to become an RN. But looking back, those were all right choices not only for me, but for my daughters.

NEW HORIZONS CHANGE THE PICTURE

Certainly as you age, the broad horizon of possibilities shrinks, and you find yourself clinging to memories: when Caroline would surprise me almost every day with a new word that she not only understood, but most times pronounced correctly. When Christine would bulldoze her head into my belly, then laugh and giggle, filling all of us with joy. So of course, they grew and I would find myself kneeling between their beds as they slept, tears wetting my face. They were disappearing, growing up and growing away right before me. I didn’t know how to get on with it.

So in spring, a few years later, I gave birth to our son, to Andrew, a longed for and planned for chid. He changed the dynamic of our family, his new life awakening once again our family ties. We all wanted to care for him, teach him, but also to relive past moments while dreaming about the future. Before Andrew we were amazing loving, grateful—Andrew just made it more so.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

Time moves us all forward. But despite Covid and our move back to Chicago, our family remains close, blessed, healthy, breathing.

Wishing you a Blessed Easter, a Holy Passover. And of course, a Happy Spring, the time for New Beginnings.

PS What are dreaming about today? What plans do you have for new beginnings?  

Photo Credit,  Wayfair

HAMNET A Novel of the Plague

HAMNET A Novel of the Plague

WHY READ THIS NOVEL

Maggie O’Farrell could not have known that our spinning globe would be plagued by a virus starting in late 2019. It takes months, maybe years to research a novel like HAMNET, a novel that takes place in the 1500s. But how fortuitous, as her finished work bears the subtitle, A Novel of the Plague, and was published in July 2020.

This book is an artistic treasure,  a moving story, and I am reviewing it for you today, and urging you to read it.

O’Farrell dedicates the book TO WILL, which is her husband’s name, but she might also be dedicating this lyrical novel to William Shakespeare.

At the very beginning of the book, O’Farrell provides us with the following Historical Note:

In the 1580’s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford (this is Stratford upon Avon in England), had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.

O’Farrell also quotes a source to let us know that: Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

WHAT YOU WILL DISCOVER:

Shakespeare’s Family: We first meet the young boy Hamnet, his twin sister, Judith and older sister Susanna. Their father has already left to work in London and they have stayed behind, are living with their mother and paternal grandparents in a house in Stratford. Throughout the novel, their mother is referred to as Agnes, not Anne, because as the author explains: “…she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as “Agnes”—and thus O’Farrell chose to use that name.

All these choices help O’Farrell create a story that we wander into without pre-conceived notions. Those choices and her luminous prose cause you to sometimes find yourself lingering in a garden of words, other times reading as fast as you can because someone is dying and you are filled with hope that something can be done to stop that death.   

But even though this story is set way back in time, you are reading a tale that touches you within our modern age. People are people with their sorrows, loves and deaths. Thus, O’Farrell concludes the wedding ceremony that unites the brilliant future playwright with his chosen bride:

“They bow their heads in unison and the priest places linen over them, to protect them from demons, from the devil, from all that is bad and undesirable in the world.”

Agnes is in many ways considered a healer, a midwife, with the plants and roots that she grows.

“She fills the soil with chamomile and marigold, with hyssop and sage, borage and angelica, with wormwort and feverfew. She installs seven skeps at the furthest edge of the garden: on warm July days it is possible to hear the restless rumble of the bees from the house.”

THE PRESENCE OF THE PLAGUE 

In the middle of the novel, O’Farrell creates a startling chapter. It begins: “For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.”

Having done much research, O’Farrell goes on to present us with a glassmaker on the island of Murano in Venice who wants to get orders of his beads delivered to the town where the Shakespeare family lives. She then creates a cabin boy who leaves his ship while in dock, encounters a monkey and brings it on shipboard. That monkey encounters a rat etc.etc. Weaving this tale from port to port, underlines how the plague spread, until the beads from Venice are delivered to the Shakespeare home.

THE CONNECTION TO SHAKESPEARE’S PLAY 

As you read, you will discover, that it is the boy Hamnet, the stronger twin, who dies when the plague reaches Stratford. The following is a passage that you might well remember when folding your child’s laundry. It might make you consider the task a privilege, not a chore.

As the fabric runs through her fingers, as she puts each seam together, as she flaps out the creases in the air, her body remembers this task. It takes her back to the before. Folding his clothes, tending to them, breathing in his scent, she can almost persuade herself that he is still here, just about to get dressed, that he will walk through the door at any moment, asking, Where are my stockings, where is my shirt?

In her own life, O’Farrell is not unfamiliar with the threat of death having a child who can easily go into anaphylaxis. Writers take those terrifying experiences and create with them.

AND SO DID WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE 

Though this beautiful, compelling novel focusses on Agnes and her sorrow, it reveals that family loss also touches the great playwright.

...he finds himself looking out, every evening, over the watching crowd, in search of a particular face, a boy with a slightly crooked smile and a perpetually surprised expression; he scans the audience…because he cannot fathom that his son could just have gone; he must be somewhere; all he has to do is find him.

O’Farrell concludes, that the loss of a child can move so strongly within one’s soul and one’s body, that creation–whether it’s a garden or one of the greatest plays ever written–is the only way to power grief, to live with it. Thus the ghost in Hamlet says these final words” Remember me.” In reading HAMNET, you will find much to remember. 

Folktales, Real and Imagined

Folktales, Real and Imagined

I loved fairy tales when I was growing up. We had a collection that my mother read to us, though she was careful to choose the ones that wouldn’t scare us. But the true fairy tales were scary and I am sure each one of us can look back and find various tropes or events in these often wild tales that might have made it hard to fall asleep after one was read to us.

Of course there was Little Red Riding Hood, which research has pointed out has elements of a rape story, the red cape, the nasty wolf, the deep dark forest–and that the young girl went off the path to pick flowers. But why did her mother send her alone to Grandma’s house?

In Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller supports the idea that this fairy tale is a description of rape.  However, many revisionist retellings choose to focus on empowerment, and depict Little Red Riding Hood or the grandmother successfully defending herself against the wolf. Which version did you encounter while growing up?

Maybe it was comforting to think that a thicket of roses could surround a castle and thus protect Sleeping Beauty. But I never wanted to be her, and I was sure I would never have touched that spindle, let alone hung out with the old crone up in the tower. (Fairly tales are always hard on women. Witches, crones. Evil queens. Sex again. The heroines are all virgins.)

I did have a favorite–I was in love with Snow White–her Disney-dark hair, her cape, and the elves were pretty cool. My mother was far from wicked, so the  Wicked Queen didn’t bother me much. AND I WAS ALWAYS INTO PRINCE CHARMING.

In an older post, I wrote about trying on Snow White’s costume as an adult, at Disneyland:

But as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t Snow White. The really powerful part was the memory, …that kid buried inside me would have leapt for joy if such a costume had been offered to her. But she did okay without it. I wore a white cotton dishtowel tied around my neck. It fell not so gracefully over my corduroys, tee-shirt, and saddle shoes. And in my mind I was dealing with the Wicked Queen and hanging out with the Seven Dwarfs. The image in the mirror was different then. The image was filtered through my amazing childhood imagination.

EXPOSURE TO READING: THINKING THINGS THROUGH  

But forgive me, okay, if I spent some time immersed in fairy tales. At least there were books in my house and I was reading, using my imagination. There have been comedy routines about fairy tales, that the women were passive, that all they needed was to snare the prince and spend all his money. IF YOU REMEMBER THE ROUTINE, please let me know. I can’t find it. But I did find this: THE PASSIVE LADIES OF DISNEY. 

HOW TO STOP A TORNADO  Folk tales??? This is a must read…

Maybe it’s only me, but I grew up hearing some things that were basically unbelievable. Not that I was a know-it-all, but my mother was real in her approach to life and danger.

But what about an approaching tornado in Chicago? The sky turning green, the trees bending? That did happen, though we were not carried away like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. But how do you deal with these frightening things?

A kind African American woman once told me she had a cure for tornadoes. “You just run outside with a butcher knife and slice at that old tornado.” Wow.

And that stayed with me for years. Especially living through some scares in Iowa. But when Google came along, I looked it up. More than once. NOTHING, until this past week, there it was:  

The cloud my father saw was enough to get his attention. It was what we would call today a “wall” cloud. It easily could have spawned tornadoes.

My father yelled to my grandma through the kitchen window where she was washing dishes. She looked up at the cloud from the window, then turned off the water, dried her hands and calmly walked to the door.

She was carrying the biggest butcher knife she owned.

Grandma moved to an open space and got down on her knees. It was beginning to rain at this point. She pointed that butcher knife straight up to the sky and said some words. My father said they sounded like they were from a different language, and perhaps they were.

Then, in an instant, she brought the knife slashing to the ground.

My father looked down at her then he looked up at the cloud where the most astonishing thing was happening.

The cloud was splitting right over them and not just a tiny amount, either, but a full-blown cut. No tornadoes came at them that day; they didn’t even get more than a few sprinkles of rain.

Until the day he died, my father insisted my grandma used that butcher knife to “cut” the clouds.

Thanks for reading. And please share any family “tales” or “myths” — they define us. We are story tellers. 

Nada Meeks   FINE ART AMERICA.

Take a Walk, Awaken a Memory

Take a Walk, Awaken a Memory

Jacaranda Trees

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Those amazing words are not mine, they were written by poet T.S. Elliot, part of his work THE WASTELAND, in which he invokes that painful sweetness of once again being part of the open world, of wandering a path, of stopping to smell the roses.

Despite everything we have been experiencing, we deserve spring, sunshine, hope. It is why so many writers write about spring—the season of renewal, new birth, plans for change. Spring has it all over New Year’s day when many good citizens are hung-over from partying. And I never got the point of that!

MEMORY & SCENTS

Poets and others write about spring, about scents. In a past post related to Mother’s Day, I wrote: CAN A SCENT TAKE YOU BACK. In the gift of a bouquet I encountered the bloom stock, which carried me back to the florist shop owned by my maternal grandmother’s people. I was back in that shop with its rows of glass doors, behind which you could pick a rainbow of plants, roses and other flowers.

In Bill Bryson’s well-researched book, THE BODY he writes:  “…the olfactory cortex…is nestled close to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, and it is thought by some neuroscientists that may explain why certain odors are so powerfully evocative of memories for us.”

Has that happened to you? Spring, memory, nostalgia. Writers feel it, write about it. Others go outdoors and walk, run; children skip (masks and all as it is 2021). And yes this spring it might be harder to enjoy those spring scents, but here’s a tip: step off the path, move your mask, get a good nose-full. After all, IT’S time for some re-birth.

MEMORY and PLACE, TREES, BLOSSOMS

I am back in Illinois, living a mile from the home where I was raised. We had a lilac tree in our side yard. We had a garden of peonies up and down our front walk. Spring! Scents!

I know as I walk this neighborhood of memories, there will be lilacs and peonies, roses and lily of the valley.

Pico Iyer, also a writer, was born in Oxford, England, but has the good fortune of traveling far and wide. Missing Southern California, wondering what was now in bloom (the poppies, the jacaranda tress?) I found this on my desk. I save lots of stuff!

“Learning to find wonder everywhere is a talent I can as easily develop—and deploy—close to home as I can in Tibet or Cuba.”

But these are the words I had to save, having lived & traveled to Santa Barbara in springtime:

“Golden poppies will fill the slopes of Santa Barbara this coming spring. From my mother’s home I can spend hours just beginning to count the constellations. Those of us used to the dramatic changes of seasons can see the same shifts play out…and look forward to the jacaranda flowering above the streets in May. (Please enjoy the photo above!)

LOOK AROUND YOU…

So what is beginning to blossom and grow in your “neck of the woods.” Here, the grass is starting to green up and there are a few shoots pushing up from their garden beds.

FUTURE TRAVEL

Pico Iyer writes the following, which is TRUTH. Hold it close…

“To travel means, ultimately, nothing more than coming back home a slightly different person from the one who left. That’s as possible in 2021 as it was two years ago. The world is inexhaustible, if only we can open our eyes and look with more care at what we so often take for granted.”

Are you going on a walk today, in the future? Will your eyes well up with gratitude when we are once again blessed with greening and flowering? Mine will.

Waiting for the Night Song

Waiting for the Night Song

Truth hides in fissures and hollows, in broken places and empty parts. It can be buried, crushed, or burnt, but the truth will always rise.

These opening lines of Julie Carrick Dalton’s first novel promises the reader much, as she delivers a story that fulfills those promises. It’s a novel that takes you places that might be in your memory… the stolen yellow rowboat, the meandering lake. The two young girls in that rowboat picking blueberries, trying to discover things about a boy high up on a cliff. It’s a world where your best childhood dreams of danger, disobeying and taking risks come to life on the page.

In its opening, Waiting for the Night Song brings the reader to the mountains of New Hampshire where Cadence Kessler: Outlaw Entomologist, better known as Cadie, is examining the flora and fauna near Mount Steady. She is searching for evidence that a black beetle is killing the trees on the mountain side, thus creating combustible kindling in the already parched region—the areas future condemned to forest fires.

“The pea-sized creatures were killing off trees, leaving them as kindling in the parched woodlands. She stroked the delicate destruction with her finger. The beetles’ telltale blue fungus, the color of the autumn sky before sunset, stained the wood. The color meant death to the pine.” And thus we fall under the spell of Dalton’s writing, for in many ways this is a novel that is true to science, Dalton, a writer, an advocate for the environment has definitely done her homework.

The meat of the novel’s plot begins when Cadie gets a text from her closest and dearest friend, Daniela, her partner in the yellow rowboat, the vessel for all her secrets and longings. The text reads: They are questioning my dad.

Cadie must climb down her mountain, rush to help her oldest friend as this is Cadie, loyal, competent, eager for adventure, but holding within her a childhood secret she hopes she will never have to face.

At the novel’s beginning, we see the future Outlaw Entomologist being formed by the push and pull of her choices: should she follow rules or ignore them; should she push ahead with all her dreams and imagined plans or pull back. Rarely sharing exploits with her parents, she is the girl-hero, steady and sure of her choices, charging ahead with her big heart and her often impetuous decisions. She actually hits a bear with her car, and is still able to arrive on time to an important meeting about the black beetle. In real life, maybe. 

Cadie is a female Huck Finn, an eternal friend with a huge heart and eager mind who pulls you in. She’s a rule follower, her own rules —risking much to discover things about that boy at the top of the cliff; what his story is; and—after being pulled into a task she doesn’t want to be a part of, an eternal secret keeper: who will never reveal to anyone about burying the body. Cadie is young, scared. She keeps her mouth shut, hoping she can spare the lives and the futures of others.

As the story builds, Carrick Dalton not only brings the reader into the world of environmental worries, global warming, but also the world of undocumented workers—another reason Carrick Dalton has created this character: Cadie again being, the Outlaw Entomologist. 

But she is also the epitome of the best friend, she and Daniela creating the Poachers Code, an eternal bond that sets the stage for more adventures to come.  

1. Keep one foot in the water. 2. Never take all the blueberries. 3.Don’t kill bugs. 4. No witnesses. 5. Be kind to people who eat our berries. 6. No evidence. 7. Don’t throw a rock if you can’t see the target. 8. Lake water heals anything. 9. No matches in the woods. 10. Never tell.

If you think this is child stuff, it is, but it is also the platform for future events that will challenge lives, friendships and the trust we place in one another. The beauty of the Poachers Code is that Carrick Dalton’s story, her unwinding plot, tests and advances every aspect of the code. Grown-up Cadie falls in love with Garret, the boy at the top of the cliff, requiring that everything she believes about him will be tested. So will the plot, as it careens into one challenge after another, some attempts to tidy all story lines feeling forced and overwritten.

But the true beauty of the story lies in the friendships of Cadie and Daniela–and the author even tells us that Cadie carries a copy of Huck Finn in her backpack, where she sometimes presses leaves she has gathered. Yes! Those passages are the beating heart of the novel, allowing us to wander through the childhood of the two girls. Yes there has to be danger and dramas, even Huck Finn dealt with that. But as a story teller, this is where Carrick Dalton’s talent lies–probably emanating from her own experiences on lakes and mountains, her love of nature and the secrets that it holds. The challenge of writing about the future of our forests and that of undocumented peoples in our country is a big one. This novel has focussed on aspects of both, requiring story lines that twist and turn, at one point, causing Cadie to become super-human, dealing with a ripped leg, then getting stitches with no pain meds, but that’s okay, because Cadie is immediately off to save someone else. 

The heart of this novel is its portrayal of a friendship, one that began in a yellow rowboat, two young girls off to pick blueberries in a place that must be theirs, as life is wide open, the sun is shining and when you have a Huck Finn heart, everything is an adventure. The novel might wish for every reader a friendship like that of Cadie and Daniela–I had one. I hope you did too. 

Thanks to Net Galley for a preview of this novel. And thanks to Julie. I had the privilege of reading part of her novel very early in its development. Thanks, Writer Friend. 

 

VALENTINE THOUGHT: ARE YOU LIVING ONLY FOR THE NOW?

VALENTINE THOUGHT: ARE YOU LIVING ONLY FOR THE NOW?Yesterday, watching how the Senate voted, it felt like THE NOW was their only concern. They seemed to be deciding that the power they had in that moment was more important than living into the future, than considering the people they represent. Grasping for their singular purpose, meant ignoring how they should have voted—for their constituents. But instead, many were still voting for just themselves, voting out of fear for that guy in the shadows.

STILL, I believe in democracy. It just doesn’t always work the way it should. Yes, we have checks and balances, but damn, our government reps don’t always hold on to the truth. And where would we be if the Framers had not been able to look into the future and realize that? (There was actual video and even that didn’t make a difference.) It didn’t touch some, the way it touched others. It’s power, that’s for certain. Fear of losing that power caused them to look away. 

THE NOW VERSUS THE FUTURE

I write this only to remind each of us that only considering THE NOW is not the best idea. We have to consider the future. There will be a tomorrow. That’s why many of us have children, to replace ourselves. Not for glory, but for love. It’s cynical to live in bubble that is only about you. And COVID, unfortunately has confined many of us to our little bubble.

But moments ago, my husband and I were able to communicate with our adult children, our grandchildren on this Valentine’s Day and that brings more love into our lives. We realize our good future.

SO LET’S ALL BELIEVE IN THE FUTURE, AND…HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY 

I hope you have sunshine (we have snow and sunshine) maybe some chocolate ( I am addicted to dark chocolate) and the voices or texts from those you love. Maybe even a glass of wine or some flowers. It doesn’t matter. We are gifts to each other. You are a gift to me. And I’m thinking about the future….because the “now” goes away—there is always tomorrow. And the sun will come out…

Photo, thanks to French Country Cottage