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Archive for January, 2011

Gilead

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

John Ames. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I am sometimes asked where I find the time to write a blog and to read blogs. I think, in this life, that you have to try to find the time to do the things that make you better; a better person, more rounded, more read, or whatever it is that makes you YOU. For me, it is, in part, putting pen to paper, reading, talking with people and interacting. I have learned so much in this process of blogging and grown in ways I would never have imagined, and in the past year or so,  I have discovered some amazing people who put down their thoughts, their artwork, their photos, themselves in this amazing medium called the internet.

One of the things I have discovered is book blogs. Folks the world over who read and who write and converse about what they read. They don’t just say this book or that book is good, or not. They bring me into the books they read and sometimes into their lives. They are all ages, men and women. They are even youth, reviewing books through guest postings on a relative’s blog. They give me hope in the future with the depth and knowledge they impart. Make no mistake, there are young people out there who a learning and eager, questioning and bright beyond the measure of standardized tests. I am constantly amazed at the words, the thoughts, the insights of book readers.

I still read reviews of best sellers in newspapers and magazines, but, they don’t often grab me with the passion and intrigue that book blogs do. Someday, I’ll figure out how to add to my site my favorite blogs. Until then, bear with me as I remark now and then about a few that are especially inspiring.

One of them was a passionate review of the Pulitzer Prize novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson on Rachel’s blog, BookSnob.  It left me longing to read this book.

Now, I have.

Gilead is the story of John Ames. No, it is more than that. It is the story of a father’s love for his son and an endearing gift to him as he prepares for the end of his life. It is 1956. Ames is suffering from heart disease and is writing a letter, a diary of sorts, for his seven year old son to read when he is grown. A son he has late in life. A child he never expected to have. A child he knows he will not see to adulthood. John Ames is Congregational minister, the son of a preacher, who was the son of preacher. John Ames is a good and loving and godly man.

I started reading Gilead after finishing A Reliable Wife. We had such a lively discussion of A Reliable Wife last week at our book discussion group. What we all seemed to agree on was the bleak darkness of the novel. Gilead, though told through the words in a letter of a man dying, is truly a book of lightness and faith and of hope. It was a perfect book to find me in the deep coldness of mid-January, and I marveled at its words, especially coming after such a dark book.

The story takes place in the worn out town of Gilead, Iowa. An epistolary tale, Robinson’s exquisite prose is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it received. In the act of writing a letter to be read some day by his grown son, John Ames tells his family’s story and talks of his own beliefs, his prayers and reading and sermons and the words he want to impart. He talks about everyday occurrences with such detail and love; the candle on a stack of pancakes and a sermon he couldn’t find a gift, wrapped with a ribbon on his 77th birthday by his wife, the red shirt his son is wearing, then outgrows, the qualities of sunlight and quiet. It is rich in scripture without being overbearing and gentle in a way I find hard to describe. It is told through the words of a learned man who is also a man of the cloth.  John Ames words are of fathers and sons, understanding and forgiveness and it is the story of the prodigal son as much as it is the story of living a real life in a purposeful manner. It is also the telling of a life-long friendship between two aging men, both ministers of different denominations, and their love of family.

Gilead is written in brief entries rather than chapters,  like a devotional or daybook, which is fortunate. They give pause in the story. This is a book I found I needed to rest in reading. It is, to me, so well written that it cannot be devoured in one sitting or two. I heard this from others, but didn’t quite understand until I began my own reading journey. It has to be savored and thought on and drawn out over time. There are passages so well and lovingly crafted that they took my breath away and brought simple tears to my eyes. There are passages I needed to read again and then again.

In a time of history where there seem to be so many unsavory stories of ministers and priests and preachers and clergy, it is so refreshing to read about Reverend John Ames. I felt heartened by this minister, a very good man, a man who could find the goodness in so many things, including his own impending death.

In the end, Gilead is the story of someone I wished I had known.  John Ames.

I felt privileged to meet him in the pages of Gilead.

There is a good interview of Marilynne Robinson by Terry Gross on NPR when the book first came out. It is about 25 minutes in length. Pour a cup of coffee or tea and click onto the feed. It is rich. You won’t need a cookie.

www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=449

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I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest things we know.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Above is the January 30 entry in A Year With Emerson, a beautiful daybook I received in a contest hosted late last year by Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm. Nan writes with regularity about life in her neck of the woods; books, poetry, cooking and life, and many other things in between. She has some of the best thoughts, and the best recipes around.

I’ve been enjoying this daybook, filled each day with words from Emerson – a teacher, even now. Today’s quote, smaller than most in the book, moved me to share it with all you reading my little post here on the Cutoff.

Thank you for being my friend.

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“Auntie, what does it mean that ‘it’s a steal’?”

(overheard being uttered by a little girl at the checkout counter of a department store while Christmas shopping)

Movie still of The Shop Around the Corner. Google image.

 

Have you ever seen “The Shop Around the Corner”? It was the first of three movies over a period of time, followed by “In the Good Old Summertime”, then, “You’ve Got Mail”, which I adore. Who can resist Jimmy Stewart as the salesman in the little shop in Budapest? It is my favorite.

The little girl in the quote above was shopping with her aunt. The aunt, being a good shopper, found an item whose price was too good to pass up. As she was paying for it, she made the comment “it’s a steal”. Her little charge was quite curious about her auntie stealing. Stealing is, of course, illegal, and a sin of the highest order. The little dear could not quite figure it out.

When our Jennifer was a little girl, a new shop opened in the town we lived in. Lucky Lee’s Kid’s Heaven. It was right around the corner from the train depot and chock full of dollar toys and gadgets. Children of every possible age eagerly awaited the opening of the doors, ourselves included. My mom was with us and, being a doting grandmother, she gave Jennifer a one dollar bill so that she could buy a little something.

The shop was packed with excited children and chatting moms. Most everyone knew someone else who was in the store at the time. You know how it goes when you have youngsters. The grocery store, the cleaners, the post office. All nesting grounds.

Jennifer came up to me with a little something in her hands. “Mommy. How much does this cost?”.  It was fifty cents, but, in my haste, I said “It’s a half-dollar, honey.”. It was the chuckling behind me that drew my attention as I saw my dear child, who took everything one said literally, her head barely reaching the check-out counter, eagerly ripping her dollar bill in half.

Do you have any shop talk stories?

 

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Duck . . .

.  .  .  and cover.

 

R. Kenton Nelson. Lessons

Do any of you remember this?

By the time I was in second or third grade, I was pretty certain that in a nuclear attack, this pose wasn’t going to save me.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. I suppose the media attention lately to the space program and how the successful launch of Sputnik by the Russians so many years ago now spurred the United States on in the quest to the moon has something to do with it.

As idyllic and loving my childhood was, I was also afraid. I was very afraid of an atomic bomb being dropped (living so close to O’Hare Airport with planes often soaring over head probably didn’t help). Every cloud in the sky was a mushroom cloud in my imagination and I was sure I would be blinded by its intensity if I looked up. I quietly prayed that my folks would build a bomb shelter in our backyard. Instead they poured a cement driveway and bought a Chevy. Me? I regularly checked the kitchen cabinets to make sure there were canned goods stored – just in case.

I remember Sputnik.  The foreign sound of the word, an acronym for something I didn’t understand, and a big ball in space whose purpose I couldn’t imagine.

My father came home after work one evening, called cousin Teddy over from next door, and told us we were going to find Sputnik in the sky when it got dark. My dad had a way of making a game out of science and history and world events.

Each and every new year, the Sunday magazine of a Chicago paper printed, on its cover, the license plates of every state in the Union. They were displayed, alphabetically, across the front. Daddy would carefully tear off the cover and we were each encouraged to see how many license plates we could see on the back of a car before the year had ended. Not an easy thing to do when you rarely got in a car and when you did, the car didn’t go very far. We did live across the street from a ramp to the Eisenhower Expressway, however, and, by sitting on our front porch in summer, many a car would drive by and we would identify the plates.

One evening, however, it wasn’t license plates we were perusing, it was Sputnik. Daddy explained that it would look like a big, moving star. He showed us the direction it would be traveling and he pointed to where it should appear. There we stood, we three adolescents. Teddy and Dottie and Penny. Peering and talking and pointing out stars and imagining being in outer space. It was a clear night and all things seemed possible and then, I saw it! A big star moving and I said “there it is” and there it was. Sputnik. There it was and we watched it travel until we could see it no more.

My Dad gave me a hug and called me a pet name, Eagle Eye. He said I could find anything, and, you know, I really thought I could. He said that Sputnik was an important development and that we should remember it and that it would change things in our world that we couldn’t yet imagine.

It did.

We accelerated our space program. Soon we were sending astronauts into space and we were aiming for the moon. It was an exciting time and our collective imaginations soared, higher and higher with each new launch and the earth suddenly started to seem smaller. Information and technology and medicine all reaped the rewards of new knowledge and techniques and treatments, and so did we, though we don’t often think of it, do we?

Laser technology and microchips and blood glucose monitors and GPS systems and yes, Tang,  and on and on. When I take the time to think about this, I am overwhelmed. I think of the air raid drills that were a part of school and of “duck and cover”, squirming under a desk in case of an attack, a primitive attempt at civil defense if there ever was one. There I would wonder, my hands over my head, if my real problem would be getting stuck under my desk. I think of my dad, a pretty neat dad, who could make a game out of a magazine cover – or what I imagined as a piece of aluminum floating across our night sky and how he helped me to be not quite so afraid anymore.

I thought of it all today, sitting on an examining chair, in the ophthalmologist’s office, with all the new gadgets and doohickies and magnifiers and charts, and I didn’t even have to “duck and cover”.

 

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Kate’s provocative post on geese yesterday reminded me of some words I was holding in a draft folder about these great migrators. I read her fascinating post with interesting information about geese and about the ships that carried convicted men to Australia. Her posts are well-written and well-researched and, since I’m on “w”, witty and wise. They usually have me turning to Google, or a dictionary (remember those?) for a definition or more on a subject. This happened yesterday and it opened up a whole new appreciation for geese.

Here, in the States, in our own prairie state, in the northerly reaches known proudly as the Land-of-Lincoln, geese have become a somewhat pesty situation for some. Big corporations and well landscaped housing developments have gone to great lengths to discourage their presence. Forest preserve and park districts often resort to unpleasant tactics to prevent the hatching of eggs.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, however, so, let me backtrack.

As a child, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we rarely saw geese. Their autumnal migration to warmer climes were punctuated by their primal call, high up in the sky, their V formation making them easy to find and say “hey, there are geese heading south”. The same pattern soared overhead, the same phrase, with a new word interchanged “hey, there are geese heading north”. They, the words and the geese, punctuated the arrival of spring as sure as the tips of tulips emerging and chirp of robins building nests and warned of the advancing winter as sure as the fallen leaves.

A shift occurred. Did it come slowly? Perhaps. Did it follow overdevelopment of land? I tend to think so. Geese still migrate south, but, there are communities of them residing hereabouts all winter now, and their primal calls are more often seen as they tie up traffic while slowly crossing the road. There is often an impatient driver, forced to stop and wait, especially in late spring, as a family with new goslings go out for a stroll. They driver will honk his horn, only to receive a retort from the long-necked birds, wondering why this new beast is honking at them.

We hear the geese now, safe and warm in our house here on the Cutoff, sipping on coffee in our north-facing living room, me on our primal red leather couch, Tom on his great granddad’s rocking chair. We rock and we sip and we chat – and then, suddenly, we see them, not overhead, for there are no skylights in the living room, but reflected in our glass coffee table, perfectly positioned to catch the sky, as they soar overhead, a perfect image of them and their orderly descent. We see their reflections, their precise formation, wings extended, just before they start honking and come in for a landing at the creek that flows across the way at a neighbor’s habitat.

I captured a few inquisitive geese, posing quite properly, a few weeks ago with my trusty camera. I’d watched the flock come in for a landing as I made my way down the drive on the daily journey to the mailbox. There they were, looking back at me, over the span of the road and the landscape. They watched me get the mail from the curbside box and were unfazed by the deer grazing nearby. We all try to get along here on the Cutoff. Most days it works pretty well.

Thanks, Kate, for your enlightening post yesterday, and every other day as well, as you write and ponder and inform us from across the bigger pond that divides us by thousands of miles.

Illustrations from The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader.


 

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Since You Went Away

Along with making chicken dumpling soup and watching the Chicago Bears lose to Green Bay on Sunday, I also watched one of my favorite movies, an oldie, about the war years and keeping up the home front.

It was a wonderful afternoon for the evocative black and white film of Anne Hilton, wife of Tim, who has gone off to fight World War II. Anne is the mother of  Jane and Brig, pictured here. To make ends meet, Anne decides to take in a border, the curmudgeonly Colonel Smollet. An old family friend, Tony, who has always secretly (or maybe not so secretly) loved Anne, and the faithful housekeeper/cook, Fedelia, who now has another job, but asks to stay with the Hilton family to help out, add to the jolly mix of characters keeping the home fires burning.

“Since You Went Away” is one of my favorites. How can it not be with the darling Claudette Colbert and the handsome Joseph Cotton taking the leads. It is mostly a “feel good” story of honest, caring folks who try to keep a stiff upper lip during the war years.

The Hiltons live in a very nice house – a charming Cape Cod. The Hilton’s were definitely upper middle class at the outset of the war. We know Mr. Hilton mostly through letters Anne writes to him that we hear her speaking as she composes them, and by all the wonderful things she and the girls say about their Pop.

Have you seen “Since You Went Away”? It reminds me of another favorite movie of mine, “Mrs. Miniver”.

Like “Mrs. Miniver”, this movie has it shares of silliness and a snob or two thrown in. There is plenty of wartime music with a dance at the Canteen.  It has its share of bearing up with bad news, sadness, and sacrifices (though it hasn’t the constant bombings of “Mrs. Miniver”). It is, mostly, a feel good movie of love of country and of family, of sticking together and the women who were left at home.

Jennifer Jones is the dark haired sister above. She plays Jane, who falls in love with a soldier about to be shipped to the front. Can you guess who plays her younger sister, Brig, whose head is on Anne’s lap?

Tom watched a good part of “Since You Went Away” with me, which was awfully nice of him. Doesn’t that sound dated: awfully nice? The movie is more of what we now call a “chick flick”. I owed him a few hours of grid iron action for watching me sniffle in black and white, don’t you agree? He knows how I love these old movies, and I’ll bet some of you do as well.

Do you have a favorite movie of the 1940′s?

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Dumplings and Bears

Sunday was another very cold day. Snow flurries had dusted the icy pavement the night before. The “Big Game” was on and I’d promised Tom I would watch it with him. He knew I was humoring him. It is no secret that I do not enjoy football. Archrivals, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, were roughing it out on Soldier Field, our temple to the football gods along the Great Lake, Michigan. The Bears lost, of course. Chicago roots for their teams with baited breath and this one had all hyperventilating for a win on Sunday against our famous foe from a few hundred miles north. A win would mean a chance to compete in the Super Bowl.

Watching sports in Chicagoland is a trying adventure.

So, I pretended to watch, knowing I wasn’t fooling anyone, though I did catch a few excellent passes. Well, I didn’t catch them, I saw them, but, then, you know what I mean. See? I’m not a football fan, which can be considered un-American, but, oh well, there you have it. True confession time.

The sun was streaming in the windows, bathing the family room with warmth, and distracting me. Out came the camera, and there I sat, with the “Big Game” playing out and its screaming legions of fans, and one very disappointed Tom. He saw the shadows as well, however, and there we were, each with our own camera, focussing on curtains. Curtains!  Ha! It was, in the end, curtains for the Chicago Bears!

. . . and all-the-while, a big pot of soup was bubbling on the stove, waiting to warm and nourish us once the sun set. A good way to end a cold Sunday, don’t you agree? Chicken and dumpling soup.

 

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Slip Sliding Away

All this slipping and sliding I was writing about yesterday reminded me of a song I once knew. How about you?

Here’s a little Simon and Garfunkel to pass the time.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuISQ71-uh8

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Step, step, slide

 

Children Sliding on the Ice by Agnes M. Clausen

I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I was approaching a stop sign. I was driving on a well-travelled street in town. A smaller, but active, business district of Elmhurst. The street was dry, cleared of snow, but the sidewalks were glistening sheets of ice. The snow, then the rain, followed by sub-zero temperatures all conspired  to make sidewalks and driveways dangerous paths to be on.

There he was, heading home from school, backpack secured, oblivious to everything but the path before him, making good time, and sliding all the way.

Step, step, slide.

Step, step, slide.

I smiled as I watched him, making better time getting to his destination than I to mine. It brought back a childhood memory of going to school on such a winter day.

We lived six and one half blocks from our grade school. It was called grade school as it went through all grades before high school, and the six and one half block distance was always accented by my mother. I know not why; what made it so important to say, but, say it she did when anyone asked.

My sister and I were schoolchildren of the fifties and sixties. Baby boomers growing up in the sprawling suburbs of Chicago. We lived in an area peppered with neighborhood schools, and more being built as the years rolled on. Our school, Roosevelt, was an older building, however, and named for the first Roosevelt president, Theodore. It was six (and one half) blocks from our house; across some busy streets, over a bridge that spanned the newly built Congress Expressway, down Bataan Drive, and a series of residential corners that we crossed before arriving at school.

In the time we attended Roosevelt School, from kindergarten to eighth grade, the Congress Expressway became the Eisenhower. There was a flurry of renaming roadways in our collective grief after the assassination of President Kennedy. Our highways here are hard to keep track off, as any one visiting will attest to. Numbered routes become named ones and are often interjected with the East/West or Tri-State, or Reagan or Dan Ryan, adding to the confusion. Our school route remained the same, however, and kept us all on course. (Bataan Drive remains, to this day. A street named to honor the many men from Maywood who were killed on that long, horrible Bataan march in the war.)

We were children then, however, and didn’t think of such things. Our purpose was to get to school and back each day and we followed the required route four times a day, most of us going home for lunch. There were days on end of  ways to get to school. In the spring, after yet another showing of “The Wizard of Oz”, we linked arms, a scarecrow, a tin woodsman, a cowardly lion, and Dorothy (guess who always got to be Dorothy?) and hop-skipped, singing along our imaginary yellow brick road “we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz“.  There was the picket fenced backyard to peer into along an alley where the owner kept ducks. We would quack all the way home in fall, until there were leaves to shuffle in. Come winter, there was snow mounded up where the plows had been that we would slide down, pretending we were skiing with Jean Claude Killy on a foot of snow (like, duh?)  - and then, there were the long patches of ice to slide on.

Sliding to school took concentration. Step right, step left and slide. Step right, step left and slide.

You can only imagine, if you have read of my stumbling steps over a time here on this blog, that my sliding to school was a dangerous sport. Somehow, I managed. Sheer stubbornness, I suppose, and a well-padded coat. Off I would go, slightly terrified but determined. My red galoshes and a scarf over my mouth, another scarf over my head, only my eyes visible, my glasses steaming up from my breath, usually causing my lips to be stuck on the scarf, schoolbooks clutched in mittened hands, a pair of corduroy pants under my school dress, sliding and gliding and falling with remarkable speed, onward and downward to Roosevelt school.

I smiled at the youngster, alone in his trek, and wondered how in the world I survived in one piece!

 

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Remarkable speeches came out of World War II. It was a time of gifted orators. Speakers who could capture the emotions of a people, whether good or bad. Hitler. Stalin. Theirs were the cadence and rhythm and fiery words that brought forth history’s most dastardly atrocities. Churchill and Roosevelt. Contemporaries that we, on both sides of pond, still quote.  Their words and their voices the inspiration of goodness and the fortitude they called forth.

In between them all was the man who did not want to be king. A man who rose to the position and its responsibilities with integrity. A man who did what was needed. A man whose speech was flawed. That man was King George VI. Bertie to his family. Once third in line to ascend the throne, he became King of England at the abdication of the throne by his brother, King Edward VIII, who reigned less than a year after becoming king. The brother whose scandalous love of a twice divorced woman, Wallis Simpson, we are more familiar with. It was Edward’s younger brother, Bertie, who carried his country through the worst of times, through the Blitz and the fear, and the ravages of war.

I found myself, mid-afternoon, with several hours to spare. Not enough time to go home and then turn around and go back to Elmhurst, I went to the York Theater to see a movie instead. It is funny how things sometimes work out “just so”. This was a “just so” moment.

I saw “The King’s Speech”.

It is a beautifully executed movie. A story of one man’s torment with a speech. A man who would become king.

Everything you have heard about Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George VI and his debilitating stammer, and everything you have heard about Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of Lionel Logue, the King’s unlikely speech therapist, is true. It is a brilliant picture and they each give remarkable performances, if often painful ones as well. I found myself breathing heavily and wanting to push the words forth from Firth’s mouth as he stammered. His face, his eyes, the pain they evoked in his faltered speech was palpable. Rush’s determination and his creativity in his unorthodox treatments are sometimes humorous, always forthright in their execution. He made me care.

The two are paired up with the wonderful performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, who would become the beloved Queen Mother of Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. I hope the Queen sees the greatness of her father and her mother if she should see the movie. If it were my mum and dad, I think I would find it painful to watch.

In the end, it is the story of the King’s actual speech at the outset of the second World War and the strength and fortitude he offered to his people – a people much admired by this American.

Go see it. Go see “The King’s Speech” and tell me what you think.

 

King George VI

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