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Simple Things

Paper.

Scissors.

Pencil. 

Glue. 

Simple things we didn’t have.

Simple things once taken for granted. 

Stolen. 

Bartered.

Traded.

Simple things brought great risks. 

Zlatka, page 258, “Paper Hearts” by Meg Wiviott

A book, written in poetry, just broke my heart. I closed it, felt a heaviness clutch my soul and wondered at how the human spirit can shine through the very worst of times..

I first heard of “Paper Hearts” through an interview of Meg Wiviott on El Space – The Blog of L. Marie. As with many of L. Marie’s posts, an author and book captured my attention. Based on a true story, “Paper Hearts” has been sitting on my book pile for many months – until the other day. I don’t know if it was the sad passing of Elie Wiesel, or maybe the terrors in the world right now and the unsettling political rhetoric, but, something compelled me to pick this book up and read it – and it is yet another book of this summer that I could not put down.

Told alternately in the voices of Zlatka and Fania, we follow each girl from the Pruzany and Bialystok Ghettos, into packed cattle cars to concentration camps. Auschwitz. Ravensbrück. The Malchow armament factory. Forced marches. Starvation. Fear. Atrocities. Disease. Death.

In the midst of all the despair, Zlatka does the unthinkable. She makes a small, heart shaped book, sewn together with a thread here, another one there, crafting pages that fold inward. Friends secretly pass the heart shaped pages to each other, writing birthday sentiments. Zlatka’s small creation becomes a book of birthday wishes for Fania’s twentieth birthday. Any one of these 51w829OOxIL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_things, if discovered, would be reason for execution. The little heart book unfolds to greetings, such as

When you get old, put your glasses on your nose, take this album in your hand and read my signature again, My love Fani, Mina.” 

Zlatka’s action was a remarkable act of sacrifice for a friend, as it was for each of the girls who wrote a birthday greeting to Fania. Forbidden acts punishable by death. Fania is deeply touched by her friends’ acts of caring, kindness, and creativity and doubly surprised by the birthday cake Zlatka makes, using rations of moistened bread formed into the shape of a cake. Fania carries this little book with her, also an act of defiance, keeping it hidden, close to her heart, under her flimsy dress.

“Paper Hearts” is a moving novel, based on a true story of courage in unthinkable, inhumane conditions in German concentration camp during World War II. Reading it during in real-time, when rounding up people because of their religion, ancestry, and any number of reasons, brought to me a heightened feeling concern.

 While I enjoy poetry, I will confess that I wasn’t sure how reading “Paper Hearts” in poetic form would feel. I can tell you that it feels quite comfortable and does not distract from the prose at all. I can also tell you that each and every poem, chapters in “Paper Hearts”,  stand on their own. Simple Things, quoted at the beginning of this post, is an example. This is a young adult book, but, it is a book for adults as well. I encourage you to read it, perhaps share it with a young person in your life, and never forget.

“Paper Hearts” comes with an extensive glossary and bibliography.

The real Zlatka’s testimony can be found here. Click on Solidarity.

The image above is Fania’s real birthday book, which is on display at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial and Centre. More information can be found here and here .

Image is from Simon & Schuster Canada here

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The Chairs That No One Sits In – by Billy Collins

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You see them on porches and on lawns
down by the lakeside,
usually arranged in pairs implying a couple

who might sit there and look out
at the water or the big shade trees.
The trouble is you never see anyone

sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes there is a little table
between the chairs where no one
is resting a glass or placing a book facedown.

It may not be any of my business,
but let us suppose one day
that everyone who placed those vacant chairs

on a veranda or a dock sat down in them
if only for the sake of remembering
what it was they thought deserved

to be viewed from two chairs,
side by side with a table in between.
The clouds are high and massive on that day.

The woman looks up from her book.
The man takes a sip of his drink.
Then there is only the sound of their looking,

the lapping of lake water, and a call of one bird
then another, cries of joy or warning—
it passes the time to wonder which.

( from Aimless Love)

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A book often finds its way into the hands and the heart of a reader at just the right moment. It can sit, unattended, for months, balancing chapters on a TBR pile, gathering IMG_9159dust or jockeying for a place higher up in the queue. It can rest inside a large, canvas tote filled with wrappers, receipts, and to-do lists,  intended reading over a latte, or a companion to pass the time in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. Books are always patient and kind awaiting their grand opening. So it was with Tyra Manning’s compelling memoir, “Where the Water Meets the Sand”.  I found myself opening its pages on a hot, humid summer afternoon and closed it a few days later with tears in my eyes and hope in my soul.

In the summer of 1970, a very young Tyra and her husband,  First Lieutenant Larry Hull. holding their baby daughter, bid farewell as he boarded a plane destined for Viet Nam. Before being deployed, Larry, a pilot, bought a trailer home for his young family and encouraged Tyra to continue her college education and become a teacher. They made plans for when he would have some R&R in Hawaii; they would meet where the water meets the sand. As he prepared to leave, Tyra promised Larry that he would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery if he was killed in the war.

On February 2, 1971, First Lieutenant Larry Hull’s plane, on a secret mission under heavy enemy fire, went down in a jungle in Laos. Tyra was notified that her husband had died instantly. His body was not found. Devastated, Tyra called her mother and made plans for Larry’s funeral.

At the time of Larry’s death, Tyra was being treated for clinical depression at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Her doctor came to her room at the clinic to deliver her the horrible news.

As her father slowly faded from heart disease and her mother and father were often away for long periods of time,  seeking out doctors and treatments, Tyra and her brother were cared for by relatives and friends. Her father’s early death was overwhelming and vivid in Tyra’s memory. Tyra experienced even more heartache and loss early in her early years, leading to a rebellious teen and underperformed scholastically, acute depression, addictions, and an overwhelming fear of loss. Immobilized by fear and depression and fearing the safety and well-being of her young daughter, Tyra bravely sought help at the famed Menninger Clinic, her daughter being cared for by others, much as Tyra was as a child.

Tyra eventually earned her teaching certificate, became a principal, and then a well-regarded school superintendent. A champion for children, she raised her daughter, and conquered her illnesses with courage and determination.

Her personal journey is much more, however. “Where the Water Meets the Sea” is a beacon of hope for those who battle mental health issues, bulimia, binging, purging, cutting, alcoholism, drug addictions . . . Tyra Manning’s journey is one in which there IS a light at the end of the dark tunnels of life. It is also a touchstone to those adults, myself included, who have lost a parent early in their life and a recognition of how many carry that loss with them long into adulthood.

Dr. Manning’s story is also a testament to the burden of military families, as well as of veterans, who often bear their wounds and scars in ways we cannot see. SPOILER ALERT  Tyra Banks gives us a personal perspective of the uniquely heavy loss of a loved one whose body is never returned, as well as the “what if” should one’s remains be found.  Larry’s remains were located more than three decades after he was lost to war. It was not just a journey for Tyra, but, for the men in his unit as well, many of whom Tyra later meets and hears, first hand, of how Larry died, when he is finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Their own sadness at not being able to return his body is expressed and Dr. Manning seems sensitive to in her writing.

For every adult who still carries his or her inner child who lost a parent at an early age, this is a book to read.

For every family member of military whose loved one never come back from war, this is a book to read.

For everyone with immobilizing fears, anxiety, depression, and mental health issues, this is a book to read.

For you, dear reader, this is a book to read.

Thank you, Dr. Manning. Your courage to seek help and your courage to tell your story is inspiring and, in spite of the sadness and pain, your story is a gift, especially for the millions of people who seek that spot where the water meets the sand.

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9780525953005_custom-1a7b1faa66fe002fff8a3604f6c0f3534d546b1c-s600-c85James and Sadie Goodenough are stuck; figuratively and literally stuck in the Black Water Swamp of Ohio. Settlers from Connecticut, they head west in the 1830s with their children in a wagon. The wagon gets stuck in the mud of the swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio. There, James and Sadie remain, until the day they die.

At the start of the story, 1838, the Goodenoughs have already lost 5 children from swamp fever. All but their son, Robert,   have suffered from  the swamp fever.  It is a hard existence, made all the harder by the temperaments of Sadie and James. A dysfunctional family, James is quick to use the switch on his children, and the back of his hand on Sadie. Sadie provokes him, which does not make it right, but, she is downright mean and will sit and watch her children being beaten for something she herself has done, with a smirk on her face.

The Goodenoughs settle in the Black Water Swamp and set to raising apples. James adores the “eaters”, while Sadie craves the “spitters” – or, rather, she craves the apple jack made from the “spitters”.  The apples are at the core of their hatred for each other and are the seeds of their bitterness. Life at the Goodenoughs is hard and dark and often unbearable. For Sadie, the infrequent visits of a John Chapman are the only bright spots in her life.  Chapman stops by several times a year with apple saplings and seeds, and to take the “spitters” to be pressed for cider, which is used to make apple jack. Chapman is more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed.

So goes the first part of this book, told in the voices of Sadie and James. It is at times difficult to read and so full of darkness that one can almost feel the despair of the Black Water Swamp. One might say the Sadie drowns her difficult life in the apple jack, but, there are hints that she brings other issues to the Goodenoughs and I found myself wondering why they ever married each other in the first place. The first part ends in unbelievable violence, in the apple orchard. All of the living Goodenough children are in the orchard, and it is there that the author leaves them, taking us to the second part of the book, told in the voice of Robert, the favored son.

We follow Robert across the prairies, the mountains, the Gold Rush – and eventually to Northern California. Robert writes home to his siblings still living, he assumes,  in the Blackwater Swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio, asking them how they are, have they survived episodes of swamp fever, and he asks for them to write back at various addresses he gives them. Robert eventually ends up in the Redwood forests, under the great sequoia, collecting seeds and saplings for a company in England.  Robert is back in an orchard, though a much different kind.

The third part of the book brings surprises in the form of two women and some gentler, kinder characters as Robert suddenly finds himself face-to-face with his Ohio past.

“The Edge of the Orchard” had me spellbound, even in the hard, dark times of the story. Sadie was as bitter as the “spitters” she craved and James was hard and selfish. Both were as stuck in their anger toward each other as they were in the Black Water Swamp. The historical aspects of the story fascinated me. While I knew a bit about John Chapman and how apples were planted in part of the eastern United States, I did not know much about the redwoods and the sequoia in the west, or of the plant trade between the States and England. I found this section fascinating.

It was also surprising for me to find such a large part of this novel written around Perrysburg, Ohio.  My mother-in-law grew up on a farm not far from Perrysburg, and would talk about her early life on the farm, which was closer to a much smaller town. I did not know about the Black Water Swamp. Chevalier’s book had me on an adventure reading up on the Black Water Swamp, and then reading more on the sequoia.

“The Edge of the Orchard” had me, at times, on the edge of my seat, or, more accurately, sitting in my car listening to the audio of this book. I think that reading this book via a recording made it a bit easier. At least it did in hearing the voices of the main characters. This book was spellbinding; another notable book from Tracy Chevalier, who wrote “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”.

Have you read anything by Ms. Chevalier?

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Walther_Firle_The_fairy_taleBooks. Books. Books.

I love this painting! Three children seemingly attentive to whatever is on the pages of a book, warm light streaming in, potted plants on the window ledge, and pinafores. I’m a pinafore sort of girl. Penelope Pinafore.

My reading has been rather sparse lately, what with cleaning up the garden, fiddling around with flower arrangements, writing reports, walking down paths – and general socializing, my eyes tend to grow window shades when I sit down to read these days. There are a few tidbits I’ve dipped into, however, and I thought I might share them with you.

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Our book group just discussed Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley; In Search of America”. While we were somewhat divided on whether or not we liked this classic, or finished reading it, we did have an engaging conversation around it. I was taken in with the simpler prose and rich language of the time and of a rural America that was already vanishing.  I found the photo above googling around. It is of Steinbeck’s traveling home, which he christened Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. The photo is from here.

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An audio book kept me company during a long spell of meetings and things to attend that had me driving to and fro. It was Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927” and centers itself on events and personalities leading up to or following that memorable summer. This was a fun book to listen to. Bryson himself reads it. It is chock full of facts and numbers and tidbits of the times with a bit of Bryson’s own humor thrown in.

From the epic trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindberg in a “flimsy” plane to Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, Al Capone and Babe Ruth, professional boxing, the invention of television by a young man, and the many nuances of a spit ball, ” . . . 1927 ” was an interesting book that had me pressing “stop” often and reflecting on how the mood of the country and of the world then was in many ways similar to 2016.

Image of book from Bill Bryson’s website.

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Wrapping this all up is a read I hope to get back to soon. On recommendation from our daughter, Katy, I checked out Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow”.

Jonas Crow is orphaned as a very young boy. He is taken in by an elderly aunt and uncle, who care for him lovingly and give him some of the happiest  and most secure times of his life. When they die, leaving him still a child, he is placed in an orphanage. Like all the children there, he is known simply by the first letter of his name.  J. J  learns his lessons just well enough to pass classes, knowing he can do much better, and feels he has a calling to ministry, which affords him a college scholarship.

Jayber, as he becomes known, abandons his studies, is a bit of a vagabond for a spell, and eventually becomes the barber of the small town of Port William, Kentucky, where he lives out his life and loves a woman he can never marry. It is where he struggles with his beliefs, and lives a simple life.

After several renewals, “Jayber Crow” found its way back to the library before I could finish it. “Jayber Crow” is actually a book I think I may purchase, for it is yet another book whose language and imagery are rich and whose pages I think I would return to often as it is a rather long, contemplative journey worth taking.

Have you experienced a good read lately?

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IMG_6084On a recent Saturday morning, a contingency of garden club members, clippers in hand, were led by library staff to the basement. They were on a mission of horticultural concern. The library, Elmhurst Public Library to be precise, was preparing for an open house in celebration of their 100th anniversary. The Elmhurst Garden Club, which is celebrating their 90th anniversary, was asked to make table decorations.

What an exciting, innovative time the early 1900’s must have been. All around the Chicago suburban area (not to mention the city of Chicago itself) growth was apparent. Passenger lines, such as the “L”, were winding their way out to the suburbs, where forest preserve park districts, local park districts and libraries were being established. These were visionary folks who looked toward the future with a sense of the common good that should be found in their communities. It was also a burgeoning time in which women’s organizations were formed; clubs where women had a chance to gather, but, more importantly, where they could do good things and make a difference outside of their homes.

So it was that on this particular Saturday morning, for several hours, at least a baker’s dozen worked, under the expert eye of Marie, arranging flowers in slim bud vases, chatting and laughing as women are wont to do. A few members took what was left of the flowers to make more substantial bouquets for the library’s reception desk, circulation desk, etc. They were beautiful.

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The next morning, many of us wandered in for a delicious pancake breakfast. Imagine that!  Pancakes! In the library!  I keep saying, dear reader, that the most “happening” places today are local libraries.  Several of us, plates of buckwheat, s’more, or apple fritter pancakes found tables in the children’s section, while a combo played, and I enjoyed the best conversation on bakeries with my friend Jean’s husband.

Eventually, we were invited upstairs to one of the study rooms, where we all grabbed vases of flowers.  Imagine us, if you will; flower girls, again.

One of the best treats of the morning was hearing my name called out. “Penny”. At first, I thought it to be the aforementioned Jean, but, quickly realized it was the woman behind her. Well, by gosh and by golly, it was none other than Dawn of Petals. Paper. Simple Thymes. We have been trying, for ages, to meet up and there we were, face-to-face, in a place we both love – the library.

Dawn and I met up again, upstairs. We chatted some more and decided to have our photo taken. What fun! As we walked out, a staff member asked if we would like to scan our photos and send to our phone, email, etc.  Isn’t it amazing?  100 years after its inception, in a public library, perhaps working on a term paper – or looking to build a chicken coop – you can scan the pages of a book and send it to your computer or phone?

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But wait. There’s more.

Many libraries now have meeting rooms for big groups or small. Card holders can check out tools and blenders, knit with friends, watch a movie or attend a lecture. One can request a book, from another library, and have it waiting for you, and many libraries now have designated spaces for teens.

As a teenager, I was often in the library. I relished the day I was old enough to go the main branch of the Maywood library. I loved browsing the shelves, doing research for a term paper, and discovering all sorts of magazines I never knew existed, but, I did so in a hushed atmosphere, where even turning the pages of a book were quiet pursuits. Today, teens can meet up in a room like this, work on projects, write on a glass-like board, study, or, just hang out. Pretty wonderful, I think.

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Elmhurst Public Library!

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IMG_5832. . . on yet another bookish adventure in my inter-library loan system, this time at the Indian Prairie Library,  I noticed this poster as I started to walk out. I decided right then and there to sign up for the lecture, which was to begin in about thirty minutes. Sometimes spontaneity becomes an illustrative page in time.

The meeting room was close to being a full house as interested library patrons and others gathered for the lecture. I was actually surprised at the 1 pm turnout. It looked to be at least 60 people – a good number on snowy weekday afternoon.

Isn’t it amazing what public libraries provide?  From the Lannon stone structure in Western Springs that recently gave me solace, to the day I was “mullioned” –  and lived to tell the tale – libraries have also been havens for me. They not only house books; they instill knowledge and awareness through lectures and provide places to meet, to learn, to expand our knowledge. Public libraries are such treasures, but, you already know that.

The Chicago ‘L’ is an integral part of the City and suburban transport system. It grew out of the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire with its early transports taking patrons to the Columbian Exposition. The Windy City and the ‘L” grew in tandem, raising the City of Big Shoulders up from the ashes and expanding it outward to the north, the south, and the west, part and parcel to eventual urban and IMG_6010 suburban sprawl.

I found Greg Borzo to be an interesting, entertaining and engaging speaker.  A noteworthy historian with a passion for the City of Chicago, I know I would enjoy having him for a docent on a Chicago tour. He proceeded to bring the steel and beams of Chicago’s elevated trains to life as he mapped the history of early means of transportation in the late 1800’s with many vintage photos, some of which I am showing here and credit to Greg Borzo’s book, “The Chicago “L” ” .

I am most familiar with the Lake Street “L” and can vividly remember my first time on it, catching the “L” in Oak Park with my mother, heading downtown to the dentist, whose office was in the Field Annex  of Marshall Fields.  So clear is my memory of all the stops along the way and all the stations, up in the air, where people got off and people got on. I remember Ma saying,  “Penny, we are now in the Loop” as the train circled round, making a loop, squeaking as it turned, the upper floor windows of businesses so close I could see in them. I hoped it wouldn’t fall down while in awe, catching the sun as it would  play hide and seek sun, peaking around the skyscrapers.

Greg Borzo spoke of the many train lines that are all a part of the “L” system and how the subway eventually came into being, an underground system of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). He showed photos of workers digging out the mud, underground, to form the tunnels that would accommodate the underground trains.

I was particularly interested in the funeral train cars, recalling childhood stories of how my paternal grandfather’s coffin, family and mourners were taken from the City to Elmwood Cemetery in the suburbs. The train my Papou’s coffin was transported in would not have been on the “L”, but, the funeral car would have looked similar to the one I show here from the book.  I can only imagine the long ordeal of sadness and grief, riding the rail out of the city to suburban areas during the Great Depression.

On a lighter note, we were also reminded of the many movies with scenes filmed on the Chicago “L”.  Can you name any?

Do you have an elevated transport system where you live?  Have you ever ridden on an elevated train?

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I can’t wait to see what my next library visit brings.

Photos are from The Chicago “L”  by Greg Borzo

 

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