Looking for Mr. (and Ms) Goodness: Writers and Teachers Who Inspire

“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us… Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprised, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable….In a higher manner, the poet communicates the same pleasure. By a few strokes he delineates, as on air, the sun, the mountain, the camp, the city, the hero, the maiden, not different from what we know them, but only lifted from the ground and afloat before the eye. He unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.” An excerpt from “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson   What a pleasure it is to bask in Emerson’s words, even if his style from the mid-nineteenth century requires slow, close reading. When I reread this essay, it brings me back to my first meeting (with his work) in high school. I still feel that intimacy of recognition as if he is speaking directly to me, tapping me on the shoulder, creating the “bling!” moment of a new idea. This was my introduction to what a poet might be doing – unfixing nature and experience. Until then, I hadn’t a clue and I hadn’t expected to fall in love with a man ten times my age.   I was fortunate to have an English teacher in 1962, Miss Whalen from California, who not only immersed her students in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but also hired a bus and took us on the three-hour trip from Connecticut to Concord, Massachusetts. She wore the same spike heeled shoes that day as she […]

Writers and Their Mothers: A Journey in Fur

I dealt with the furs today. I went to Mesahekow Furs in Waterford with the mink, the muskrat, the persian lamb, the black rabbit, the Russian squirrel stole and the formerly white bunny wraps (they are yellowed now, like rabbits who need a bath). Since my mother’s death in 2008, I kept her furs in the same cedar closet where they had lived for years. Downsizing furs is not easy. I don’t wear fur, but these felt like my mother’s pets. I’m feeling sentimental about a bunch of dead animal skins or perhaps I need to honor my mother’s eccentricities. The showroom at Mesahekow’s had the temperature and mysterious darkness of a wine cellar and might have been painted pale blue except the walls were in shadow. This is the only furrier within one hundred miles of the cedar closet. The spot lighting here and there cast light only in certain directions, highlighting  ghostly fur-clad mannequins and creating dark corners in the rest of the room like the interior of a ship sailing near Antarctica in the endless night winter season or some other frozen place. Furs need to be cold and I suppose if the room was warm no one could be enticed to try on one of these dead creatures. In cold and darkness fur feels warm and safe. An igloo atmosphere, cave-like, makes it enticing.  Fur bespeaks luxury and survival. Capturing, skinning, preserving this amount of warmth against snow and ice could be the difference between the life and death of a hunter. Nate, the furrier in charge, didn’t look like much of a hunter but […]

Vintage Food: Recipe for Nostalgia

Vintage food is not “old” food as in – past its prime; uneatable; expired. It’s not that bulging tin can of stewed tomatoes with cryptic black lettering suggesting it was best eaten before 1985. It is the food we remember like a perfect postcard of something delicious that mom or gramma prepared (maybe dad, although I only remember my father standing in front of the stove once to put out a small fire I started at age seven while making toast on a gas flame). Vintage food is a fragrant pan of fresh-baked Parker House Rolls; little pillows of smooth golden crusts, brushed with butter and brought by Aunt Elsie to every funeral reception. It’s a basket of shell beans encased in papery pink and green mottled pods. It is fat, juicy hamburgers cooked in sliced yellow onions and made from a slab of top round beef that the butcher down the street had put through his meat grinder that same day. It is a picture of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in the Saturday Evening Post showing them sitting behind TV tray tables with their forks poised over a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner served in an aluminum rectangle with three separate compartments for Turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans. It is Red Flannel Hash (corned beef and diced  potatoes), cod fish cakes sizzling in a heavy, black cast iron fry pan, Finnan Haddie (salted cod cooked in cream) next to boiled new potatoes on a Blue Willow patterned china plate. It is succotash (corn, beans and yellow squash). It is three-layer gold cake with chocolate frosting melting down the sides […]

Small details, big ideas; writing about difficult memories

As writers of nonfiction, the goal is to adhere to the facts as we excavate memory for stories and it is often the unpleasant, difficult events in our past that are most suited to story. But, how do we tell these tales – especially the sad and incomprehensible events – so that, as Robert Olmstead describes, “…our minds find a place where they can endure what is unendurable.” The objective is to keep the reader with us, not to drag them along sad and whimpering, feeling forsaken as the writer describes the awful things that have happened to him or her. What’s the solution? Olmstead suggests in Elements of the Writing Craft that writers can find ways to talk about something large and unbearable (death, murder, terminal illness, molestation) by talking about the pain of something inconsequential right along side. It is almost as if the smaller unimportant pain provides a respite, a seat cushion on a hard bench, from which the reader can watch the large, devastating event unfold. It offers the reader a perspective with scale by moving from small, less easily categorized details, to the large and ungainly. Here is Donald Hall at the funeral home describing his wife after her death from cancer in, The Best Day and the Worst Day: “…Dead Jane looked all right… She looked like Jane, sick Jane after fifteen months of wasting. John Singer Sargent once described portraiture as that form of painting in which there is always something a little wrong about the mouth. There was something a little wrong about Jane’s mouth. Marion Chadwick told me that mouths were the hardest part.” He doesn’t say what the mouth looked like but his choice of […]

When in doubt, throw it out? The writer and her archives.

I clicked on a link to the Dr. Oz weight loss program recently hoping to find inspiration about how to lose unwanted pounds of paper; those pages and pages of first, second, third  …two hundredth drafts of book chapters, essays, lectures – anything that can be written down and rewritten – and saved. These are not stored on a hard or a flash drive anywhere because – heaven forbid – they could be lost. An astroid could hit the earth and destroy everything that is not written in stone on paper. I know this is an inherited disorder. I’m descended from a long line of paper-savers. My mother and grandmother saved every letter, green stamp and receipt for purchases. Receipts I can understand; anyone can be audited by the IRS and you’d better have proof of purchase for that lampshade bought back in 1941. These old drafts of articles, poems and essays are like bicycles; I might need them for parts. I revere these yellowed pages as if they are ancient Schwinns or Peugeots. They just don’t make them like that anymore. What if I can’t write like that anymore? Do I really love every word I’ve ever written this much? When Hemingway or Faulkner or whoever it was said that we must “kill our darlings” and ruthlessly prune our writing, even of our favorite parts, he didn’t say that we also must dispose of the bodies. Like those delightful ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, we can cart them down to the basement and stack them in the canal. There are artists among us who have […]

Building resilience with diary writing.

When I was old enough to write in a diary, (I received one in blue leather for a birthday around age eight or nine) I did not understand its purpose. I knew it must be for something private because it had a lock and key. Is there a difference between private thoughts and everyday descriptions? I wondered. What should I write in this little book that seems intended for secrets? What if someone finds the key? It was boring to write about my dolls, my cat or the Lilac bushes where my brothers and I played house. Instead, I recorded the scenes that frightened me; the times when my father became angry and broke furniture or kicked in the screen of our TV set because it refused to work.  The times I saw my mother cry. The problem was that the scenes were so scary that I didn’t want to reread them. So, I tore them out and eventually I had only the blue leather cover with no pages in between. Perhaps it was a childish way to make painful images disappear; write them down and tear them up. Today, I can still recall some of those scenes without benefit of the torn out pages and, most importantly, I see a small girl who used writing intuitively, unwittingly, as a way to manage  anxiety and fear. The act of writing gave me a modicum of control over an uncontrollable situation. The choice to tear up my words built my resilience by making me think I had at least a small choice.