Friday, April 29, 2011

Trees and Prayers For Life~

Grant Wood's first lithograph "Tree Planting Group" honored Arbor Day. It was customary in the early 1930s for children to plant trees on the school grounds in recognition of National Arbor Day. 

National Arbor Day (today!) feels like the appropriate time to acknowledge the beautiful and recently transplanted trees in my backyard. When Jim died I embraced the living he left behind: his fine cat Brian and the trees he had nurtured after transplanting from the family property. Brian of course landed a great home with my brother and family--even if he no longer delivers cigarettes.

The trees, full of life and breath also felt important to re-home. After all, Jim had transplanted, staked, protected, loved these young trees, expecting to see real growth in his lifetime. We spoke about our trees at least once in the months before his death. When I moved into my current home, Mom and Dad gave me a small Maple tree as a house warming gift. "It looked like a stick in the ground," I told Jim "just like yours now." Ten years later, I assured him, my Maple is spectacular and probably 30 feet high. Jim replied, "Trees grow." We laughed in an easy, familiar duet. 


Walter and I transplanted the trees in a loose triangle in my backyard; both symbolic and within my sight lines from the back deck. Convinced that Jim would be happy that I'm now the caretaker of his trees, I find it easy to talk and pray and meditate while admiring my trees. It's very personal and I'm always grateful when I honor a break from the tasks of daily life to do so. Prayer is a gift I've given myself in past months, so humbling to see and feel the Divine in a powerful way.

The Magnolia tree surprised us all when it bloomed, perhaps for the first time. It is a small but sturdy tree with wax-like leaves. Mom remembers giving it to Jim. Rope and stakes always had protected it at his house as it fell in the natural walking path from the driveway to the front door.



The two volunteer trees were raised on the land dear to him. They had been isolated at my parent's place to allow growth. These two, an Oak on the left and a Crabapple to the right, are the result of this tree propagation. In this same conversation, Jim told me his trees would grow bigger than my Maple and also acknowledged how previous owners at least showed the decency to plant one good tree over forty years. Again, we laughed in tandem.

Walter helped me with the transplants on the first day of spring this year. The oak tree taxed us. A man in his mid-80s, Walter tried to pull and dig a well-rooted tree from recently thawed earth. He conceeded to letting me help. Worried that we left the center root behind a wave of relief came when the green leaves busted through the buds and continue to fill the tree into a young but healthy Oak. These trees are in good loving hands, just like Brian the cat. 
Walter Mensch

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Death of the Typewriter

Only several hundred new typewriters--most in the Arabic language--sit idly at the last typewriter factory in the world located in Mumbai, India. The plant recently announced its impending closure.
Perhaps the last standing typewriter user in the U.S. was my father. He loved to comment on what the computer **could not** do and gave me his typewriter when he retired from his law practice in 2004 after a 35-year run with the typewriter. If he was alive today, I would sadly have to tell him that one can now fill out forms on the computer--one of his last holdouts of why typewriters were still necessary.
The summer after Dad died I had my first garage sale. The purpose was to both thin out stuff and to have the ability to give a nice donation to the David B. Rogers Lecture Series (now the Rogers Family Lecture Series). I made $3,000!
My mom said I would regret selling so much stuff. She’s right but it took five years to realize the error of my ways.
At the big sale, I sold the typewriter from Dad’s office for $1. When I heard the news from Mumbai I immediately thought of the last typewriter. It, of course, would look dashing next to my old turntable and rotary phone, both of which work beautifully. I’m positive this typewriter--like my rotary dial and old turntable--would outlast the inventions that made them obsolete.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter and John G. Neihardt

Spring Beauty at the Family Home
John G. Neihardt, the mystic, sky-searching author, poet, folklorist, and recorder of early 20th century Americana, wrote this poem in 1903. Best known for Black Elk Speaks (1932), the book has been called "a North American bible of all tribes." 

Neihardt arrived in Columbia in 1948 (at age 67, taught an additional 20 years at the University) to teach Epic American English and to serve as the poet-in-residence at the University of Missouri. Though I couldn't find an official reference to it, I've heard that when he walked in the classroom, with his thick white hair standing on end, he would boldly announce each day that today is the best day yet. 

He's right, you know.

Easter, by John G. Neihardt (1903)

ONCE more the northbound Wonder
Brings back the goose and crane,
Prophetic Sons of Thunder,
Apostles of the Rain.

In many a battling river
The broken gorges boom;
Behold, the Mighty Giver
Emerges from the tomb!

Now robins chant the story
Of how the wintry sward
Is litten with the glory
Of the Angel of the Lord.

His countenance is lightning
And still His robe is snow,
As when the dawn was brightening
Two thousand years ago.

O who can be a stranger
To what has come to pass?
The Pity of the Manger
Is mighty in the grass!

Undaunted by Decembers,
The sap is faithful yet.
The giving Earth remembers,
And only men forget.

When trying to find reference to Neihardt in the classroom at University of Missouri, I ran across a quote by veteran political journalist Jack Germond:  "I met a wonderful old man, an epic poet named John G. Neihardt, who taught a course in writing the critical essay and, more to the point, taught all his students what it was for a man to grow old totally comfortable with himself and what he had done with his life."

Here's film footage of John G. Neihardt discussing and then reciting the Easter poem.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Listen my children and you shall hear…"

My Grandmother "Miss Dolly"

Around our house, and especially at Miss Dolly's, "Paul Revere's Ride" and the 18th of April felt like a holiday. Each year my grandmother delighted us all--together or apart--with this poem that she loved so much. Miss Dolly had the voice to read poetry in a whimsical and fun way. I will happily give her the credit for helping me love poetry in the way I do. Miss Dolly loved life to its fullest and even twenty years after her death, I can see myself snuggling next to her to hear this poem each year on April 18.

Paul Revere’s Ride
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear 
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, 
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; 
Hardly a man is now alive 
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march 
By land or sea from the town to-night, 
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch 
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,– 
One if by land, and two if by sea; 

And I on the opposite shore will be, 
Ready to ride and spread the alarm 
Through every Middlesex village and farm, 
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, 
Just as the moon rose over the bay, 
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay 
The Somerset, British man-of-war; 
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar 
Across the moon like a prison bar, 
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified 
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street 
Wanders and watches, with eager ears, 
Till in the silence around him he hears 
The muster of men at the barrack door, 
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet, 
And the measured tread of the grenadiers, 
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church, 
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread, 
To the belfry chamber overhead, 
And startled the pigeons from their perch 
On the sombre rafters, that round him made 
Masses and moving shapes of shade,– 
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall, 
To the highest window in the wall, 
Where he paused to listen and look down 
A moment on the roofs of the town 
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead, 
In their night encampment on the hill, 
Wrapped in silence so deep and still 
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread, 
The watchful night-wind, as it went 
Creeping along from tent to tent, 
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!" 
A moment only he feels the spell 
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread 
Of the lonely belfry and the dead; 
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent 
On a shadowy something far away, 
Where the river widens to meet the bay,– 
A line of black that bends and floats 
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, 
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride 
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere. 
Now he patted his horse’s side, 
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near, 
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth, 
And turned and tightened his saddle girth; 
But mostly he watched with eager search 
The belfry tower of the Old North Church, 
As it rose above the graves on the hill, 
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still. 
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height 
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light! 
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, 
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight 
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street, 
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark, 
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark 
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet; 
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light, 
The fate of a nation was riding that night; 
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, 
Kindled the land into flame with its heat. 
He has left the village and mounted the steep, 
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep, 
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides; 
And under the alders that skirt its edge, 
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge, 
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock 
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town. 
He heard the crowing of the cock, 
And the barking of the farmer’s dog, 
And felt the damp of the river fog, 
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock, 
When he galloped into Lexington. 
He saw the gilded weathercock 
Swim in the moonlight as he passed, 
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare, 
Gaze at him with a spectral glare, 
As if they already stood aghast 
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock, 
When he came to the bridge in Concord town. 
He heard the bleating of the flock, 
And the twitter of birds among the trees, 
And felt the breath of the morning breeze 
Blowing over the meadow brown. 
And one was safe and asleep in his bed 
Who at the bridge would be first to fall, 
Who that day would be lying dead, 
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read 
How the British Regulars fired and fled,— 
How the farmers gave them ball for ball, 
From behind each fence and farmyard wall, 
Chasing the redcoats down the lane, 
Then crossing the fields to emerge again 
Under the trees at the turn of the road, 
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere; 

And so through the night went his cry of alarm 
To every Middlesex village and farm,— 
A cry of defiance, and not of fear, 
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, 
And a word that shall echo for evermore! 
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, 
Through all our history, to the last, 
In the hour of darkness and peril and need, 
The people will waken and listen to hear 
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, 
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Farmer Among the Tombs

Banks/Rogers plot, Columbia Cemetery

The Farmer Among the Tombs
by Wendell Berry

I am oppressed by all the room taken up by the dead, their headstones standing shoulder to shoulder, the bones imprisoned under them.

Plow up the graveyards! Haul off the monuments! Pry open the vaults and the coffins so the dead may nourish their graves 
and go free, their acres traversed all summer
by crop rows and cattle and foraging bees.

Kentucky’s finest author and poet Wendell Berry strikes his note in this short, poignant poem. When I first read it many years ago it made me question the entire busine$$ of death and also the impact of these cemeteries on our precious land. Whether it is burial or cremation, these last rites provide enduring rituals that help to sanctify a person’s life.

It is a deeply personal decision for an individual or family to make. No right or wrong answer exists. As I visit my brother’s grave many times in past months, this poem keeps coming back, even haunting me on some level. If I could talk to Wendell Berry when I'm next in Kentucky, I would tell him that my contemplating this poem over the years reminds me how useful poetry is in my life. Being laid to rest in our family plot in the historic Columbia Cemetery both comforts me and sets my soul free. Regardless of me, the lives of my brother and dad (and other close relatives) are indeed worthy--more than worthy--of a 4 foot by 10 foot piece of land. 

Someday I will tell this farmer genius that he helped lead me to my future grave in a very roundabout way. I’m confident that birds fly, squirrels scamper, and the bees will buzz, nourishing beloved lives no longer in the flesh but rich in meaning and spirit and so much love.

I believe that space, in the chaos of daily living, is real estate used for its highest purpose and grace.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cold Feet

“The Workshop was founded in September 2010 by Keija Parssinen, an Iowa Writers' Workshop alum, published novelist, and teacher of fiction writing. Inspired by Columbia's vibrant creative scene, Keija wanted to establish a home where area writers could share their work with peers, give and receive feedback on manuscripts, and learn about the craft of fiction and creative non-fiction writing.
Modeled after Brooklyn's Sackett Street Workshop and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, QHWW provides careful instruction from an experienced teacher, thoughtful peer review, and a community of people who value the art of writing and understand its hardships and pleasures.”

For the next 8 Mondays I’ll be joining 8 other writers in the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop. My blog posts will decline during this time as my attention turns to a manuscript in its infancy. The positive reception that I received to the All Things Important blog has helped me build the courage and enthusiasm necessary to submerge myself in this creative journey with other writers. Throughout the workshop I will post excerpts from my manuscript to All Things Important. 
This clearly is the biggest “dare” I’ve ever taken as a “writer.”  When my feet feel cold, I remember author and poet Marge Piercy’s words in a letter: 
“The real writer is one who really writes.” 

Friday, April 8, 2011

3 Ice Cube Magic

This is my favorite plant in my sunroom both because orchids are the most beautiful of flowering plants and it was a birthday gift about 8 years ago from my parents. Dad decided that because my orchid bloomed each year, I was a plant whisperer. On the other hand, Mom dubbed my sunroom as the plant hospital, and moi as the doctor, and a perfect place to deposit her ailing plants.

For the past three years, my orchid did not bloom. The roots crawled, the thick leaves remained green. I refused to give up because life clearly existed in that pot, I just didn’t know what to do but wait for life or death.

A family friend gave my Mom a beautiful, delicate orchid in Jim’s memory hoping to soothe my Mom’s aching heart. Knowing the friend’s success with the plant, I asked her what to do. “Just put 2-3 ice cubes on the soil about once a week.” What, I asked? “Just try the ice cube trick and see what happens.”

I took her advice and this morning, on a gloomy Friday day, I saw my beloved orchid in bloom for the first time in years. Additionally, the two orchid plants my mom sent to the “hospital” have buds in the making; perhaps I will have the joy year round thanks to a few ice cubes.

Glory, Glory!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Rotary Dial

Over the weekend a friend visited and we sprawled on the floor of the sunroom catching up about everything and nothing, enjoying the warmth from the sun, a good friendship. The phone rang and I answered. Being a city council campaign robocall, I bailed quickly.

My friend laughed and laughed hard. I felt perplexed. He asked me what that thing was I just answered. The fifteen-year age difference became very apparent; I replied it was a rotary dial phone--still a blank face. I exclaimed, “You’re acting as if a message just arrived on the Pony Express!”

This rotary dial phone has logged more hours on it than many cell and portable phones combined. Why? Unlike today’s phones they were built to last. My thirty-five-year-old phone works great, never runs out of batteries, and thanks to its two-foot curly cord, is easy to find, always. The phone sounds great and even sports a flower I painted on it years ago in the dorm.

But--should you call me, please don’t expect to press 1 to speak; 2 to leave a message; or 3 to send a text message. 

No can do on the rotary phone.

Interesting Facts:

*The earliest form of the rotary dial used lugs on a finger plate instead of holes and was granted a patent in 1898.
*The “modern” version of the rotary dial entered the Bell System in 1919.
*The touch tone phone was introduced in the early 1960s and largely replaced the rotary dial.
* Oddly, rotary phones still occasionally find important uses. For instance, the anti-drug coalition of the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., persuaded the phone company to install rotary dials in area pay phones. The goal was to damper the drug trade, since the dials could not be used to call dealers' pagers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Importance of Being Cleo

Cleo the Jungle Cat

Cleo is forced to admit to leading a double life. In the wild, the jungle as I call it, she assumes the role of mouser extraordinaire, keeper of the dogs, biter and nipper of all that disrupts, mad dasher around the jungle <aka @’s barn>, and plenty of attitude for the perceived benefit of her family.  Yes, my little girl is “of the jungle.”
But in enters Cleo’s other persona. In the city, which I call my home when visitors come for a meal or a cocktail and talk of politics and poetry, the barn transforms into a lovely parlor. Cleo becomes civilized. Meanwhile, she assumes the identity of an engaging cat that wins hearts.
Living a double life is hard no doubt but Cleo is a winner. It must be the racing stripe running vertical on her face.
“I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Ahem Cleo!
So, yes, today I toast “The Importance of Being Cleo.” 
The End.
Cleo the Hostess

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

We live in deeds, not years

Jim Playing in the Dog Crate as a Young Child

Five months ago today my youngest brother Jim died. I’ll never understand why he left so soon but this poem, read at his memorial service, brings some comfort, some reason, to the unexplainable. Jim loved to joke, laugh, and his eyes twinkled as he told a story or pulled a prank.

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He who lives most,
feels the noblest, acts the best.
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some.

"We Live in Deeds Not Years," Philip James Bailey (1816-1902)

Sporting Reindeer Ears at Christmas Dinner

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hotel Frederick & Glenn's Cafe, Boonville

Corner of High and Main Streets, Boonville
“Remember your room number. Our guests usually return and they get attached to their room. Each room is different.”
Wise words from the maître d’hôtel. 
I wandered the halls before dinner, admiring the old maps and lithographs that lined the walls of this majestic hotel. The maître d’, already my friend, equipped me with an ice cooler and answered a few routine questions with genuine hospitality. Ostensibly in Boonville for the Big Muddy Folk Festival, I was really there as the lucky winner of a Facebook contest for friends of Hotel Frederick. 
Glenn’s Cafe, formerly one of Columbia's most beloved restaurants, moved to Boonville to joint venture with the restored Hotel Frederick, in 2004. Columbians miss Glenn’s. Like visiting an old friend, the menu had changed very little, all my favorites there just for the tasting. It was a busy night; I sat by the kitchen doors and happily watched and listened to the bustling staff and rapidly swinging doors of the kitchen.
Bathroom Door
I returned to the hotel after the concert to savor the fact that I was alone, living in the present, and not reflecting on days past or what the future might bring. A realization took hold that out in the real world all is new each day. 
Laying on my daybed in the front room, I read a bit from Gift from the Sea, a book that bears re-reading at least once a decade. I found my self drifting but in awe of Room 11. From the Persian Gabbeh rugs to the authentic antiques and the magic of the old walls--oh the stories they could tell! And the bathroom: black and white floors, a stained glass door, and colors everywhere.

Earlier, I asked the maître d’ if the homemade soap in dishes at the front desk accounted for the lobby's scent. “Yes,” and he told me to look for several complimentary bars in my room. In addition, he mentioned that the staff “washes the sheets with homemade detergent using the same ingredients," which created a mild layering of the smell. When I finally slipped into my sheets the light aroma reminded me that being present really is the only place to live.
This beautiful Gibson ice chest was located
in the Breakfast Room. 

Hotel Frederick offers a morning continental breakfast. A community table promoted conversation with other Hotel Frederickans. It seemed appropriate that a block from the Old Jail (that housed Frank James) I would be striking up conversation with a Jesse James aficionado. This gifted storyteller delighted me with tales ranging from his leaving Columbia “with the posse on his back” in the late night of the late 1970s because his perception of the town’s intolerance for the peace movement to seeing Frank James’s ear nailed to a board in Northfield, Minnesota--the town where my niece attends college (St. Olaf). Several interesting stories continued, one being of “a mean old lady” who claimed to have a cave on her land where Jesse James lived. My new friend said that she sold rocks off the cave and then went to the river and brought more rocks up to the site. "What a fraud," he mumbled.
Room 11 at the Hotel Frederick is my new home away from home.

A few interesting facts:

*Hotel Frederick was built in 1905 for a cost of $40,000.
*It is the best example of Romanesque Revival architecture in the region and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
*From 1901-1964 it operated as a hotel. Following the sale, the building served as a weekend restaurant, a retirement center, and even a Greyhound bus depot.
*When the hotel was purchased in 2004 with the commitment to return it to his former glory, the renovations alone were at least $4 million.