Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sam McCartney, Varsity Kicker, #23


28 NOVEMBER 2009



Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tiny Mince Pies

British Store - bought: Mr. Kipling's
"Exceedingly Good Cakes"

American Home - made:

The following recipe is similar to the Frugal Gourmet's recipe, but only half the amount, and without any meat or suet. It might seem labor intensive, but these are really fast, fun, and yummy!

5 or 6 apples, core them but leave the skin on & chop up in food processor (into little bitty squares)

2 1/4 cups (3/4 lb) dark raisins
1 1/2 cups (1/2 lb) currants or golden raisins
3/4 cup (1/4 lb) mixed, candied peel
1 1/2 - 2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup distilled vinegar
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup apple juice
3/4 teaspoon each: allspice, cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg

MIX ALL TOGETHER, SIMMER ONE HOUR, COOL, and SPIKE with a bit of brandy or whiskey, as desired.

Cover and leave at room temperature overnight. Make pies the next day, or store the mincemeat for weeks in the refrigerator and use as needed. Makes about 8 dozen small pies or 2 regular-sized pies.

This recipe makes 24 crusts; the food processor can easily handle a doubled batch if you want to make 48 at one time.

Cream all together in the food processor, just until a big dough ball starts to form:

1 stick of butter
3 oz cream cheese
1 cup flour

Divide big dough ball into 24 little balls, and place them into a miniature muffin pan. I have two pans that make 24 each, so I usually make a batch of 48. You do not need to grease each opening. The dough is buttery enough that the finished pies will slip out easily.

With your finger tips or thumb, or with a round - shaped teaspoon dipped in flour each time, make an indentation in each ball and press the dough to fit the muffin cup in the shape of a little pie crust. No fancy edging is required, and don't spread the dough out too thin -- keep the bottom & the sides a bit thick for easier removal and handling!

Then with a small spoon, fill each indentation with mincemeat, and bake at 350 degrees for 20 - 30 minutes.

It's hard not to fill the crusts to overflowing, but this is the only thing that makes the finished pies hard to remove -- if the juice has bubbled out and cooked around the edges. If this happens, loosen the syrupy, crusty overflow with a little plastic knife; let the pies cool a bit and then remove with a rounded butter knife. They should slip right out and be nice and sturdy enough to eat by hand.

For Ben, Sam, and Gerry, a typical serving is 5 or 6 pies at once; so even 4 dozen can disappear quickly! Gerry likes to douse his with room temperature whiskey or sherry. I like to have mine one or two at time with a cup of tea. Then an hour or so later, one or two more with another cup of tea, and so on and so forth throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas! Enjoy!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Figgy Pudding

1 egg
¾ cup of eggnog or Half & Half
3 slices of white bread, torn into pieces

2/3 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup margarine or butter, cut up
2 Tbsp rum or brandy
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 cups of regular or golden raisins
(or a mixture of both; can also include part figs or dates)

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking soda
½ tsp ground nutmeg

Beat the egg, add eggnog; then add bread and let stand until softened (about 3 minutes). Stir in sugar, margarine, and rum; then raisins and nuts. Finally, sift in the dry ingredients and stir until combined.

Lightly grease a 6-cup mold or heat-safe mixing bowl and pour in the pudding mixture. Cover with foil, pressing tightly against the rim of the mold or bowl to create a firm, leak-proof seal. Place the pudding, foil side up, on a rack inside a deep soup kettle or spaghetti pot. Add boiling water, up to 1 inch from the top of the pudding. Cover the kettle and bring the water to a gentle boil. Continue to steam the pudding for 2 ½ hours or until a toothpick comes out clean. Add more boiling water occasionally during steaming.

After cooking, cool the pudding on a wire rack for 10 minutes; then invert the pudding and remove the mold. You might want to stick a sprig a holly on the top, but this festive touch makes the pudding difficult to ignite!

If you want a flaming pudding, heat 3 tablespoons of rum or brandy until hot, pour it over the pudding, and quickly ignite. Then, command your entire family to sing "Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here!" while you carry your flaming creation to the table! We usually like to ignite ours several times to get the full effect! When the applause dies down, serve the pudding with rum butter.

1 cup sifted powdered sugar
¼ cup margarine or butter, softened
1 Tbsp rum or brandy

Beat sugar and butter together in the food processor for 3 minutes; then add the rum and beat for another minute. Spoon the butter into a small serving bowl; cover and chill for 3 hours before serving.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Cake

In England at Christmas time, there is a Christmas cake in every house and one in every bakery window, and they all have the most wonderful snow scenes on top. Many of the little figures that Gerry's mom puts on her Christmas cake are things that she has saved from her childhood (little children riding on tiny sleds, a miniature cottage, some little plastic deer). The cake itself is really no different than a conventional American fruitcake, sweetened up by the layer of marzipan, then covered entirely by snowy Royal icing.

Gerry and Sam made ours this year, creating a Santa's Wonderland on top, with little deer, snowy trees, and a set of miniature Santas, each playing a different musical instrument -- they were the charms out of our Christmas crackers one year.

If you're too full for a piece of cake on Christmas Day -- as is often the case after the Figgy Pudding and the Mince Pies -- you can save it 'til the next day, and it will make a pefect Boxing Day dessert. This year, we're saving ours for New Year's Eve. It will also keep until the 6th of January, when it becomes known as Twelfth Night Cake. Or wait for Mardi Gras and call it King's Cake!

1 cup butter (8 oz)
1 cup soft brown sugar (8 oz)
4 eggs
2 tsp Allspice
grated rind of a lemon
grated rind of an orange
2 Tbsp sherry

3½ cups all purpose white or whole meal flour
¾ tsp salt
5¼ tsp baking powder

½ cup glace cherries (4 oz)
1 cup chopped pecans or English walnuts (4 oz)
2 cups regular raisins (3/4 lb)
2 cups golden raisins (3/4 lb)

Beat the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl (8-cup size or larger) until pale and creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a tablespoon of the flour with each egg. Beat in the allspice, orange and lemon rinds. Fold in the remaining flour (plus salt and baking powder) along with the cherries, nuts, and raisins, and stir in the sherry to give a smooth dropping consistency.

Spoon the mixture into a greased and lined 8-inch round cake tin or medium sized spring-form pan with 2½ inch sides, lined with brown paper and rubbed with butter. Level the top of the cake with a smooth spatula. Bake for 2 - 3 hours at 300 F until golden brown and firm to touch. Leave to cool in the tin before turning out. Ice with Royal Icing.

Another option is to make the cake a week or two in advance, soak it with sherry or whiskey, store in an air - tight container, checking every few days to re-saturate. Making the icing and decorating the top can be a fun family activity for Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day, or New Year's Eve.

First, spread a thin layer of any brand of apricot jam on the top and around the sides of the fruit cake. Second, roll out some ready made marzipan (approx. two 7 oz. Tubes) into a circle the size of the top of the cake and into a strip the height of the cake (I have to do this part in two or three sections). Third, stick the marzipan onto the cake, using the apricot jam as "glue."

In the food processor, beat 6 cups powdered sugar (1 1/2 lbs)
3 egg whites
3/4 tsp lemon juice
2 drop of glycerine or mineral oil.

Now, spread the frosting on top of the marzipan, using a smooth, rounded butter knife to create the effect of snow drifts, paths, etc. Finally, when the frosting is nearly set (not too long -- maybe 30 minutes), decorate with your favorite Christmas miniatures to create a snow scene of your own design. It’s also nice to stick a row of plastic holly or little red poinsettias around the sides. This cake keeps very well without being covered, so you can admire your work for several days! Then, slowly but surely cut around the decorations until nothing is left but a few crumbs!

Merry Christmas! Happy Boxing Day!

Sam Explains How It's Done, New Year's Day 2000

An Expert From Way Back, Christmas 1995

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Old - Fashioned Christmas

Most Mentioned!
Of all the pictures I've posted on facebook, this one has received by far the most comments; so for those of you who might have missed it on facebook, here it is again:I just had to go out yesterday and decorate this lone old fence post from days of yore, still standing by itself along our property line. Let's have an old-fashioned Christmas this year!

Another Favorite
My Kitchen Window

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice:
Hope Springs Eternal

At the Biopond: An Iris Blooming on the Winter Solstice, 1998

English Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834) wrote that "Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live," while a hundred years earlier, English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) declared that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

When we lived in Philadelphia, one of our favorite places to go was the Biopond at the University of Pennsylvania, five hidden acres, right in the middle of a busy campus, surrounded by dorms, medical buildings, and major streets. You might never guess it existed, but walk a few blocks off the beaten path, and there it was -- an urban oasis extraordinaire!

One year, out for a brisk walk on the first day of Christmas Vacation, we stopped by the Biopond, and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a purple iris in full bloom . . . in December . . . in Philadelphia!

I've heard the legend of the Christmas rose, which blossomed from the tears of Madelon the Shepherd Girl, and of little Pepita the Mexican girl whose humble bouquet of weeds, in similar fashion, was transformed on Christmas Eve into a brilliant poinsettia. But that day, we witnessed our own seasonal miracle, something I had never heard of or seen before -- a Solstice Iris -- blooming on the First Day of Winter!

P.S. 19 November 2013
My friend Ann de Forest writes from Italy:
Do irises in Rome usually bloom in November
or is this as freakish as I think it is?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ode to Christmas

"Nearly all the best and most precious things in the universe you can get for a halfpenny. I make an exception, of course, of the sun, the moon, the earth, people, stars, thunderstorms, and such trifles. You can get them for nothing. Also I make an exception of another thing: The Spirit of Christmas!"

from "The Shop of Ghosts" (1909)
a Christmas story by G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936),
one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century

Lots of Beautiful Pastel Decorations from MARIETTA

As my friend Marv once said in one of the best odes to Christmas that I've ever read anywhere:

"Still, as always, I look forward to anything 'Christmas,' be it sacred or profane.

"Quite frankly, I love it all: commercial or spiritual, mall or church, crass or sublime, jaded or sentimental, slow or frantic, sad or comic, regretful or nostalgic, adult or childish, wrapping up or ripping open, giving or spartan, on-line or in line, pine or palm, white or tropical green, it just does not matter; it's all moving and wonderful, magical and grand (and I wish it lasted all year)."

Marv is also the one who introduced me to the concept of "Christmas Amnesty":

You can fall out of contact with friends, fail to return calls, ignore e-mails, avoid eye contact at the store, forget birthdays, anniversaries and reunions, and if you write during the holidays, they are socially bound to forgive you and act like nothing happened. Decorum dictates that the friendship move forward from that point, without guilt or recrimination. . . . Just say, "Sorry I haven't written. Merry Christmas."

. . . Amnesty protocol demands that your friend / relative say, "That's okay" and move on without comment. This is the way it has always been done.
(see Chapter 8: "Holiday Heartbreak," 108 - 09)

from The Stupidist Angel:
A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror

a novel by Christopher Moore (b 1957, Ohio),
contemporary American writer of absurdist fiction
and comic fantasy

"I understand it now,"
Mr. Dickens cried,
"Father Christmas
will never die"
("Shop of Ghosts,"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Believe, I Believe, I Know It's Silly But I Believe

Every year, we hear the complaints about the relentless commercialization, the laments that Christmas is no longer a religious holiday but has become a religion in and of itself. Well, if you ask me, that's The Good News; that's something I can believe in.

Every Christmas, I look forward to watching Miracle on 34th Street and hearing skeptical little Susan / Natalie Wood mutter under her breath, "I believe, I believe, I know it's silly but I believe!" I've said the same thing myself a few times (and not just about Kris Kringle).

More than merely a childish sing-song, Susan's mantra offers the same perspective of near-belief as the half-doubting, faintly hoping father in the New Testament who cries out: "I believe. Help thou mine unbelief." Those who are fans of John Irving's novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, will recognize this verse from Owen's funeral. Pastor Merrill reads aloud the entire passage (Mark 9:14-24), concluding in his grief: "Owen Meany helped my 'unbelief'" (566).

Believing in the face of your own unbelief, believing when it seems silly. I think I can believe in both of those things. And I can believe in Christmas!

As Kermit The Frog and John Denver sing on one of the best Christmas CDs ever (John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together, 1979):

I don't know if you believe in Christmas
Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree
But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
For you to come and celebrate with me . . .

For the truth that binds us all together
I would like to say a simple prayer
That at this special time you will have true peace of mind
And love to last throughout the coming year . . .

from "The Christmas Wish"
Music & lyrics by Dan Wheetman


Puttering as a Spiritual Practice (see Anne Lamott, Plan B, 149)
The Miracle of Oxygen
The Precession of the Equinoxes
The Lifelong Quest for Truth & Beauty
The Pursuit of Knowledge
The Great Conversation
The Origin and Destiny of Cats

I believe . . . I think I am; therefore, I think I am . . .

DECEMBER 14th: "Three Passions"


Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Image from Harper's Weekly: "Christmas Eve, 1862"

While perusing my Christmas anthologies, I learned that "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written as a commentary on the American Civil War. Though I've known this song since childhood, I had never seen the lengthier version, two stanzas longer than usually printed (stanzas 3 & 4 below). Lamenting a Nation divided, these lines from 1863, also seem sadly relevant now.

click to read
The Story of Pain and Hope Behind
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

and to hear an unusual haunting rendition of the carol

As a brooding, existentialist teenager, I always hung on to that stanza about despair (# 5 below; usually #3 in the sung version), although it was never exactly clear to me how it fit into the rest of the song. Now, seeing the entire context, it makes a lot more sense. What do you think?

The complete poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

I thought, as now the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail
The Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men!"

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 - 1882
most popular, beloved, and successful American poet of his day

~ the story behind the song, narrated by Ed Herman

~ as sung by Karen Carpenter

When I shared these stanzas with my family, my Uncle Gene wrote back to say, "That's simply astounding. I had no idea of verses 3 and 4. On reading them, you can see why, maybe they were never publicized. All the same, they give more meaning to the last ones when read following the brutal war verses." My brother Dave added that after seeing "the extended play version, yes, I agree that all the stanzas together make a much more coherent picture. As a matter of fact, I would say that it was very observant of you as a young lass to have noticed the not too obvious discordance of the work without the 'extra' stanzas." Writing not long after the United States invasion of Afghanistan, Dave suggested that "To take liberties with Henry's work, one could gently alter the third stanza by replacing mouth with beast and South with East, making it more topical, albeit no better."

Thanks to Dave and Uncle Gene for these remarks;
and also to my brother Bruce for the link above from
*The Gospel Coalition.

And while we're on the topic of despair, and bells,
and right and wrong:

"I ask adopt the principles proclaimed by yourselves,
by your revolutionary fathers,
and by the old bell in Independence Hall."

by Frederick Douglass, 1818 - 1895
American abolitionist, women's suffragist, author,
editor, orator, reformer, and great statesman

from an address delivered at the Southern Loyalists' Convention
in Philadelphia, 1866

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Birds' Christmas Carol

The Birds' Christmas Carol
(1887) is another Christmas favorite from early in my memory, the story of beautiful little Carol Bird, who was born on Christmas morning as the choir boys were singing "Carol joyfully . . . Carol merrily" and, sadly, dies on Christmas night ten years later, to the faint strains of "My ain countree": "A wee birdie to its nest . . . To his ain countree."

How I loved having this book read aloud to me by my mom's mom, Grandma Lindsey; especially Chapter Four, when the next door neighbors, "the little Ruggleses" get ready to attend the dinner party that Carol is hosting in their honor. Bath time, etiquette lessons, the feast, the presents -- it was all so much fun! And then came the sad ending.

Wiggen's best-known heroine, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was a nice girl, but she never won my heart the way Carol Bird did. There are antique copies to be had, floating around on the used book market, and also a lovely reissue, illustrated exactly as the original. I have one of each, a new one from amazon and an 1892 treasure -- a gift from my mother.

I only recently discovered another Christmas story by Kate Douglas Wiggen, The Romance of a Christmas Card (1916), containing a plot about breaking into the greeting card business (something I've always wanted to do myself) and a subplot about mothers and children and childbirth. Wiggen has a lovely name for Christmas Eve, calling it " . . . the Eve of Mary, when all women are blest" ( 74). She is also amazingly astute in her description of post-partum depression, when one character advises another not to be too critical of her sister - in - law's lack of interest in her newborn twins: "Eva's not right; she's not quite responsible. There are cases where motherhood, that should be a joy, brings nothing but mental torture and perversion of instinct. Try and remember that, if it helps you any" (37). Insights such as that more than make up for any sense of datedness.

More Holiday Favorites
On my Book Blog

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas

Who loves "The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas," one of the best holiday cartoons ever? I do! Narrated by Tommy Smothers, Barbara Feldon, and Arte Johnson, with some old "Laugh In" jokes thrown in for fun. Also features the endearing, rarely played song, "Where Can I Find Christmas," not often included on any other Christmas album or CD, though I can't imagine why not, when it's so beautiful! Still waiting for the DVD of this darling, pun-filled animation.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

House Without A Christmas Tree

I started loving this made-for-television movie (screen play by Eleanor Perry) back in 1972, watched it religiously for several seasons; and then it seemed to disappear. I was so happy when it reappeared in my life, first on VHS and now on DVD. Of course, it's also a book (by Gail Rock) which I had never even read until a year or so ago, when I got the gift idea of giving copies of the book along with copies of the movie and felt I should read before sending.

While reading House Without a Christmas Tree, I could see the movie playing in my mind's eye and hear it in my mind's ear -- I guess if we have a "mind's eye," then we also have a "mind's ear," right? The voice-over narration that accompanies the movie and much of the dialogue comes word for word from the book. My usual pattern is to read the book first and think of the movie as a visual aid; but in this case, it's the opposite, the novel serving as script / reference work. Well, that works too.

What I always liked best about the movie were the transitions before each commercial when the final scene would freeze and then morph from realistic to a cut and paste bulletin board version of the same image: Dad's truck, the night kitchen, the Christmas Star. Does anyone else remember that?

After the commercial break, the sequence would occur in reverse: the construction paper school building, Grandmother in the kitchen, and the Nativity Stage slowly becoming real as the action resumed. Even now, we wait for the moment of our favorite changes and try to guess which one is coming next. You'd think we'd have them memorized by now -- but maybe not, if you're only watching once a year. Of course, that's part of the charm.


Without A
Christmas Tree

Art Project, 1995

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Trees Stand

Steeple of St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia
Photograph taken by Ben McCartney on December 5, 2002

POEM #20
a wind has blown the rain away and blown
the sky away and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand. I think i too have known
autumn too long

(and what have you to say,
wind wind wind—did you love somebody
and have you the petal of somewhere in your heart
pinched from dumb summer?
O crazy daddy
of death dance cruelly for us and start

the last leaf whirling in the final brain
of air!) Let us as we have seen see
doom’s integration . . . . . . a wind has blown the rain

away and the leaves and the sky and the
trees stand:
the trees stand. The trees,
suddenly wait against the moon’s face.

by American Poet, E. E. Cummings, 1894 - 1962
(ellipses in original)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Little St. Nick

Sam, Ready for Holidays Around the World (Sixth Grade)

St. Nicholas Day: time to set out our red wooden shoes and fill them with dreidels (combining holidays!), along with two sweet little Waiting for Santa Sisters from my friend Etta, an elegant bread dough St. Nick, made by Gerry's Auntie Jan (in the mirror you can see that even his back is finely detailed), and a couple of St. Nicholas picture postcards collected over the years from our friends in Holland. When the boys were little, these friends also sent us some realistic looking St. Nick shaped chocolates. I set them out on the table to admire and after a few days, Ben (only 4 at the time) said, "When can we eat those priests?"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

So Placid and Self - Contained

Josef In The Windowsill: So Placid and Self - Contained!

"I think I could turn and live with animals,
they're so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied,
not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth."
(from Song of Myself, #32)

I loved this stanza as a student and for a very long time afterward, even now I guess. Yet I have to agree with the critic who said that Whitman probably didn't mean it -- maybe about the animals he did; but surely not about himself. After all, he lived a life of highly refined intellect, not possible (as far as we know) for cows or cats.

When reading Hugh Prather's book, I couldn't help but notice how often his examples were about puppies. Very appealing and touching, but hello we are not dogs or cats or cows. We are humans with baggage and memory and very complicated brains and the need for discourse.

NOVEMBER 28; "Letting Go"


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Willow and Ginkgo

Venerable Indiana Willow Tree, Lost to the Ice Storm
in March 1991 (Gerry and Baby Ben, Autumn 1990)

"The ginkgo forces its way through gray concrete;
Like a city child, it grows up in the street.
Thrust against the metal sky,
Somehow it survives and even thrives.
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo."

from "Willow and Ginkgo"
by Eve Merriam (1916 - 1992)
American Poet
Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, 1946

Our beautiful side street in Philadelphia, lined with Ginkgoes.
City Children:
Ben at the wheel of our Station Wagon
Sam, back seat driver
Yes, this was your father's Oldmobile!
Autumn 1997

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Like the Parts You Don't Like

One of my favorite lines of fictional dialogue (see column at right) is from one of Margaret Atwood's cynical little "True Romances." The main character laments that her bad boyfriend has left her, and now she has "nothing to live for." Her level - headed friend asks, "Were you living for him when he was here?" And the distressed one says, "No . . . I was living in spite of him, I was living against him." The wise friend concludes, "Then you should say, I have nothing to live against."

I do recall applying this lesson during my early Philadelphia years, back when I was trying to improve my urban attitude. Thinking of Atwood's story, I told myself, "You need to give up living against the city! You have nothing to live against." But it's such a bad habit with me, it seems that I will try to live against almost anything! The weather, the grocery store, the holiday season, organized religion, centuries of misogynism -- you name it; unless I consciously stop myself, I will try to live against it. And how does one little person live against an entire city or an entire cosmos or an entire family? Not only is it impossible, it is just not necessary to do so, even if it does feel so at times.

Nothing to live against. Brian Andreas makes a similar suggestion in one of his stories: "It's much easier, he told me, if you like the parts you like & you like the parts you don't like. Is that some Eastern thing? I said & he said not really since he was from Idaho & it worked there just fine" (from StoryPeople).

Still I wonder, how do you really learn to "like the parts you don't like"? How do you learn to say, "Oh well," if that's what the occasion calls for, to be dismissive, remain impassive, impersonal, detached? For a Doubting Thomasina, a Daughter of Descartes, a Western Girl With Glasses, it's not always easy.

These ramblings are drawn from my recent post
"Nothing to Live Against"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ginkgo Biloba

Autumn View With Ginkgo Leaves, Still Mostly Green

The Consent
Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars? What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender? and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time,
If a star at any time may tell us: Now.

by Howard Nemerov (1920 - 1991)
American Poet
1978 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Update November 2013
11 - 11 - 13

Late Monday afternoon, I photographed the Golden Ginkgoes;
when I walked by again on Tuesday, less than 24 hours later,
all the leaves had fallen! All gone in one night . . . just like the poem!

11 - 12 - 13

See also: "Capturing the Ginkgo Light"

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Letting Go

Philadelphia: Ginkgo Branch & View From Third Floor Window

In The Little Book of Letting Go, Hugh Prather questions why we wear the seams of our socks against the skin, so that they look smooth on the outside but feel bad on the inside. Wouldn't inside out make more sense? Interior vs Exterior.

Circumstances vs State of Mind. Which matters more? Prather says don't let circumstances become more important than your mental state: "If it were possible to summarize all mystical teachings in a single sentence, this one would come close: Make your state of mind more important that what you are doing" (7, 76).

Prather explains that we have two minds -- one that is whole and peaceful; another that is always conflicted, fragmented and busy. Susan Jeffers calls these two minds The Higher Self and the Lower Self. The Higher Self holds inner peace, strength, wisdom and spiritual dimension, whereas the Lower Self is a "place of struggle, lack, fear, and pain" (The Little Book of Peace of Mind, 4).

According to Prather, progress matters more than achievement, direction more than perfection. We can choose, we can decide. In the best interest of inner peace, we can wear our socks inside out.



Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Hurrah For The Raspberry Pie!

"Our lives are filled with people who provoke us, especially people we love. They help us figure out our own shit and why we are here. And why are we here again? . . . We don't know. . . . We only sort of know. . . . To live, love, help -- to decorate. To sweep our huts and find some food."

from Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith (p 135)
by Anne Lamott

to decorate: check out those sugared leaves atop the pie!
to sweep our huts: thanks Oreck, thanks Swiffer, thanks Sam!
to find food: raspberries & cabbage from the garden, thanks Ger !


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ah, broken garden, frost on the melons and on the beans!
Frozen are the ripe tomatoes, the red fruit and the hairy golden stem;
Frozen are the grapes, and the vine above them frozen, and the peppers are frozen!
And I walk among them smiling, -- for what of them?

I can live on the woody fibres of the overgrown
Kohl - rabi, on the spongy radish coarse and hot,
I can live on what the squirrels may have left of the beech - nuts and the acorns . . .

I will cook for my love a banquet of beets and cabbages,
Leeks, potatoes, turnips, all such fruits . . .
For my clever love, who has returned from further than the far east;
We will laugh like spring above the steaming, stolid winter roots.

A Few Late November Raspberries

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Save Your Own Life

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
--Anais Nin (1903– 1977)
French / Cuban author, journal writer

Twenty - five years ago, I copied a couple of poems -- "She leaves" and "The Journey" -- into one of my special notebooks. The timely message of these poems spoke to my past experiences with painful accuracy. It was a big breakthrough for me to realize that I had to save my own life, that no one else could to do it for me. I have long admired the wisdom of these two authors and have tried to hold their insights in my heart. Re-reading the poems slowly and carefully has shown me how applicable they are to making any kind of life - changing transition, to cutting free from any kind of overly binding connection, bad romantic liaison or otherwise.

Strangely, however, I neglected to include the author's name on my photocopy of "She leaves," then also failed to write it in by hand. No, it's not like me to lose track of a source like this, but somehow it happened. So for the past two decades, I've been trying to recall who wrote this poem and what book I found it in. I have searched through every poetry book I own and typed in every google search I can think of, but no luck yet. If anyone can think of any way to track it down -- or better yet, if you recognize this poem and know who wrote it -- please advise. It must be out there somewhere!

POEM ONE: She leaves

Someone you fell in love with
when you were virgin and succulent,
soft and sticky in strong hands.

How you twined over him, rampant
and flowing, a trumpet vine.
How you flourished in the warm weather
and died down to your roots
in the cold, when that regularly came.

Then slowly you began to discover
you might grown on your own spine.
You might dare to make wood.

What a damp persistent guilt come down
from ceasing to need.
Every day you fight free,
every morning you wake tied
with that gossamer web,
bound to him sleeping with open
vulnerable face and closed eyes
stuck to your side.

You meet others open while awake:
you leap to them. The pain
in his face trips you.
You serve him platters of cold gratitude.
They poison you and he thrives.

What a long soft dying this is between you.
Drown that whining guilt
in laughter and polemics. You were trained
like a dog in obedience school
and you served for years in bed, kitchen, laundry room.
You loved him as his mother always told him
he deserved to be loved.
Now love yourself.


POEM TWO: The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Poem found in Dream Work, 38 - 39
By Mary Oliver (b 1935)
Contemporary American Poet
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1984

Along the same lines as the poems above, Germaine Greer writes, "Such counsel [to break free from the "million Lilliputian threads" of a bad relationship] will be called encouragement of irresponsibility, but the woman who accepts a way of life which she has not knowingly chosen, acting out a series of contingencies falsely presented as destiny, is truly irresponsible. To abdicate one's own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else . . . is the only irresponsibility. To deny that a mistake has been made when its results are chaos visible and tangible on all sides, that is irresponsibility. What oppression lays upon us is not responsibility but guilt."

from The Female Eunuch (1970), 9 - 10
by Germaine Greer (born 29 January 1939)
Australian - born feminist writer and scholar

Sunday, November 22, 2009


"Publishing a volume of verse
is like dropping a rose petal
down the Grand Canyon
and waiting for the echo."

-- Don Marquis
(1878 - 1937)
American humorist and poet, best known for creating
the characters "Archy" and "Mehitabel (of whom, more anon)

Above painting:
Horse's Skull with White Rose (1931)
by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986)
American Artist

Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Act of Faith:
David Sedaris On Learning French

My all - time favorite Sedaris essay has to be "Jesus Shaves," in which he describes his enrollment and participation in a French class for adult beginners. One memorable day, in a vocabulary exercise featuring French holidays, Sedaris learns that in France it is not the Easter Bunny who brings the chocolate eggs; it is the Easter Bell!

Trust me, you will not be able to stop laughing as you read his beginning French dialogue, translated back into English:

"Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb."

"One too may eat of the chocolate."

"And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, "The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate. . . . He come in the night when one sleep on bed. Which a hand he have a basket and foods."

The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything wrong with my country. "No, no," she said. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by a a big bell that flies in from Rome."

I called for a time-out. "But how do the bell know where you live?"

"Well," she said, "how does a rabbit?"

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes."

And so forth.

This hilarious essay contains everything that I like most about Sedaris. He is so earnest yet so whimsical and unbelievably funny. So cynical yet so hopeful. Nothing slips past him. As he says of his French class:

"In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I told myself that despite her past behavior, my teacher was a kind and loving person who had only my best interests at heart. I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and countless miracles -- my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though . . . ."

You'll just have to read the book yourself to see Sedaris's final observation concerning this cultural oddity!

(I can't say it here!)



[all passages quoted above are from the essay "Jesus Shaves"
found in Me Talk Pretty One Day, 177 - 180]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Too Funny

David Sedaris is another author (like Bill Bryson) that I look forward to reading, book after book. The first one I read was Me Talk Pretty One Day, back in the summer of 2001. You know how some movies or books have such great and funny and apt lines that they just don't go away and you keep incorporating them into your life and conversation and laughing over and over? Well, that's Me Talk Pretty One Day! When I had this book open, I could not stop laughing - even while sitting all by myself on a public park bench. I may have looked a bit on the crazy side, but I couldn't help myself. He is that hilarious!

A couple of summers later, I was reading his book Naked while traveling, and the same thing happened again, yet another bout of suppressed (as best I could) snickers and snorts. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of thing that Sedaris loves to write about, i.e., what to do when you find yourself seated beside a nutcase on an airplane.

If you're into books on tape (CD, IPOD, whatever) it is especially fun to listen to Sedaris read his own works. He is very funny, of course, and so sincerely modest and unassuming; there's a touching sweetness in his tone that I wasn't really expecting.

For additional listening fun, try Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). Colbert, like Sedaris, has a built-in shit detector (see column to your right hand) and he's not afraid to use it! You can plug these books in, do a few miles on the treadmill, and let everyone else at the gym wonder what the heck it is that you're chortling about!



Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Screen of Purest Sky

"People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon."

You will not remember . . .
(Formby Beach, Merseyside, England)

Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness God draws down an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. "You will not remember," God seems to say, "and you will not expect."

from the essay "Experience"
by Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
American Transcendentalist, essayist, philosopher and poet

You will not expect . . .
(Tulum, On The Mayan Riviera)


"Through a Glass Brightly"

(A fortnightly [every 14th & 28th] literary blog of
connection & coincidence; custom & ceremony)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Through A Glass Brightly

"A very very very fine house . . .

Such a cozy room,

the windows are illuminated

by the evening sunshine through them,

fiery gems for you . . ."

~ Graham Nash

In a section sadly omitted from the final version of his novel, Gustave Flaubert pictures Madame Bovary standing before the colored windows at Vaubyessard. She looks out at the countryside through variously colored window panes in a passage strangely reminiscent of Emerson's colored beads and lenses. Moving as from dream to dream, Emma Bovary looks at the illusion offered by each pane.

Through the blue pane, all seems sad; through the yellow pane everything grows smaller, lighter, and warmer; through the green pane everything she sees appears leaden and frozen. She remains longest in front of the red glass, looking at a landscape that frightens her, until she averts her eyes to the ordinary daylight of a transparent pane.



Stained Glass Design in Fireman's Hall Museum, Philadelphia

[Above: Custom - made front door, Society Hill, Philadelpha]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gathering Leaves

. . . Next to nothing for weight;

. . . Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop.
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

from the poem "Gathering Leaves"
by Robert Frost, American Poet (1874 - 1963)

*above & below, grade school art by a grownup! ha!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day

Rough draft of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est,"
one of the best known poems of the First World War,
composed between October 1917 - March 1918.
The earliest surviving manuscript is dated 8 October 1917
and addressed to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message
"Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final)."

Not only do I remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, I can also recall when all of my elders referred to Veterans Day as Armistice Day. Did you know that the Federal government decided that we need no apostrophe in Veterans Day? I like that, don't you? Something to make life easier! I wish they would do the same for Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and Valentines Day!

Here is a bit of irony to mark the occasion: in the UK, beginning in 1939, the two-minute silence traditionally observed in honor of the Armistice, at 11 a.m. on 11 November, was moved to the Sunday nearest 11 November in order not to interfere with wartime production should 11 November fall on a weekday . . . so as not to let Commemoration of the War To End All Wars stand in the way of Preparation for Yet Another War.

And the irony continues with a couple of items that you may have come across . . .

. . . already if you're a fan of The Onion:

"The meeting stretched from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. and included a short lunch break during which several writers were asked to brainstorm individually on a broad idea — the enduring war in Afghanistan — that was proving to be a challenge. In the end “U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan” won out over “Quick and Painless Overthrow of Taliban Enters Eighth Year” and “Afghanistan Rapidly Replacing Iraq as Replacement for Vietnam as Replacement for Quagmire.”


. . . earlier this month if you follow A.Word.A.Day:

"The truth is that every morning war is declared afresh. And the men who wish to continue it are as guilty as the men who began it, more guilty perhaps, for the latter perhaps did not foresee all its horrors." --Marcel Proust, French novelist (1871-1922)

What occurs to me with some sense of dispiriting coincidence is that the two observations -- the first delivered mockingly, the second in contemplation -- are, in fact, really one & the same message. Why persist in throwing good after bad -- money, time, lives? Instead, why not wake up one morning and decline to declare war?

I hate waste. Remember Rhett Butler's assessment of the Civil War, in Gone With The Wind : "I'm angry. Waste always makes me angry, and that's what all this is, sheer waste."

" . . . the old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est*
Pro patria mori."

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English / Welsh poet and soldier, regarded by many as one of the leading poets of the First World War. He was killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre just a week before the war ended. Sadly, news of his death was delivered to his parents, even as the town's church bells were ringing out in peace.

*Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace (Ode III.2.13); the line translates into English: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mind the Gap!

Taking the Tube at Covent Garden, Spring Break 2000

No matter what country he is writing about, Bill Bryson has a knack for tracking down all the best place names -- the most absurd, quaint, funny, lewd, charming -- you name it! I think you will enjoy his pastoral description of riding the London Underground:

"The best part of Underground travel is that you never actually see the places above you. You have to imagine them. In other cities, station names are drearily mundane: Lexington Avenue, Potsdamer Platz, Third Street South. In London, by contrast, the names nearly always sound sylvan and beckoning: Stamford Brook, Turnham Green, Bromley-by-Bow, Maida Vale, Drayton Park. That isn't a city up there, it's a Jane Austen novel . . . a semimythic city from some golden pre-industrial age."
(from Notes From A Small Island, 41 - 42)

And you might want to try Anna Quindlen's humorously helpful map - storage system:

" . . . the maps in the glove compartment are all folded the wrong way . . . If you live in New York, the maps will generally be of New Mexico, Alabama, and downtown Houston. If you live in Seattle, the maps will be of Maine and the Florida Panhandle. In your datebook, however, will be the map you are never without, that all-important map of the London Underground."
(from "Putting Up a Good Front" Living Out Loud, 48 - 49)

All - Important Map!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Quotidian Cat

Beautiful Princess Beaumont

I first discovered the poems of Naomi Shihab back in 1975, in a pubication called Power: Personal Reflections by Youth for Youth. My friends and I enjoyed subscribing to this little St. Louis - based poetry magazine and ordering gift subscriptions for each other every Christmas. Although Naomi didn't know it, I was her groupie in those days and copied all of her work into a notebook that I kept in highschool and college. Here are a couple more of my favorites:

My Cat

My cat is sitting on the floor
in the middle of the kitchen
during rush hour.

He is sitting directly between
the refrigerator and the sink.

In mean moments I kick him gently
and tell him to hit the road.

In other moments he acts as a kind
of reminder. I stop.

Why are you sitting there? I ask him.
He smiles.

He is sitting on the floor
in the center of everything
being peaceful.

Because I have forgotten something,
he gets in my way.

Feeding the Cat

Once I woke up early
and contemplated a coffee bean
in all its potent, brown mystery
and that was the day
nothing was empty,
the day a simple act
like feeding the cat
was reason enough
to be alive.

both poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (b 1952)
Contemporary Palestinian / American Poet

Our Tigress Pine at the Window