Monthly Archives: March 2012

Little Facts: Words Edition

1: I’m a good writer (forgive my hubris), but a terrible speller. My first school, attended from kindergarten to 2nd grade, did not teach phonics at all or correct spelling for the first few years of my education. Thus I can spell words correctly if I think about them, but if I’m just going with the flow of my thoughts, it’s fairly atrocious.

2: Instead of taking a language I could potentially use outside a botany classroom, I studied Latin in high school. My favorite words are flumen, which means river, and fenestra, which translates to window. They’re just really fun to say. (Common, say them with me. Your mouth with have fun, I promise! Fluuumen. Fenestraaa. Fluuuumen! Fenessstraaa!)

3: For all my big vocabulary, I’m surprisingly poor at Scrabble. Big words can’t make up for a lack of skill in the strategy department. (Thanks to Words With Friends I am getting better, though!)

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One Thousand White Women, Plus Me

Insomnia is an awful, horrendous, terrible, disastrous, abominable thing. I hate it. In fact, to date, there are only two physical conditions I’ve experienced that I hate more: severe nausea, and accidentally  wearing cloth shoes in the rain. But, alas, I’ve been rather insomnimatic for the last several nights.  While this condition hasn’t been so great for me in life-life, in my book-life it’s been rather fortuitous. On Thursday night, or rather very early Friday morning, I had been lying awake for what seemed millenia, so I decided I might as well put the time to good use and read. In the dark, I picked a book off my shelf at random and curled up on my couch with a book light. I feel asleep reading One Thousand WhiteWomen: The Journals of May Dodd that night, and the next, until finally I stayed up Saturday night because I simply had to finish this amazing novel.

"The Cheyenne believe that everything that ever happened in a place- every birth, every life, every death- still exist there, so that the past, present, and future live on forever in the earth. And so I, too, have come to believe." -Brother Anthony, page 420.

May Dodd is a Chicago socialite who has been committed to an insane asylum by her wealthy family for loving a man below her station. She has resigned herself to living the remainder of her life in this monotonous prison, when government agents arrive at the institution with an interesting opportunity. Willing to do anything to be free, and hopefully someday reunite with her two small children, May joins a secret government program whereby she and a group of fifty or so other women, the first of a promised thousand, travel West to the Nebraska territory to become the wives of Cheyenne warriors. Reported by her family to have died in the asylum around the time of her departure, May’s journals are the only clue for her modern-day descendents to the truth of her amazing adventure.

“We will look back on this life that we have now, ” Little Wolf said softly, “and we will think that no people on earth were ever happier, were ever richer; we have good lodges and plenty of game; we have many horses and beautiful possessions and I am not yet prepared to give this up to live in the white man way. Not yet. Another fall, another winter, perhaps one more winter…then we shall see.” -page 341

Though May Dodd and her journals are fictitious, Jim Fergus has done his best to portray an accurate picture of what life would have been had a white woman become part of the Cheyenne Tribe in 1875, in the last months of their freedom. Fergus portrays the Cheyennes well, neither as noble savages nor as evil heathens, but as people, just like you and me. Their culture is filled both with breathtaking beauty- a respect for and harmony with nature, a love of family- and horrible brutality- they mercilessly murder the children of their enemies.  And the white man? He reads Shakespeare, makes beautiful art, complex cities, and he also massacres tribes of Native Americans who do not move to their appointed reservations on time.

I was deeply moved by this book, by the journals of this woman who never really lived, but who brought me a deeper understanding of this period of our country’s history. I felt the flaws of my own people deeply, was fascinated by native culture,  cheered as the women fell in love with their new husbands and grew their new babies, cried as the solider’s raided the Indian camp and for the women caught between both cultures, and in May’s case, two loves- her Cheyenne warrior chief, and a brave army captain. I loved the ways the women invented to both assimilate and retain their identities. I wanted to travel the prairies with May and Little Wolf as they made this, the last great Cheyenne summer migration. I wanted to know what it felt like to sleep in a tipi and snuggle into a bed of buffalo skins, and I wanted to snuggle those little Indian babies with their cute, literal names.

“I feel that the children may prove to be our bridge to the savage way of life and theirs to ours….All children are children finally- it hardly matters to which race or culture they belong-  they belong to the first to the race and culture of children.” -May Dodd, page 141.

So, overall, I can’t say too much more without giving everything away, but this book, while entirely fiction, was a bold, touching glimpse into the months leading up to the American Indian War, and I enjoyed every page of it. The only downside? It is 16 pages too short to qualify for the Chunkster challenge. I really thought this would be my first completed tome, but alas, silly Mr. Fergus only had 434 pages worth of stuff to say. Boo, Mr. Fergus, boo! (Dear Mr. Fergus, I’m sure you’re not really silly. I apologize, and I mostly mean it. Sincerely, A Slightly Disgruntled Fan.) Although, if you count the bibliography and the book club discussion in the back, the numbers do almost work themselves out, counting to 449 pages…Hmmmm…Is this cheating? Can I swing it? Will the Chunkster gods give me this grace? I’ll shot them a message and find out. The Case of the Almost-Long-Enough Novel will be continued…

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A Poetry Detour: Heaney, Rilke, and a Touch of Shelly

First, a very happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you, my friends! Éire go Brách! I can hear the sounds of our city’s festival from here, but it’s very rainy, so we’re not venturing out. Instead, this little Irish lass is enjoying a hot mug of Irish Breakfast tea and reading some of my favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.

This is how poems help up live.
They match the meshes in the sieve
Life puts us though; they take and give
Our proper measure
And prove themselves most transitive
When they give pleasure.

If you’re never read Seamus Heaney’s poetry, or his book Finders Keepers, which is something of a poetry handbook and is incredibly useful to the aspiring poet or writer, then I highly recommend you check him out. He is well worth your time.

I don’t often talk about it, but poetry is my first love. Before I’d ever picked up Fitzgerald or Austen, I discovered Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Emily Dickinson in my neighborhood library during my eight grade year. I’m sure I’d read something of them, and other poets, before, but this is when they first captured me. I devoured Emily’s entire collection in a week, kept Tennyson’s Idles of the King on my bedside table, and was soon pluming the depths of Longfellow, Keats, Shelly, and the Brownings.

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
from creation to decay.
Like the bubbles on a river-
sparkling, bursting, born away.
-Shelly

What breathing soul would not be captivated by such lushness? *Sigh* These poets inspired me to write for myself. What I penned, however, was not even a little inspiring, but rather an angst-riddled adolescent verse that the world was kind enough to label “poetry-ish.” (Though I dobelieve every writer has to get this angst-y, teenage nonsense out of their system before they can go on to write something that wont make them nauseated when they read it in ten years.)

"Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." -Rilke

Then, in college, I discovered the modern’s- Sandburg, Whitman, Plath, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, Milosz, Brodsky, Marianne Moore, and Denise Levertov, among others- who all made me feel the world in a newer way. I also started writing a few pieces that were passable, and I started realizing that this wasn’t just a hobby for me, it was a need. I needed to write. It was around this time I first discovered Rainer Maria Rilke, and truly, I feel in love.

I don’t think you have a choice about your poetic voice, I think it just comes up from the depths of who you are and how you see the world, and that is the voice you have. I found my voice in Denise Levertov, and I love her dearly, but if I could have chosen my voice, I would have wished to sound like Rilke. He’s so smooth and simple and reads so effortlessly. He’s one of the ones that makes poetry sound like anyone could do it, when you know in reality he sweated blood over those verses.

Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet chronicles ten letters he wrote to an aspiring poet who admired Mr. Rilke greatly. I read a portion of these letters in a college Modern Poetry class, but I’d never read them in their entirety. Rilke is everything you expect from an eccentric poet- passionate, abounding in a slightly opaque wisdom, and sitting on the edge of a benevolent narcissism. He’s mesmerizing. At just 90 pages, this little treasure is well worth the afternoon it will take you to read on your own, but here are a few of the gems I collected from it:

  1. Never substitute irony for real creativity. Irony is only of real use when it springs from creativity, not when it takes it’s place. Writers who are purely ironic may last for a season, but the truly creative endure beyond. (Hipster poets, beware!)
  2. Everything is inspiration. Everything you’ve done, read, seen, said, thought, touched, tasted, or desired is all gestating in you. Poetry is an amalgamation; don’t discount anything.
  3. Poetry is hard. If you don’t feel from your inner core that it’s something you must do, it is perhaps better to find another enterprise.
  4. Poetry is hard because it is a preparation for life. The poet delves deeply and examines life so that it may be lived more fully. And what is life without love? Nothing. So if you’re not willing to take the time to learn to love well, you’re poetry will be stunted. To use Mr. Rilke’s own words, love is “the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
  5. If you want to write anything well, you’re going to have to get some time alone, and get it regularly. Solitude is the mother of reflection, and reflection is the mother of poetry.
  6. And, finally, this: patience will make or break you. Poetry is a marathon, not a sprint. My favorite quote from the whole book speaks to this:

“Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer….I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything.”

Amen.

And after swallowing all this richness, I just had to read more of his poetry. I read the entirety of my favorite Rilke collection, Rilke’s Book of Hours. Oh Rainer, how you slay me! I have no real review except this: if you’ve never read this particular collection, do it! It is a feast for your thoughts. I’ll share here two short selections, an old favorite and a new one.

Poem I, 2:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Poem II, 16:

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Have you ever read a poet that just set your heart on fire? Let me know below, I’d love to check them out! If you’ve read Rilke before, do you love him, hate him, or fall somewhere in-between? What is your favorite Rilke poem?

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Let’s Ignore the Obvious Slump I’m In and Talk Books!

Okay, okay, okay. This slump has gone on long enough. I’m putting my foot down. I’m tired of feeling slumpish, and I’m tired of everyone and their pet frog asking me why I haven’t been blogging more. Even the husband, who is supposed to me on my side always, without asking questions, told me I’m being “blog lazy.” Meh. I hate it when he’s right. 😉

This is what I’ve read, and actually finished, recently: And wow- that little stack of books is full of some good stuff. Kate Chopin?! Rainer Maria Rilke?! Be still me beating heart! But that’s going to have to wait until another day, because…

I read Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flower’s first. I’m not going to lie, I picked it first because it had a build-in book mark. More hard backed books should have these! It was both handy, and it couldn’t have cost that much, and it made me pick this book before a ribbon-less one. If ever I am a book publisher, you’ll be able to tell my books by their colorful ribbons. Well, that, and hopefully the impeccable quality of the stories we publish.

Bookmark, for the win!

Victoria is a child of San Fransisco’s foster care system. Abandoned as a baby and then bounced from potential adoptive family to group home to over-crowded foster homes with regularity, she is about to turn 18 and be emancipated from the system with no support network, friends, or even a highschool diploma. She lands in a halfway house, where she can board free for three months, but without any skill other than a love for plants and an uncanny knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers, she is unable to find a job, and ends up living in a park.

But her knowledge of flowers and their secret language isn’t nothing. She’s been using it for years to subtly often unnoticeably communicate with those around her. Peony’s for anger, thistle for misanthropy, lavender for mistrust. Soon, a kind but solitary florist discovers Victoria’s talents just when she is on the verge of starvation, and is beginning to both look and smell like a street dweller. Grateful for the opportunity to learn an art she loves, Victoria throws herself into her new work, gaining the devotion of several patrons, and the eye of a handsome young flower farmer. But the young man brings with him the ghosts of Victoria’s most painful memories, and challenges her to step out of her past and overcome her hurts to live a full life- or, more accurately, to actually live for the first time in her life.

Richly written in a beautiful, flowing style, The Language of Flower’s was stylistically sound, while still being easy to read. The themes of motherhood and family will undoubtedly strike a chord with almost any woman, and were well-developed with feeling forced. Diffenbaugh’s first-person narration drew me in and flowed easily between past and present without being choppy or confusing. It’s a testament to how well the novel is written that I was so drawn into Victoria’s world, which, honestly, could have been easily unlikable. Victoria is stand-offish and distrusting. She doesn’t like physical touch or any type of intimacy, and she shys away from any lasting connections. While it’s understandable and realistic given her history of both abandonment and abuse, if handled by a less skilled author it could have been much more difficult to read. As it is, I came to a certain understanding with Victoria. My quirks and hangups might be different from her’s, but I certainly have my fair share. And what 18-19-20 year old hasn’t felt that they were just too strange, too flawed to ever be truly understood or loved at one low point or another? Victoria and I are about as different as possible, but I got her, and that’s critical to appreciating this often painful, though ultimately redeeming, story.

My favorite aspect of the book, though, (aside from the built-in bookmark) is what the almost forgotten art of the language of flowers added to it. I’ve heard before, of course, that different flowers mean different things, like red roses mean love, white roses mean purity, etc., but Diffenbaugh’s extensive knowledge of the hidden meaning of flower’s adds a special depth to this novel. Really, the flower’s become a silent character in this story, similarly to how the town of Paris was a featured in Sarah’s Key, or Hogwarts Castle in Harry Potter.

Ha! There, I did it! I posted a review. Slump, I am over you. Get thyself out of here! And tomorrow I really will be back. I can guarantee this, because the post is already almost finished. Also, I’m rewarding myself with chocolate for every blog post until I’m back in the swing of things. Or maybe even after that, insuring that I’ll here, blogging, forever. I am Full. Of. Win.

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Pilgrimage

I come in the night
Asking for my lack, as pilgrims do-
Straight spine,
Clever pen,
Love.

I have nothing for payment, but gifts are supposed to be free.

In the dark you chuckle.
I can see nothing, but you smell thick in the air-
A secret garden only the dead may know.

“You already have all, child. Next.”

I leave with the exact things in my hand
I have had since the start, but I
Smell better now.

I begin my journey home.

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Filed under Faith, Poetry, Some Thoughts, writing