Watching The Season Change, With Elizabeth

The sight of the first pale flowers starring the copses; an anemone held up against the blue sky with the sun shining through it towards you; the first fall of snow in the autumn, the first thaw of snow in the spring; the blustering, busy winds blowing the winter away and scurrying the dead, untidy leaves into the corners; the hot smell of pines – just like blackberries – when the sun is on them; the first February evening that is fine enough to show how the days are lengthening, with its pale yellow strip of sky behind the black trees whose branches are pearled with raindrops; the swift pang of realization that the winter is gone and the spring is coming; the smell of the young larches a few weeks later; the bunch of cowslips that you kiss and kiss again because it is so perfect, because it is so divinely sweet, because of all the kisses in the world there is none other so exquisite – who that has felt the joy of these things would exchange them, even if in return he were to gain the whole world, with all its chimney-pots, and bricks, and dust, and dreariness?  And we know that the gain of a world never yet made up for the loss of a soul.

It’s official!  Winter and spring are behind us, Midsummer was this weekend, and we’re into my favorite half of the year.  I find things to enjoy in every season, but summer and fall have my heart.  And I love the above words by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose German garden hosted so many turnings of the earth and changings of the seasons, with all the joys and wonders that follow.

Happy summer!

Themed Reads: Tent Panels

It’s late June, which is well past the time by which my kids’ summer camp would ordinarily have started – but alas, no camp this year.  Instead of tie-dyeing t-shirts with their friends and indulging in “Ice Cream Wednesday” and “Free Swim Friday” every week, they’re knocking around Camp Corona, a.k.a. the house.  Although we are planning a backyard camp-out sometime this summer (or maybe more than one) the traditional camp experience is not to be this year.  Which is sad!  I have fond memories from my own camp days, and my kids have absolutely loved the camp they’ve attended for the past few years.

If you’re in the same position, confronting a campless summer – and that’s most of us, right? whether we’re parents or just working adults with a tragic lack of summer camp fun in our lives – maybe I can help.  If we can’t go back to summer camp in person (either because of the pandemic or because, you know, we’re grown-ups) we can indulge in a little bit of nostalgia via comics and graphic novels, quite a few of which seem to be set at summer camps.  It’s not surprising, right?  Between the natural settings – which make for excellent art – and the potential for drama and shenanigans whenever a bunch of kids are thrown together, it’s a no-brainer.  Here are three that I’ve enjoyed…

First of all, no summer-camp-comics booklist would be complete without Lumberjanes.  The BOOM Studios comic series has been going strong for years and has expanded to include graphic novels, a YA/middle grade novel series, a crossover with Gotham Academy and a few fun standalones (like a summer camp songbook!).  The series focuses on five friends – Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley – and their adventures punching mythical monsters and dodging their rule-abiding counselor, Jen (who does loosen up) during very eventful summers at Miss Quinzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types.  It’s a wonderful, affirming, welcoming series – the characters come in all shapes and sizes, skin colors, sexual orientations and gender identities, and they love and support each other fiercely while also arm-wrestling statues and punching giant river monsters.  In the first two volumes alone there are anagrams, the Fibonacci sequence, Greek gods, ancient monsters, capture the flag, velociraptors, and pop culture references galore.  I want to go to Lumberjanes camp…

If you’re looking for a more realistic graphic novel take on the summer camp experience, Honor Girl is an incredible memoir exploring friendship and deeper feelings during one eventful summer.  The author, Maggie Thrash, writes of her experience developing feelings for one of her counselors at an all-girls camp in Appalachia, and it’s a sensitive and moving read.  There are hikes, late nights, and lots of suspense – will Maggie summon the courage to share her feelings, and will they be reciprocated?  And if they are, how will her very conservative camp react?  I read this several years ago, when I was just getting into graphic novels and memoirs, and I couldn’t put it down – between the gorgeous panels of artwork and the beautiful coming-of-age story and awakening, it was absolutely wonderful.

For another fitting-in-at-camp reading experience – albeit one tailored to a younger audience – Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared is a total delight.  Vera is a young girl growing up in suburbia, but very much on the outside looking in.  Her family, headed by a single mother, lives paycheck-to-paycheck, always just one step ahead of financial disaster, and clinging to their Russian heritage for comfort and connection – which doesn’t help Vera fit in with the wealthy, spoiled girls in her class.  Vera craves two things – a (loosely disguised) American Girl doll, and the chance to go to summer camp.  The doll is never going to happen, but Vera’s mother scrimps and saves to send Vera and her brother to a summer camp for the children of Russian immigrants.  Vera is overjoyed, thinking this is a place where she can finally fit in.  But camp has quite a few surprises in store.  I expected to love this – after all, I first heard of it through Colin Meloy‘s Instagram stories, so, of course – and I did love it.  Vera’s good heart and sweet soul shine through, and you can’t help but feel confident that they’ll win her true friendship in the end.

My summers at Camp Little Notch in the Adirondacks were not nearly as eventful as Lumberjanes camp, but camp was still a formative experience for me!  To this day, I sing campfire songs to my kids as I put them to bed at night, and I dream of taking Steve and the kids there for one of their family camp weekends.  This summer is not to be – maybe next year? – so in the meantime, I’m shopping for tents at REI and backyard fire pits at Lowe’s, reviewing my Little Notch songbook so that we can sing along while we toast s’mores in the backyard, and reading my Lumberjanes.

Do you relive your summer camp experiences through graphic novels?  Am I missing any good ones?

Anti-Racists Read!

Like so many of my friends (online and off) I am watching the events in our American cities with horror and sadness, and looking for ways to educate myself and to help out.  I’ve donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as a first step, and I’m looking around the internet for reading lists and other resources to become more informed.  I don’t pretend to have all (or even many) of the answers, and I have a lot more reading to do myself, but a few years ago I committed to making my reading list more diverse – adding BIPOC, LGBTQ+, different/underrepresented religious groups, and others to my list of authors to support.  I still have so many more books to read, but in the meantime, here are a few that I’ve read over the past few years, that have added to my understanding and compassion, and made my reading list so much richer.

(Pssst: for a good start, check out this anti-racist reading list from my friend Katie, and a massive diverse booklist from my friend Shan, and go get yourself a copy of The Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim.)

Classics

Sula, by Toni Morrison.  A beautiful celebration of friendship between two very different Black women.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.  THE ultimate classic, and gorgeously written.

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, by Alice Walker.  A moving and powerful collection.

Second Class Citizen, by Buchi Emecheta.  The experience of an African immigrant in 20th century London.

The Complete Collected Poems, by Maya Angelou.  Essential!

Of all the genres, I think I’ve read the fewest Black authors in the classics genre.  I don’t know how that happened!  Must correct that right away.

Modern Literary Fiction

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo.  Totally enthralling, and reads like poetry.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennet.  I loved the Greek chorus style of the church mothers.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  A different perspective on race in America, through the lens of an immigrant.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.  This sad story of justice gone wrong is on just about every anti-racist reading list, for good reason!

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue.  Another immigrant story, and absolutely beautiful.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.  Incredibly powerful and true for the times.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward.  Heart-wrenching and sad and a total page-turner.

The hardest thing about making this list was keeping it a manageable length.  There are SO many wonderful pieces of writing out there by Black writers and they touch on all aspects of the modern Black experience.  As someone who is only going to experience that by reading and hearing about others’ experiences, I am looking for all of the information I can get.

Historical Fiction

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Powerful novel about a period in history that I didn’t know much about.

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste.  Sad and powerful novel of Ethiopia during World War II.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  A novel of escaping slavery, with a heavy dose of magical realism.

Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson.  Brooklyn in the 1970s – gorgeously crafted like everything Woodson does.

Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper.  A middle-grade book about segregation.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.  Linked short stories following two branches of an African family – beginning with two sisters separated by slavery, one of whom stayed in Africa and one of whose descendants witnessed history in the United States.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.  Can’t have an anti-racist reading list without Butler’s time travel classic.

There is so much rich historical fiction out there, telling Black stories and amplifying Black voices.  I’ve loved historical fiction since I was a little girl, and it’s a wonderful and approachable way to start learning history.  (I can’t tell you how many times a historical fiction novel has sent me running for a nonfiction book or scholarly work to learn more.)

Memoir

Becoming, by Michelle Obama.  I loved every word of this memoir; forever my First Lady.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya.  Horrifying and powerful memoir of war, displacement, and the refugee experience.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors.  This should be required reading for everyone, especially right now.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson.  I love a good memoir in verse, and I think this might be my favorite ever.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass.  This could go in the “classics” section, but regardless of where it’s listed – totally essential.

Mom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou.  Most folks are familiar with the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but Angelou wrote several other memoirs as well, including this moving memoir of her relationship with her mother.

March, Vols. I, II and III, by Representative John Lewis.  This is an incredible three-volume graphic novel style memoir by Rep. John Lewis – an icon in Congress – describing his experiences as an activist during the Civil Rights Movement.

There have been SO many incredible Black memoirs – it’s hard to choose a short list to share, but the good news is there are many, many more to discover.

Essays

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward.  Incredible collection of essays, curated and edited by one of the most talented American writers of all time.  (Sing, Unburied, Sing was also magnificent.)

Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge.  Really fascinating perspective from a Black British thinker; I learned a lot that my American-focused history classes didn’t cover.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown.  Of all the essay collections I’ve read by Black writers, I think this beautiful collection is my favorite.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, by Morgan Jerkins.  Important perspectives on intersectionality.

Dear Ijeawele, or, A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It’s probably obvious from this list, but I absolutely love Adichie’s work.  This is a fast read, but really powerful.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Not including Between the World and Me on this list, mostly because I think pretty much everyone has read it (but start there if you haven’t).  This collection of Coates’ essays on race, published in The Atlantic during the Obama Administration, is also fantastic.

The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison.  I’ve had Morrison on my list forever, but have been intimidated.  Starting with this slim essay collection was perfect.

You Can’t Touch My Hair, And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson.  Insightful, but also hilarious – there’s definitely a space for that.

Again – so many wonderful essay collections by Black writers!  (And mostly Black women, which is not surprising since I tend to gravitate to women’s voices more in general.)  

So – an incomplete list, but a list nonetheless: a jumping-off point.  I’m definitely not done reading through the wealth of material that’s out there, and I have been collecting anti-racist reading lists for more ideas.  Speaking of which – what’ve I missed?  Hit me with your best recommendations.

How are you working to educate yourself on race and justice issues during this time?

Themed Reads: For the Black Thumbs Amongst Us

I am a gardener in aspiration, but not in fact.  My next-door neighbor, Zoya, is an incredibly gifted gardener, and I often hang over the fence watching her putter about, moving plants from pot to ground to pot, pruning and adjusting and sprinkling.  She goes in more for flowers and greenery (whereas I am always struggling with vegetables and herbs) and her patio is a dreamscape.  (In case it needs to be said, the picture above: not Zoya’s patio.  That’s the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London.)  Once Zoya asked me for advice on growing tomatoes, and I nearly fell over in shock.  More often, I’m the one begging for her wisdom.  For instance: I had a pot full of mint that died.  I meant to pull the dead roots, but didn’t get around to it.  The next spring, completely overnight, it burst with what appears to be mint… but not the same mint that died; it’s a completely different varietal.  This freaked me out to no end, and I asked Zoya if it was safe to eat.  She told me, “Don’t question it.”  My sweet sister-in-law, Danielle, confirmed over FaceTime that it seems to be spearmint.  But I’ve never planted spearmint.  The dead mint was a peppermint varietal.  How spearmint appeared, I can’t say, but the plant has been officially named “Jesus Mint.”  Needless to say, I’m still staring at it, afraid to eat it.

So now you know all my gardening secrets: I can’t do it.  Those of you who have been reading long enough to remember the Cayenne Pepper Incident of 2017 will not be surprised.  But the black thumb doesn’t stop me from wanting to garden, planning and planting and watching and grousing when nothing grows, and it definitely doesn’t stop me from reading about gardens that are more lush than mine, and gardeners with actual, honest-to-goodness green thumbs.  Maybe someday.  For now, for those of you who are garden cursed like me, here’s some inspiration:

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim – This is probably the quintessential garden book (is it a memoir? is it a novel? what is it, exactly?) of the early twentieth century.  Elizabeth was so ubiquitous at the turn of the twentieth that you can even spot – if you have eagle eyes and know what to look for – Anna Bates being given a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden in a country lane, in a scene in Downton Abbey.  (Don’t ask me what season; I can’t remember.  But the cover of the first edition is distinctive.)  Elizabeth von Arnim was an Englishwoman who married a German aristocrat, and her “Elizabeth” trilogy (Elizabeth and Her German GardenThe Solitary Summer; and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen) follow the eponymous heroine as she putters about, cursing the inability of the Proper German Woman to get her hands dirty, enjoying the gifts of nature and avoiding her responsibilities.  There are many funny moments, some things that are sad, and a lot of gorgeous nature and garden writing.  If there is anyone to inspire you to go outside and wander around, it’s Elizabeth.  Of course, it helps when you have a massive country estate.

Merry Hall, by Beverly Nichols – Speaking of massive country estates, meet Beverly Nichols – perhaps a rather salty successor to Elizabeth von Arnim.  Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy (followed by Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, and what is it with me and lightly fictionalized memoir-ish garden trilogies?) featuring Nichols as he purchases and renovates an old Georgian manor house and surrounding garden, attended reluctantly by the wizened and grumpy head gardener “Oldfield,” his cats “One” and “Four” and a cast of local eccentrics.  There is Miss Emily, who is always flinching and trying to buy vegetables from Nichols’ prolific kitchen garden; Marius, whose chief attribute is erudition; and Our Rose, a famous floral arranger who becomes Nichols’ adversary and bugaboo.  Nichols is at his rapturous best when describing his beloved flowers; his descriptions of lovingly brushing aside fallen leaves to reveal the first snowdrops of spring are gorgeous, for example.  He is definitely a mid-century writer and some of the writing is very much of its time – a.k.a problematic for modern readers.  (I keep considering whether to write a blog post about this sort of thing, and waffling, because I’m not sure I have anything unique to say about it.)  Ultimately, I enjoy Nichols’ voice and his garden writing enough to overcome the occasional jarring note, but the reader should not go in unprepared.

Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively – For a more modern note, Penelope Lively’s memoir-ish (apparently all three of these themed books are memoir-ish) look back at the gardens of her life is gorgeous.  From the cover art to the beautiful prose – gorgeous.  Lively is a prolific and important writer of fiction (I read her astonishing Booker-winning novel, Moon Tiger, after becoming acquainted with her through this garden book) and she brings a writer’s sensibilities to the plant plot.  Lively writes of her childhood in Egypt, the gardens of her adult years, and the small London establishment of her current golden years, and sprinkles in sections and chapters about gardens in literature.  If you can tear yourself away from the stunning cover, you’ll find much to appreciate in Lively’s writing.

Elizabeth, Beverly and Penelope are definitely inspiring me as I mull over garden plans for my soon-to-be new place.  There’s a lot of potential but also plenty to be done, and where am I going to put the tomatoes?

Are you a gardener, or just a reader of garden writing?

Themed Reads: Virtual Alps


(Photo courtesy of state.gov)

As we all sit cooped up in our houses and apartments, week in and week out, I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person who has been spending even more time than usual trolling kayak.com, Priceline, and various travel websites – dreaming of adventures to come, just as soon as quarantine is lifted.  Right?  (In fact, I know I’m not: read my friend Katie’s musings on travel dreams during quarantine.)  And while I think I know where our next trip will be, whenever that happens (we’re overdue for a visit to my brother in Colorado) I have big Alpine dreams, too.  Steve and I have been discussing making another trip to Europe in the next few years, with the kids in tow, and we’re pretty much decided on Austria and Switzerland (and maybe a detour to Germany?) as the destination.  My ancestors came from both – and Poland and Hungary too; I’m a hodgepodge – and I’ve long wanted to see something of the region that is part of my family history.  Since this trip is a couple of years away even under the best of circumstances, for now I’m contenting myself with armchair travel.  Mostly, it’s working, although I’m yearning even more for that long-awaited first sight of the Alps.

First of all, no virtual trip to Switzerland could possibly be complete without Joanna Spyri’s childhood classic, Heidi.  I’ve lost count of how many times I read Heidi as a little girl, but I’d never picked it up as an adult – although I own a copy of the gorgeous Puffin in Bloom edition.  Despite the decades-long hiatus, I found the image of little five-year-old Heidi, struggling along up a mountainside to her grandfather’s hut immediately familiar.  I’d forgotten most of the other plot points, but something of the aura – of mountain wildflowers and goat’s cheese – had certainly stayed with me.  Heidi is as pure and wholesome as the Alpine air, and cynical adults may find the plot contrived and unsatisfying – certainly everything always works out tidily for Heidi, Grandfather (or “Uncle Alp” as the villagers call him, because of course they do) and the other characters.  Deserving characters like Clara, Grandmamma, and Peter’s grannie are rewarded with things like soft white rolls, cozy beds, and the ability to walk; those who need to be punished are punished.  And the sun continues to rise and set the mountains aglow.  This is a children’s book, and it reads like a children’s book, but it’s a rich and colorful one with a strong sense of place, and there’s something to be said in these anxious times for picking up a book in which you know it’s all going to turn out just fine and everyone will eat cheese.

All right, you’ve read Heidi and you’re ready to plan your trip.  Where to begin?  Switzerland is a gorgeous country with all kinds of diverse scenery – from crystal clear lakes to towering Alpine peaks to sophisticated European cities.  Before you book your tickets to Zurich, Lodestars Anthology: Switzerland can help you narrow down your destinations.  (Lake Lucerne and the Bernese Oberland for me, please!)  I’ve been following along with this gorgeous quarterly travel journal for some time now, picking up the issues that interest me; I’m not looking to track down out-of-print issues, but if a destination appeals I’ll grab a copy on its run.  Last year, Lodestars published their issue on Switzerland and I knew I needed to add it to my shelves, if only for the stunning photographs of the Alps.  I’ve flipped through it a few times, but earlier this month I finally sat down and read the whole thing cover to cover.  It has everything – from profiles of sophisticated hotels to an evocative piece about the winter wanderweg tradition to a breathtaking article about flying over the mountains in a hot air balloon (new bucket list item alert!) and I closed the cover even more anxious to visit and explore.

BUT since we’re all still stuck at home and most of us are not going to be wandering those Alpine paths anytime soon, the best that we can do – the best I can do, anyway – is Meredith Erickson’s absolutely stunning Alpine Cooking.  This was the one and only cookbook I requested for Christmas this year, and I was delighted to unwrap it on Christmas morning.  Erickson is a Canadian tastemaker who has a long-standing love affair with the Alps and everything about them.  Alpine Cooking is her love letter to these mountains – part cookbook, part photography collection, part travelogue – and it is lush and gorgeous and so tempting.  The book is organized into chapters for each country that can claim an Alpine tradition, so you’d better believe that Switzerland features, and prominently.  Raclette is there, of course (CHEESE!), and so is Rosti, but there are more unexpected joys.  I’ve got my eye on the hot chocolate with Alpine herbs.  It’s acceptable to have that even if you haven’t been skiing all day, right?

As of this moment, none of us know when we’ll travel again – just going to the grocery store feels like a big adventure these days.  But the day WILL come that I find myself back in the terminal at Dulles Airport, and I hope I’m destined for that plane to Zurich very soon.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading and dreaming of hikes through Alpine meadows, followed by bubbling pans of raclette.  It’s going to be so sweet when it finally happens.

What’s your dream destination?  Where are your armchair travels taking you these days?

Poetry Friday: Then I found/Second-hand bookshops in the Essex Road, by John Betjeman

Then I found
Second-hand bookshops in the Essex Road,
Stacked high with powdery leather flaked and dry,
Gilt letters on red labels–Mason’s Works
(But volume II is missing), Young’s Night Thoughts,
Falconer’s Shipwreck and The Grave by Blair,
A row of Scott, for certain incomplete,
And always somewhere Barber’s Isle of Wight;
The antiquarian works that no one reads–
Church Bells of Nottingham, Baptismal Fonts
(‘Scarce, 2s. 6d., a few plates slightly foxed’).
Once on a stall in Farringdon Road I found
An atlas folio of great lithographs,
Views of Ionian Isles, flyleaf inscribed
By Edward Lear–and bought it for a bob.
Perhaps one day I’ll find a ‘first’ of Keats,
Wedged between Goldsmith and The Law of Torts;
Perhaps–but that was not the reason why
Untidy bookshops gave me such delight.
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire,
From whose tall library windows spread his park
On which this polished spine may once have looked,
From whose twin candlesticks may once have shone
Soft beans upon the spacious title-page.
Forgotten poets, parsons with a taste
For picturesque descriptions of a hill
Or ruin in the parish, pleased me much;
But steel engravings pleased me most of all–
Volumes of London views or Liverpool,
Or Edinburgh, ‘The Athens of the North’.
I read the prose descriptions, gazed and gazed
Deep in the plates, and heard again the roll
Of market-carts on cobbles, coach-doors slammed
Outside the posting inn; with couples walked
Toward the pillared entrance of the church
‘Lately erected from designs by Smirke’,
And sauntered in some newly planted square.
Outside the bookshop, treasure in my hands,
I scarcely saw the trams or heard the bus
Or noticed modern London: I was back
With George the Fourth, post-horns, street-cries and bells.
“More books,” my mother signed as I returned;
My father, handing to me half-a-crown,
Said, “If you must buy books, then buy the best.”

~John Betjeman

There’s nothing like a used bookshop, is there, friends?  The thrill of the hunt – the sense of possibility – the victorious feeling when you spot a treasure and snatch it off the shelf.  Amirite?  John Betjeman knows.

What’s your favorite used bookshop?  I love The Book Bank in Old Town, Alexandria – treasures heaped upon treasures.

Poetry Friday: Try to Praise the Mutilated World, by Adam Zagajewski

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rose wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

~by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Claire Cavanagh)

Another week of quarantine.  It’s not getting any easier, is it?  My motivation is flagging in basically everything I have to do – the only thing for which I can summon any enthusiasm is my Another Mother Runner “Love the Run You’re With” training series.  The rest of… well, everything… feels like a long, hard slog, and the whole world is terrifying.  I’m seeing a lot of reassuring posts on social media now, reminding everyone that we are living through a traumatic experience and we should treat ourselves with compassion.  So that’s what I’m trying to do, some days with more success than others.  And then every now and again a bit of good news peeks through the gloom – like the Himalayas being visible again, without pollution – and… yes, this world is mutilated, but we have to try to praise it.  And fix it.

Poetry Friday: Rain Light, by W. S. Merwin

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

~by W. S. Merwin

Even though the whole world is burning – it feels that way, doesn’t it?  We are all struggling in our own ways right now.  And while some certainly have it worse – I’m thinking of my elderly grandmother, who is probably lonely and doesn’t understand why her family has stopped coming to see her (she’s on lockdown; no one can visit); and my cousin, who is an R.N. and putting her personal safety on the line day in and day out; and all my family and friends in New York – it’s not easy for any of us.  I’m trying to be kind to myself in this season of being (mostly, except for runs and the occasional hike) trapped in my house, trying to do three full-time jobs at once (parenting, teaching, and lawyering).  But, as this poem wisely reminds us – when you are alone you will be all right / whether or not you know you will know – and the flowers wake without a question.

How are you doing?

Poetry Friday: now(more near ourselves than we), by e.e. cummings

now(more near ourselves than we)
is a bird singing in a tree,
who never sings the same thing twice
and still that singing’s always his

eyes can feel but ears may see
there never lived a gayer he;
if earth and sky should break in two
he’d make them one(his song’s so true)

who sings for us for you for me
for each leaf newer than can be:
and for his own(his love)his dear
he sings till everywhere is here

~e.e. cummings

Happy National Poetry Month, friends!  We can use poetry now more than ever, in these weird and scary times, in which earth and sky are breaking in two and we are certainly more near ourselves than we.  I hope that you are finding joy wherever you are, and that you can hear a bird singing till everywhere is here.

Themed Reads: Women and Wartime

It’s Women’s History Month, which I always love – while I’m down for celebrating the contributions and successes of women any old time, it’s particularly fun when women’s lives are at the forefront of the conversation and on everyone’s minds.  I love seeing the Women’s History Month display in the window of Hooray for Books!, my local indie that I walk past every day, and I enjoy fitting my month’s reading around this cultural conversation.  Fiction and nonfiction books about women are always a focus of my reading, in any month, and I love delving into women’s lives at different periods in history – but today I want to talk specifically about women’s lives during a time period that interests me especially: World War II.

Home Fires: The Women’s Institute at War, 1939-1945, by Julie Summers (also published as Jambusters) explores the significant role British women played on the Home Front as they organized into local Women’s Institutes for the purposes of serving, learning, and socializing.  The Women’s Institute movement started as a flicker, but soon caught fire, with local WI groups forming in almost every community.  Interest and participation in the WI movement went up to the very highest levels of society: Queen Elizabeth (later to become The Queen Mother) was an honorary chair of the Windsor branch of the WI.  While the WI was best known for their efforts at food preservation – especially jam-making – which made a substantial difference during the long years of rationing and food shortages, they were heavily involved in all sorts of war efforts and provided a natural mechanism for women who were not employed in wartime industries or involved in the armed forces to pool their skills and make a difference.

Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue, by Kathryn J. Atwood is technically a young adult title, although it has appeal to every age group.  I happened across it in my library while looking for books about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a heroine of the French Resistance (this was before the publication of Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, which I own but have not yet read).  Madame Fourcade is profiled in Women Heroes of World War II, but so are twenty-five other women, of every age and nationality, whose acts of courage helped to win the war.  Daring women took great risks to rescue fugitives from the Nazis, carry messages to the Allies, sabotage Axis efforts, and more.  In this age of political disaffection and polarization, it’s refreshing and bracing to read about women who banded together, often at great personal risk, to do what is right.

Consider the Years, by Virginia Graham, offers a contemporary perspective on the war years – and the long drab decade that followed – through a different lens: poetry.  Graham was a well-off young woman when the war began, and evacuated with her family to avoid the danger of living in London during the Blitz.  She writes movingly of daily life; I featured my favorite poem from this slim Persephone-published collection, Evening, in a Poetry Friday post during 2018’s National Poetry Month.  (Still love that one, with its evocative depiction of office workers lined up for a bus, collars turned up against a cold and damp evening, spirits yearning for home.)

Women have contributed meaningfully in every time period, of course.  But there is something particularly fascinating about the role of women during World War II – at least, there is to me.  Those years were a bellwether for women’s greater inclusion and expansions of social and economic freedoms; once peace was achieved, there was no going back to the way things were in the interwar years and before.

What historic time periods are especially interesting to you?