A Pause in Posting: The Eyes Have It!

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I spoke briefly about my adventures with skin cancer last Fall. Another fallout from growing up in Southern California and years of sun exposure–I am old enough to have spent many summers frying my skin because the words ‘sun block’ were not a product–is the development of a non age-related cataract in my right eye. These types are determined as such by the fact that the damage is on a different part of the lens. They are also fast growing. My eyesight began to change in April and by the end of May it was time to call the doctor.

I just had the appointment and I hope to have surgery next month. I was scared when this first began, but now I can’t wait to have it taken care of, because it has affected my ability to read. You may have noticed I am posting less; that’s because I read slower and, oh my, this is frustrating! I also find my laptop screen is sometimes blurry, which is why I am not commenting on your posts so much.

I am going to do myself a favor and take time off Relevant Obscurity until sometime in July. I don’t know what the recovery period is for cataract surgery…I won’t leave altogether, because hey, I am right in the middle of Persuasion (and liking it SO much better than Pride and Prejudice…oops, I did just say that, didn’t I?) and I know I will want to blog about it. I will continue to read slowly and do the best I can. And I know I’ll “Like” and pop up on your blogs if I can. Fortunately, I see very well off the page, so other parts of my life can continue as usual.

And may I just leave you with this: Wear sunscreen and a hat, as well as uv protecting sunglasses!

 

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I still go to the beach, but this is my attire now 🙂
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Under the Greewood Tree or The Mellstock Quire, Thomas Hardy (1872)

This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians,…is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand of the personages, ways and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago….One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen…by installing a single artist….Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players and singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. Thomas Hardy, Introduction

 

greenwoodUnder the Greenwood Tree concerns the fate of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, who have been informed by the vicar of their parish, Mr Maybold, that he intends to replace them with a single organist, Fancy Day, who is also the new school teacher. The vicar wants the small village to keep up with the times, which means changing the traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services with the more modern barrel organ. This is devastating to the musicians, some of whom come from families who have been church musicians for generations. In a last ditch effort to plead their case, they descend upon the vicar to negotiate, but the organ has been purchased and modernity has descended upon the little village.

Times have changed from the times they used to be…People don’t care much about us nowserpent! I’ve been thinking we must be almost the last left in the county of the old string players? Barrel-organs and the things next door to ‘em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terrible of late years….They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out of clarinets, and done away with serpents. If you’d thrive in musical religion, stick to strings…Strings be safe soul-lifters….

The story unfolds on Christmas Eve as the quire makes the many-hour trek through the night to the church. Hardy introduces us to a wonderful cast of characters including cantankerous old Reuben Dewy, frail young Thomas Leaf and Dewy’s grandson, Dick. When the group reaches the schoolyard near the church their playing rouses Fancy who comes to a window. This vision sparks the interest of Dick, who is quickly smitten. As the days turn into weeks he is in constant rumination on the details of her dress, her thoughts, aching over snippets of conversations, essentially embodying the hopes and fears of young romance.

Fancy’s interest in him grows, but her father is not impressed with the working class Dewy and forbids their marriage. Enter the iconic single woman of the town who people call a witch, whom Fancy visits for advice. She gives Fancy instructions on how to change her father’s mind and with success. The book ends with their marriage.

This is a wonderful pastoral tale of tradition versus progress, yet the fight is not so passionate, as the men of the quire understand they will lose in the end. Bargaining with the vicar to finish out the year before the organ takes over, he gives them only until Michaelmas. During this time they feel the changes coming on and know their days as musicians are numbered. And as Fancy gets to know the musicians and especially as her affection for Dick grows, she assures them she will NOT play the organ. But she can’t thwart progress either and the day comes for her debut.

The old choir, with humbled hearts, no longer took their seats in the gallery as heretofore, but were scattered about with their wives in different parts of the church. Having nothing to do with conducting the service for almost the first time in their lives, they all felt awkward, out of place, abashed, and inconvenienced by their hands.

Progress always has a human toll and while I ached for these musicians having to face a changing world, I was also impressed by their acceptance of the that reality.

Hardy’s prose in this early work is not without lengthy detailed descriptive passages that are unnecessary to the narrative. But there are other aspects of Hardy’s writing that I find quite beautiful and creative. In fact, in his opening paragraph where he describes the land surrounding the village he cleverly infuses his description of nature with musical description, being obviously a main point of the novel. This beginning paragraph will remain a favorite of mine for a long time.

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

________________

My Edition
Title: Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1872
Pages: 273
Full plot summary

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs (2017)

“We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”

 

brighthourMy best friend Dinah died of breast cancer in 2009. It amazes me every day that I have been able to live without her and that we will not be rocking-chair old ladies together. I had never been closely involved in someone’s cancer fight before and while the pain of this loss is deep, the humor and wit she was known for is also part of my memories.

After decades of a close friendship Dinah shared easily her thoughts on her prognosis and living for almost 5 years with stage four breast cancer, the 3 ½ rounds of chemo and when she finally called it quits, the hair loss/regrowth and loss again and how she playfully exploited her baldness to get to the front of any line and the best table in restaurants, and finally her belief that Jesus would heal her, even when it was obvious she was going to die.

Through the years after her death, I have often picked up memoirs of cancer survivors or in the case of The Bright Hour, those who died. I am not sure what I want from these books, but I am drawn to how people live, not knowing the outcome, and how like Dinah they put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, keep living and experiencing life as fully as they can.

In The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs is a 37 year-old wife and mother of two young boys when she learns she has breast cancer. At first it is just “one small spot,” but chemo and radiation do not do their job and by the time she tries the last treatment available she is at stage four.

Between treatments she tries to live as normally as possible for her boys. She and her husband John are always honest with the latest treatment outcome. Freddy and Ben learn to live in an atmosphere of uncertainty over their mother’s health.

As if Nina’s fight isn’t consuming enough, her mother has been fighting breast cancer for five years and provides some of the lighter moments in the book. A dedicated book club member, even at death’s door she wants to keep up with the book selection schedule. With poignant moments, the clubbers understand.

Nina’s optimism carries her a long way, the title being a clue. As the great, great, great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she is trying to live in that bright hour and not “be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”

This isn’t a depressing book, but because I knew she was going to die there was a bit of dread at each page turn wondering when and how that would occur. Her writing style is contemporary and conversational which adds to this feeling of immediacy, but also gives a measure of comfort as if I was peering into the heart of my own friend. Nina does not gloss over the effects the various treatments and procedures have on her physically and in that regard the book may not appeal to everyone. But this is the reality I experienced with Dinah and no matter how gross or painful, this is the reality of our friends and family.

In the afterword written by John, we learn Nina finished the manuscript for the book in late January 2017. And with the prospects grim, entered hospice in February. She died on the 26th.

Nina leaves us with a good outcome, even though hers was not so good–live life as best as you can, because…well, you just don’t know what’s up ahead. Books like this help us turn our sadness into marveling at the human spirit that just wants to live well, no matter the prognosis.

_____________

My Edition
Title:The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
Author: Nina Riggs
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 320
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Nonfiction Reading

Nonfiction Friday: Out On a Leash, Shirley MacLaine (2017)

Many of my friends who have passed on come to their human companions in dreams. They press their furry selves against their human friends with all the warmth they can muster; they nudge and paw until their masters wake up. They do it to remind their human loved ones that nothing ever dies. Love just changes form. Terry

 

LeashI am a big fan of actress/dancer Shirley MacLaine and the books she writes about her spiritual adventures. Her first book, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, played a big part in guiding my younger self’s spiritual exploration. She is not a guru and does not want to be. She is just a gal who wants to feel connected to the Universe and wants to be open to its secrets. She writes honestly of her humanness, her mistakes, doubt, anger and her overwhelming desire to learn.

In this book, she learns through her dog Terry, a Rat Terrier, with whom she is extremely close. Terry experiences life as a wise Yoda-type character who tries to impart that wisdom to Shirley, which she seems to understand until her fears get in the way. Through Terry, Shirley sees all the love, the joy, and even the tragedy the Universe has to offer that really isn’t a mystery or a secret if she can just open herself up to living life in the present as dogs do.

I find myself wanting to surround myself with animals. I want birds in the house, and I want a cat; because of Terry, I would be happy living with a menagerie. It’s wonderful to relate to living things that don’t speak, that don’t judge, and don’t blame. They are always an instant removed from timelessness. They point the way to a state of being we humans can only aspire to. Shirley

The book alternates monologues between Shirley and Terry who muse on life, death, UFO’s, Shirley’s choice of acting roles, and how to get along with the other dogs/people in your pack/life. They talk to and about each other and how Terry’s death, after almost two decades together (this is not a spoiler), though unbearably sad was a gift to Shirley in what it taught her about life after death.

Not only am I biased in favor of any of MacLaine’s writing, I loved bigears (2)this book just a little more for its canine heroine, who is the same breed as my Jess and from whom I learned a lot. Jess really does do Downward Dog…it’s not my imagination!

_____________________

My Edition
Title: Out on a Leash: How Terry’s Death Gave Me New Life
Author: Shirley MacLaine
Publisher: Atria Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Dewey’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Classics Club Spin #17: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (1848)

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers. Oh Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience. Acton Bell, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

 

tenantThe story of Helen Huntingdon is intense. We meet her as a mystery woman new to the neighborhood who appears to all as aloof and disinterested in society. “She doesn’t even go to church,” the gossips exclaim! She is misunderstood and a target of slander from the beginning and though she refuses to reveal the truth about herself none of the townspeople ever ask her outright. Her only trustworthy friend is also very attracted to her and he believes the worst about her until she is finally able to show him her journal, documenting the horrible life of abuse she experienced by her husband and the daring escape with her young son. This is the reason for secrecy and reticence in order not to be discovered by her husband.

Two Aspects of this Book are very Modern: Reading Classics in the 21st Century and Bullying Behavior

I had been book blogging for several months when I reviewed, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The House of the Seven Gables. After I published it on my blog I found a discussion about it on another blog on why is this still an assigned classic in school–it is so densely written and boring it should be tossed into the dustbin of literary history. I was fascinated, because all the criticisms the commenters were making were exactly why I liked it! The writing hadn’t seemed dense to me, because I love Hawthorne’s description of every little detail of a character’s thoughts, the minute details of the house and street it was located on.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the journal Helen gives Gilbert tells the story of her abusive marriage. It is achingly repetitive. The book itself is over 500 pages in my edition and the journal takes up at least ¾ of it and frankly it could have benefited from serious editing, the same criticism of The House of the Seven Gables. Even so, my interest was held through Arthur Huntingdon’s perpetual meanness, psychological abuse, leaving to carouse in London, adultery, drinking, the coming home and then doing it all over again. Throughout the journal, even before she marries him, Helen’s friends and family warn her repeatedly about his bad habits and immoral behavior, until it is so obvious she should not do it. And yet, she marries him and this repetition continues leaving the reader to wonder how long will Arthur’s abuse go on and how long will Helen accept it as her duty?

Does the so-called ‘boringness’ of these books for some call into question their relevancy? Do we find them boring because we have a smaller attention span now? Is it hard for teenagers in the 21st century to sit down and read a 500 page book? I suppose this means CliffsNotes will always be in demand.

The second aspect of this book that is very modern manifests in the way Helen bears the consequences of gossip and bullying, the way she believes her husband will change after they are married, the toll it takes in the way Arthur abuses, cheats on and neglects her and the vulnerability she experiences when Arthur’s friends see her as fair game because Arthur is reckless in his affections for other women and ignores her.

Helen has no recourse for this sham of a marriage since only her husband can enact divorce and though the church might take pity on her if she were able to admit and document how bad things are, most people, like her Aunt would still say she has a duty to the marriage and should go back to her husband. And Helen will say she has a duty, too.

Whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; and this just tallies with my inclination.

Today, there are a fair amount of churches that believe women are locked into the bonds of marriage no matter how harsh the treatment by their husband and continue to counsel against separation or divorce with dire consequences.

In another modern aspect, Helen is subjected to gossip and bullying behavior by the townspeople that remind me how exacerbated this would have become on Twitter, for instance, which would have a field day in blaming the victim, when their ‘evidence’ for Helen’s illicit relationship is only a ‘feeling.’

“Why mother, you said you didn’t believe these tales,” said Fergus.

“No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.”

“The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening — and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandalmongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure,” said I.

“Well, but Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.”

“Did you see anything in her manner?”

“No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.”

In the Preface to the second edition of the book, published in 1848, Anne Bronte (writing as Acton Bell) addresses the critics who find the story coarse and brutal for depicting such negative scenes of married life. She answers that truth is better than falsehood and “to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light” is the least honest or safe for a writer. Characters like Arthur Huntingdon do exist and her purpose in telling this story is to warn both young men and women of the pitfalls of a marriage when you see it only through rose colored glasses–you must get to know the person.

So I answer my own question about the relevancy of classics with a resounding YES!  Reading books written more than a hundred years ago with characters who are experiencing the same issues we are connects us to the past by opening our eyes to, in this case, perennial injustices in which we have evolved somewhat, but still have a long way to go. We may see ourselves in these characters and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. And what a way to respect the past than by heeding Bronte’s advice  and her characters who lived exactly 170 years ago.

 

_______________________________

My Edition
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1848
Pages: 511
Full plot summary

Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge

National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
newport.jepg

 

 

The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

jwjohnson

To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Gabriela Mistral: Chilean Poet, Educator, Diplomat and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

mistral

 

April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!

Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.

Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.

She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.

I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.

A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*

 

“Serenity”/”Suavidades”

When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.

When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.


“Time”/”Tiempo”

DAYBREAK

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.

For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
vanquished, flees.


“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.

They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.

And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.

I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.

Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.

For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.

___________

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.

I Downloaded the Babbel App for German, then Mark Twain put the Fear in Me!

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My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it. Mark Twain, The Awful German Language

 

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In mid February I downloaded the Babbel app for German. Babbel is an online platform for learning a foreign language with fourteen languages to choose from.

I have no background in German, but became fascinated with it after months of watching a German tv show on YouTube and then to films on Netflix. It was something about the sound of the language that drew me and my curiosity lead me to explore online study.

Babbel has a microphone feature that allows you to repeat words for correct pronunciation which I find very useful. The lessons themselves are short and packed with relevant information and real world situations. Unlike language study in school (Spanish) where I had to keep up with the teacher’s schedule, with Babbel I set the pace, gliding along through what I catch onto easily and repeating concepts when necessary. I have become obsessed looking for words and phrases I can identify on German Instagram accounts and their comment section, I watch German YouTube travel videos and personal channels and I just taught my dog her first German command. I am having a blast!

Then I discovered The Awful German Language, an essay Mark Twain wrote about his own German language study while preparing for a trip to Germany in 1878. It is published as an appendix to his book, A Tramp Abroad.

Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.

This is potentially intimidating. But I am not at the point where I am very concerned about grammar or the overall study of the language. I am just taking each lesson as it comes, conjugating regular verbs in the present tense and feeling pretty darned please with myself. This essay doesn’t create the right atmosphere for a new language learner and I considered putting it aside until I had a little more experience, but like a car wreck I could not NOT look at it!

…the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

Ha!! I had just learned about sie/Sie when I read this! And I had to repeat this lesson several times before the concept sunk in. It IS confusing and perplexing, but seriously, Mr. Twain, it is not worth killing someone over.

However, while murder is not an option for me, I suppose everyone who studies a language has an Achilles heel of some kind and mine seems to be gendered nouns, which, if they don’t kill me, may render me impotent.

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex [mädchen or girl, is a neuter noun], while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”

After only two months of study Twain concludes his essay with 8 points of criticism with which he thinks the language should be reformed. Only Mark Twain would have such audacity.

As for me, I don’t yet know enough to be dismayed by cases or declensions (I push down deer-in-the-headlight memories of college Latin). I just know, “Ich bin Laurie” “Wo lebst du” und “Sprichst du Englisch” is a good beginning and will come in handy someday!

Tschüss! (Bye!)

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Found at a library sale: Lebendiger Bambus (The Living Reed in German), by Pearl S. Buck. To look forward to!