I had a mother who read to me

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I’ve been waiting all week for today: it’s National Readathon Day! (“Or,” said my son the bibliophile, “as I call it, ‘Saturday.’”)

The idea is that we should all spend from noon until 4 p.m. today curled up with a book. After recently reading the three novels in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, I’ve been wanting to reread her first novel, Housekeeping. I picked it up at the library this week and have been saving it for this afternoon.

Yesterday I was sorting through a box of my kids’ old picture books, some of which were mine when I was little. I was thinking, for the thousandth time, how grateful I am that I had a mother who instilled in me a great love of reading. Besides reading to her own kids and grandkids, my mom, in her retirement years in Bethel, became “Gramma Wight” to half the kids in town, and she read to them, too.

Just then I flipped open a dog-eared copy of One Morning in Maine and found, tucked inside the cover, the words I read at her funeral, nearly 11 years ago. Here’s an edited version.

My mom, an elementary school librarian, loved words, and she taught me to love them, too. In Milford, Connecticut, where I grew up, we subscribed to two daily papers, and she read both of them, cover to cover, when she got home after a long day of teaching other people’s children to love words.

She loved newspapers, magazines, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and, most of all, books. She read to me when I was too young to understand the words, and she read to me when I was, in my own opinion, too old to be read to.

Family lore says that I learned to read at the age of three and a half, beginning with street signs and soon progressing to books, which I loved, too. This was a source of great pride and delight to my mom, although, true to form, whenever I overheard her brag about it, it was always with a tinge of dismay, as in, “She’s always got her nose in a book!”

My mom read me poetry—Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost—and anything she regarded as “good” books—Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie and Winnie the Pooh.

(She did not introduce me to the Hardy Boys books, but when I discovered them on my own, she was smart enough to realize that, no matter her opinion of their literary merit, anything that kept me reading under the covers with a flashlight long after bedtime had some value, after all.)

These are some excerpts from my old favorites. Perhaps your mom read them to you, too, or—if you are lucky enough to have called her “Gramma Wight”—perhaps my mom read them to you.

“Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. There were sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles. So they flew on and on.” (Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings)

“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night / Sailed off in a wooden shoe— / Sailed on a river of crystal light / Into a sea of dew. / ‘Where are you going, and what do you wish?’ / The old moon asked the three. / ‘We have come to fish for the herring fish / That live in this beautiful sea; / Nets of silver and gold have we!’ / Said Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.” (Eugene Field)

“When she reached the Green Meadows, Old Mother West Wind opened her bag, turned it upside down and shook it. Out tumbled the Merry Little Breezes and began to spin round and round for sheer joy, for you see they were to play in the Green Meadows all day long until Old Mother West Wind should come back at night and take them all to their home behind the Purple Hills.”  (Thornton W. Burgess, Old Mother West Wind)

“Who has seen the wind? / Neither I nor you: / But when the leaves hang trembling, / The wind is passing through. / Who has seen the wind? / Neither you nor I: / But when the trees bow down their heads, / The wind is passing by.”  (Christina Rossetti)

“She held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly—slowly. Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden.”  (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden)

“‘No!’ said Ramona, and stamped her foot. Beezus and Mary Jane might have fun, but she wouldn’t. Nobody but a genuine grownup was going to take her to school. If she had to, she would make a great big noisy fuss, and when Ramona made a great big noisy fuss, she usually got her own way. Great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of the family.”  (Beverly Cleary, Ramona the Pest)

“How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue? / Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing / Ever a child can do! / Up in the air and over the wall, / Till I can see so wide, / Rivers and trees and cattle and all / Over the countryside— / Till I look down at the garden green / Down on the roof so brown— / Up in the air I go flying again, / Up in the air and down!”  (Robert Louis Stevenson)

 

“‘How do you do Nothing?’ asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.

‘Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh.

‘This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh again.

‘It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.’

‘Oh!’ said Pooh.”  (A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner)

 

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgrabe. / Beware the Jabberwock, my son! / The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! / Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious bandersnatch!”  (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web)

“Pippi had not forgotten her father. He was a sea captain who sailed on the great ocean, and Pippi had sailed with him in his ship until one day her father was blown overboard in a storm and disappeared. But Pippi was absolutely certain that he would come back. ‘As soon as my papa has built himself a boat he will come and get me.’ Pippi was sure that her mother was now in Heaven, watching her little girl through a peephole in the sky, and Pippi often waved up at her and called, ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.’”  (Astrid Lindgren, The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking)

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Poetry: Really, it’s not that hard!

EricCantorTomorrow marks two years since “our” local celebrity poet, Richard Blanco, read his poem, “One Today” at President Obama’s second inauguration. Around that time, I wrote this essay about my relationship with poetry. It has become one of my most popular posts, and since the blog where it originally appeared has been replaced by this one, I’ll share it here. And yes, I’m still reading poetry, every day.

January 2013:

For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading at least one or two poems nearly every morning. I’m reading an eclectic mix of poets, from Shakespeare, Whitman, and Longfellow to Ted Kooser, Linda Pastan, and William Stafford. Through poetry, I’m discovering new worlds, exploring new ways to express emotion, and developing and fine-tuning my own literary tastes.

If all of this sounds complicated and arduous, and makes me sound impressive and erudite—as if I have an extensive library filled with leather-bound volumes of verse, where I settle myself ceremonially in an armchair, switch on my green-shaded brass lamp, and don my reading glasses—let me dispel that idea. What I have are paperback copies of Garrison Keillor’s three Good Poems anthologies, and I keep them in the one room of the house I’m certain to visit every morning.

Yes, I confess: I read poetry in the bathroom.

(My mother read Time magazine in the bathroom. In fact, I’m not sure she ever read it anywhere else. Each week, the new issue was carried into the bathroom as soon as it arrived, and remained there until it had been read cover to cover. As a result, when I was growing up, I also read Time almost exclusively in the bathroom. If I visited a friend’s house and saw an issue of Time on the coffee table, it seemed out of place to me, like a roll of toilet paper left out on the kitchen counter.)

Because I’m partial to the poets of New England—Robert Frost, of course, and Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin—I’m surprised to learn how much poets from other parts of the country have to say, and how their poems resonate with me. Even though I’ve never visited the Northwest, the words of Raymond Carver take me there. When I read Wendell Berry, there I am on a farmhouse porch in Kentucky at dusk.

But I have a lifelong allegiance to New England, and to Maine in particular, and the Maine poets—native or adopted—are among my most revered. Wesley McNair, Stuart Kestenbaum—I’ve heard and read them, here and there, for years now. Philip Booth, Alice Persons, and Kristen Lindquist are new-to-me favorites. (Thanks, Garrison, for performing the introductions.)

I have to admit, though, that until the Big Announcement came out a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Richard Blanco, the poet chosen to create and read an original poem at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. (He doesn’t appear in any of the Good Poems anthologies—the first thing I did when I heard the news was check. I suspect—I hope!—that will be rectified when Garrison puts together his next anthology.)

As it turns out, Richard Blanco lives in Bethel, the next town north of mine. “Holy crap!” I yelled, charging into the den to read the news story to my husband and son. “They’ve announced the inaugural poet! He’s a gay Cuban-American and he lives in Bethel, Maine!”

“There’s a poet that famous living in Bethel?” said my husband.

“There’s a gay Cuban-American living in Bethel?” said my son.

Bethel is a town of about 2000 people. Blanco has been living there for over three years. He’s the co-chair of the planning board there; I’m a selectman here in Greenwood. He apparently gets his hair cut right around the corner from my house. Wouldn’t you think our paths might have crossed by now?

Sadly, no. But that hasn’t stopped me from adopting him wholeheartedly as my new favorite neighbor. Becoming a fan of his Facebook page. Reading every article and interview I’ve seen about him since he so suddenly became famous. Ordering his most recent book, Looking for the Gulf Motel. Hoping that, once the uproar settles down a bit, he’ll do a reading close to home (and sign his book for me).

A lot of people say they “don’t get poetry.” After Richard Blanco gave his reading at the inauguration last week, there was, predictably, something of a backlash: people who dismissed poetry in general with a wave of annoyance and words to this effect: “I don’t get poetry, I’ll never get poetry, so poetry is irrelevant and stupid.” (Or this whine, on Twitter: “What ever happened to a rhyming poem? This poem at the Inauguration doesn’t rhyme at all. It was a glorified term paper.”)

Maybe a lot of people have been unduly traumatized by poetry in their past. They’ve been forced to read, or, worse, read and analyze, poems that actually are complex, obscure, hard to get. When I was in college, I had to write a paper analyzing Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I wasn’t at all sure I was getting the meaning that Stevens intended, but, fortunately, the poem was enigmatic enough to preclude a “one right answer” sort of analysis, and my professor probably wasn’t any more confident about it than I was.

Garrison Keillor, in his introduction to Good Poems: American Places,says, “Americans are impatient with riddles and so they give poetry a wide berth, knowing from Miss Fernwood’s 8th grade English class that a page of writing with an uneven right margin means a series of jokes with no punch lines, a puzzle with no right answers.”

But, like the majority of the poetry I read, Richard Blanco’s “One Today” is not a difficult, inscrutable poem. It is beautiful, heartfelt, and easy to understand. It’s very much a “public poem.” If you missed it, read it, or listen to it: it’s about unity. (There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?)

As Blanco himself said in an interview with Joe Coscarelli for NY Magazine, “I pride myself on creating work that’s accessible….Honestly, I think the poem was even more straight-forward than I typically write.

That’s why I found the knee-jerk I-just-don’t-get-it response particularly annoying. (Even my poetry-baffled husband’s reaction was positive: “I like it. I get it, and I like it.”) And no reaction was more irritating than Eric Cantor’s carefully composed confused expression (and occasional actual lip-curling sneer) throughout the reading.

I don’t believe Cantor actually listened to a word of the poem, because if he did listen to it, and he really didn’t get it, then we should be seriously rethinking how we assess the intelligence of the people we entrust to run the country. No, instead, I think he had spent the previous evening practicing in a mirror to perfect his “what is this shit, anyway?” expression.

Blanco himself was more charitable. Asked about Cantor’s obvious disdain, he said, “Maybe he was just in deep contemplation and overwhelmed with emotion.”

Or maybe Cantor has just never gotten over eighth grade English class.

 

One more resolution for the new year

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We’re already two weeks into 2015, but I’ve just thought up another New Year’s resolution, so I’m going to make it now.

It’s a simple one, just four words: turn envy into inspiration.

This morning, my writer friend Claire emailed the members of our writing group to announce that she had just launched her new website and blog. In her first blog entry, she wrote about surviving two data-devouring computer crashes, replacing her computer, and—most impressive of all—planning and carrying out a week-long personal writing retreat.

Her partner, Deborah, a nurse, was off to Guatemala to spend the week working in a clinic, so Claire holed up in their rustic, off-the-grid cabin, disconnected herself from the outside world, hauled water from the well and wood for the fire…and set up a website, created a blog, started an application for a writing residency, and added thirty-two pages to her novel-in-progress.

I subscribed to her blog and responded to her email right away to let her know how impressed I was by all she had done, and how inspired I was by her successful home writing retreat.

Except that as I typed my email, “inspired” wasn’t the first word that came to mind.

“I’m so envious of your home writing retreat!” I wrote.

“Envious” seemed like the most natural word to use. After all, my first reaction, when I read about Claire’s full week of solitude, was envy. A whole week at home alone to write? Heck, yes, I was envious.

But I started to think about what that word—envy—really means. To me, at least, it has quite negative connotations. In fact, it reflects badly on both the envier and the envied.

The one who envies is saying, in a way, “Poor me, that’s something that I can’t do/have/gain.”

Even worse, there’s a suggestion, implicit in the word, that the person being envied doesn’t deserve what they’ve done/gotten/gained, or, at the very least, there’s no credit given for the effort they’ve put into the achievement. (It’s kind of like telling a marathon winner, “You’re so lucky.”)

That certainly wasn’t the message I meant to send to Claire, who had an idea for a writing retreat, planned how to make it happen, set definite goals for herself, and then took full advantage of the time to accomplish them.

So I changed my words to, “I’m so inspired by your home writing retreat!”

Because if I say, instead, that I’m inspired by what Claire has done, what I’m saying—what I hope I’m conveying, anyway—is, “Thank you for showing me that it’s possible to set goals and achieve them.”

Merriam-Webster defines envy as “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.”

Being “envious” takes the responsibility off of me and allows me to feel sorry for myself. It takes me back to elementary school, when maybe I was envious that Susie’s father was rich and bought her a pony, while all I got was a goldfish. (Actually, I didn’t know anyone with a pony. Or anyone named Susie, for that matter.)

And it’s true, I wasn’t inspired by Susie’s pony. I was envious. But I was a little kid. And it was a pony. (If there had been a pony, that is.) 

“To inspire,” on the other hand, means “to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

“Inspired” says that I’m going to choose to view others’ achievements in a positive way, as an example of what I, too, can achieve, if I focus on a goal and work at it.

As I told Claire, “I realized that if I make that same word substitution every time I start to feel envy about anyone, for any reason, it will automatically turn a negative feeling into a positive. So, from here on out, I will no longer feel envy—always inspiration instead.”

Of course, I haven’t exactly done a great job so far with my other ten resolutions for 2015. I sure am envious of inspired by people who actually manage to keep their resolutions.

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Top Ten Signs You May Be an Introvert

introvert_sweaterIn honor of World Introvert Day (and because I don’t have time to write a new post today because I am–gasp!–leaving the house shortly for dinner with about a dozen people [but it’s family, and it’s at my brother’s house, so it’s very manageable for me]) I’m reposting this list of signs that you may be an introvert that I came up with a few years ago on my former blog (harrietthespysblog.blogspot.com).

The Top Ten Signs You May Be an Introvert

10.  You may be an introvert if you think organizing your stamp collection is a reasonable excuse for not going out for drinks after work.

9.  You may be an introvert if you think Henry Brooks Adams was a genius for knowing that “One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.”

8.  You may be an introvert if you’ve ever heard someone use a line like “I’m just not one for crowds” and filed it away in your memory, thinking, that’s one I can use!

7.  You may be an introvert if the statement, “I never feel lonely, except in a crowd” makes perfect sense to you.

6.  You may be an introvert if you secretly (or not so secretly) hate weddings.

5.  You may be an introvert if you can’t believe your good fortune when you get home and find no messages on the answering machine.

4.  You may be an introvert if you’ve ever had to be bribed to attend a party. (When I was about seven, I refused to attend a friend’s birthday party until my mother told me a secret: the prizes for those ridiculous games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey were going to be…live dime-store turtles! Obviously, this was before the sale of baby turtles was banned due to concerns about salmonella.)

3.  You may be an introvert if, in high school, when couples were slipping into supply closets to neck, you were slipping into them just to be alone for one goddamned minute!

2.  You may be an introvert if the part of a recent party you enjoyed most was the 30 minutes you spent reading the label on the Listerine bottle in the hostess’ bathroom.

1.  And…the number one sign you may be an introvert: if you’ve ever left a gathering to get something from your car and instead found yourself driving home, leaving your purse, coat, and spouse behind.

So long, 2014

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The last sunset of 2014, as seen from Sunny Rock.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and while I never go out to celebrate, and only rarely stay awake until midnight, I have generally positive feelings toward the whole “out with the old; in with the new” tradition.

Every December 31st is a chance to look back over the past year, remember all the best things about it, and forget all the worst things. And every January 1st is a chance to start over with a new year, a new calendar, a new opportunity to change the things that aren’t working (and keep doing things that are).

Even though I know perfectly well that most New Year’s resolutions are broken (about 92%, statistically, I believe), and even though I’ve rarely done very well at keeping them myself (or even remembering what they were past mid-January or so), I usually make a few, with great hope and optimism. (Once in a while, one sticks: I’ve been flossing my teeth—daily, without fail— for so long that I don’t even remember which year I made that resolution.)

So, in the spirit of New Year’s Eve, and in no particular order of importance, here are two lists: one of ten good things that happened in 2014, and one of ten things I hope to improve in 2015.

Good stuff about 2014:

  1. Tony and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. When we got married in 1989, after dating for only eight weeks, we knew it would last—but it’s nice to be able to prove it to all the people who were too nice to say they thought we were crazy.
  2. Will graduated from college, the last of our four kids to reach that milestone. He got a part-time job in the library at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village (to go with his other part-time job at the Auburn Public Library). We all got to know the Shakers, and, as it turns out, we kind of love them.
  3. I exercised (at least 30 minutes a day) on every single day of 2014, continuing an unbroken streak I started way back in April of 2012. As a matter of fact, tomorrow will be Day #1000 without a miss.
  4. I wrote 87 stories for the Bethel Citizen. Besides covering various events and meetings, I got to interview local luminaries like musician, sign-painter, and long-time Bethel Water District employee Donnie Katlin; retiring Maine Adult Education Executive Director Cathy Newell; and 2013 inaugural poet Richard Blanco.
  5. In June, Tony had a very successful surgery on his eye that ended a couple of frustrating years of double vision and trouble reading. Yay!
  6. I read 42 books, about ten less than in 2013, but still a fairly decent number. My 2014 reading included 25 novels, seven short story collections, six memoirs, three poetry collections, and one biography. I also read at least two poems a day from anthologies, because poetry rocks.
  7. And, because poetry rocks, I joined a weekly poetry group at the West Paris Library, led by the remarkable Rodney Abbott, retired Telstar history teacher and all-around great guy, who gives new meaning to the term “active retirement.”
  8. I got my first freelance piece published, and got paid for it! Although the appearance of my essay, “Just Like Glass” in the June issue of Down East Magazine hasn’t led to a flurry of subsequent publications, at least this means I won’t die unpublished as a freelancer.
  9. I got “out” some. Everyone who knows me well knows that I’m a homebody (or, for four months of the year, a campbody), but in 2014 I attended at least three concerts, two plays (one at Deertrees Theatre in Harrison and Elizabeth Peavey’s terrific one-woman show, “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother,” in Portland), two readings (David Sedaris and Richard Blanco), and the annual Christmas Cantata at the church across the street from my house (which, in 26 Decembers here, I’d never before managed to attend). I go regularly to Greenwood selectmen’s meetings, as well as my wonderful, supportive writing group meetings. I’m not saying it’s a trend, or that I intend to make a regular habit of it, but it turns out that getting out now and then isn’t so bad.
  10. While I didn’t finish either of my two big writing projects, I did add about 25,000 words to one of them this year, which, when considered along with various blog posts, short stories, essays, and the aforementioned 87 newspaper stories, constitutes a fair amount of writing in 2014.

Resolutions for 2015:

  1. A place for everything, and everything in its place—even if that means getting rid of half my possessions. I mean it this time. Really.
  2. Early to bed and early to rise. Take advantage of morning hours, when I know I’m at my best.
  3. More writing! Create—and stick to—a more rigid writing schedule. Take advantage of morning hours…
  4. Submit more pieces for publication, and grow a thicker skin when it comes to rejections.
  5. Continue the exercise streak, which will be three years old on April 7th. Take advantage of morning hours…
  6. Eat better. Maybe even consider baking fewer cookies. Maybe.
  7. Spend more time with my siblings. Because they’re all pretty great. And I haven’t seen one of my brothers in over a year.
  8. More reading! Stephen King says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. He does not say that about cleaning the house, cooking dinner, or buying groceries. Learn to see reading as valuable work, not a brief reward at the end of the day. Take advantage of morning hours…
  9. Spend less time doing dumb things on line (thus freeing up more time for #3, #5, #7, and #8).
  10. Be nice when possible. (I used to be a lot nicer than I am now, but I’m working on it.)