Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest:
Alexander Pope, The Essay on Man

I was lying awake this morning at 4, thinking about my poor rejected novel. I decided to get up, and in the peace and quiet of an early Sunday morning, go at it again. While I was working on the Anthony section, I was struck by the peculiar diction, awkward, and then remembered that I had written the original draft in the first person. When I changed it to the third person, I thought that because it was from his point of view, in his voice, the diction would be all right. But reading it this morning, I realized that it wasn’t. I dug up the old first person version. That is better.

The rejected novel is much too long for “literary” fiction. No small Canadian publisher could afford to print it. There’s no doubt that the members of our writing group have liked the Anthony section a lot more than they have liked the other sections. Bill suggested I cut everything but the Anthony section, but I hated to give up what after fifeteen years of working on it had become the central structure of the novel – the story of various people in an apartment building, how they become a family, how they interact. This morning I think I have found a way to keep some of that but still make the novel short enough, and still feature the Anthony section. The novel that had been rejected was 111, 000 words. This new version will be about 40, 000 words, more a novella than a novel. I am feeling quite hopeful.

Sherrill Grace has written an interesting book about Malcolm Lowery. She studied his manuscripts of Under the Volcano and describes his method of re-writing. He added phrases, stuck them in the middle of existing sentences. It makes the novel denser. I will go fish out Grace’s book. When I was teaching creative writing, I would often use her description of Lowery’s method. I think that what I need to do with this new version of the novel is just that – add phrases rather than whole sentences.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Tracing My Writer Life

It was many years before I understood that I had surrendered myself to the chief temptation of the artist, creation without toil. W.B. Yeats

In 1980 or so, my friend Peter Thomas inherited Fiddlehead Poetry Books from Fred Cogswell. He decided in 1981 that he wanted to start a fiction imprint, Goose Lane Editions. He needed a first manuscript, he knew I had been writing novels, and he asked me if I would submit one to him. I chose two of the four I had written and submitted them. He chose Flora, Write This Down. I had been writing for fifteen years without any desire to publish, just for the pleasure of writing, and if Peter hadn’t asked me, I might never have got up the gumption to try to publish.

My novels are definitely not plot-driven, mainly because I am deficient in plot construction. I begin with an image, a scene, an idea, with no notion of where the novels will go. When people learn that I am a writer, they invariably ask me, “What kind of novels do you write? Mystery? Romance? Detective?” I have to answer, “Literary novels.” “What are they about?” I don’t have a good answer for that, but usually I say, “About different kinds of family.” If I had been born 20 years later, these plot-less novels would never have been published, and this life that I have been tracing would have been very different. Once when I was discouraged about writing, I said to Bill, “I don’t want to be a writer anymore.” He said, “What are you going to do? Send out an announcement that you are no longer a writer?”

Now I am once again discouraged; I am old; I no longer want to be a writer. But the thing is, the novels are out there. Unread, true, but still out there, so alas, I am a writer whether I want to be or not. I have been working on a novel for 15 years, writing, re-writing. Back in 1981 I would just have abandoned it and gone on to something new and exciting. But now, after all these years, it seems that the thing can’t rest until it is published. In its various shapes, I have sent it to two publishers, who wrote nice things about it but still rejected it, and one agent, who agreed to hawk it, but couldn’t.

Like Yeats, I have yielding to the temptation of creation without toil: this blog.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ladies Mantle

Mrs. Todd

A long time ago I read Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. I loved it from the first sentence, and I love it still. I wondered what the herbs looked like that Mrs. Todd, the herb lady, grew or collected in the wild, so I started an herb garden and grew those herbs: pennyroyal, elecampane, thoroughwort (also known as boneset), borage, wormwood, southernwood, thyme, balm, sweet mary, mint. Most of them definitely weren’t herbs you could use in cooking. I bought herb books and read up on the lore.

Over a period of twenty five years the garden had to be uprooted four times, and after the fourth, I decided I didn’t have the physical energy to begin again. Many of the herbs, however, were hardy and continue to thrive beside the fence, along the house, or in the top soil pile where they can’t be mowed down.

I used the lore of the herbs in Flora, Write This Down. I became interested in other medicinal herbs as well: tansy, angelica, comfrey, ladies mantle, and I learned to identify many others in the wild, St. Johnswort and yarrow for example.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is by far the best of Jewett’s books. It seems as if it must have been inspired by a higher power.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

New Camera

My husband and I bought a digital camera as a present to each other for our 50th anniversary. The photo below is one of the first I have taken with it. Bill spotted this nest (wasp?) attached to a branch of a tree in our backyard. I used the zoom capacity to get the photo. I am curious what kind of a nest it is -- we watched it for a while but saw nothing coming in or out. Another Country and sbpoet manage to put stunning photos on their blogs -- wonderful colors and resolution. Something to aim for.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Musing About Our Church

Over a period of perhaps six years, eight retired ministers have joined our church. Am I right in thinking that this may suggest that somehow we have become a pretty good church? Maybe it is hubris to think that. Knock on wood, but we seem to have been free of controversy for quite a long time. Partly this is because one of the United Churches in our area has an ultra conservative minister so that many of its members have joined our church. Thus, we are becoming more and more homogeneous. The church has become a lively place with much good work being done. Good works are important, but the people of the congregation have to be fed spiritually as well, and we have two excellent preachers, an annual retreat, and an interesting weekend seminar among other feasts. What does make a good church anyway? Part of it, as I wrote in a previous post, is having a community, a family, with a common purpose. The congregation has to be pushed out of complacency but it also can’t be led into constant bickering.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Ethnic Groups of China

A friend has given me a most wonderful book containing descriptions of the various peoples of China, perhaps 450 different ethnic groups. Bob gave it to me because he had just re-read my The Irrational Doorways of Mr. Gerard, and was reminded of my fascination for little-known tribes, especially those of Russia, the Middle East, and China.

One of the groups discussed in this book is the Diao, 2000 people, one of the minorities of the province of Guizshou. It is said of these Guizhou minorities that “the making of her traditional dress continues to play an important part in a woman’s life. Each tribe’s dress has its own background story which reflects that group’s customs, history and beliefs. Cultural identity is therefore maintained by the making and wearing of the garments.”

My father’s mother died in 1913 and so lived all her life wearing a long dress. Long dresses have occasionally become fashionable in my lifetime although they have never become mandatory. When I wear one, I have to be extra careful not to trip, especially on stairs. I wonder if women tripped and fell more before 1918 when wearing long dresses went out of fashion. I am exceptionally clumsy so perhaps I don’t represent the norm, but wearing a long dress to do chores must have been awkward. My mother’s mother lived to 1985, and thus she wore short dresses most of her life. She did always wear dresses, though, never slacks. Both of my grandmothers were professional seamstresses, that is, they sewed for other people for money.

If I were to sew my own dress to tell the story of my customs, history, and beliefs, what could I make? What could my grandmothers have made? The cloth I would use would have been woven in another country – Thailand perhaps. At the moment I am wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Is there any seamstress in the western world who makes her own jeans? I’ve never seen a pair of homemade jeans.

Have we women lost something, being so far removed from the creation of what we wear? And from what we cook? We surely have gained time. Part of my fascination for little-known ethnic people is trying to figure out how they maintain their distinctiveness. How do they keep their language, for example? Most of the peoples in this book do speak mandarin Chinese in addition to their own language. I still have my Massachusetts accent, but I notice when I go back to visit my hometown, that most of the young people speak "American."

Saturday, July 22, 2006


I was thinking about superstitions last night when the waitress brought our fortune cookies along with the bill. My husband has a superstition about reading the fortunes in the cookies, or in fact about any kind of fortune-telling. I was thinking of a time, perhaps fifteen years ago, when a new acquaintance came to dinner. He brought his tarot cards with him and after supper proposed to do them for us. Bill performed what I can only describe as a filibuster, talking, talking, bringing up subject after subject. This was so unlike him, because ordinarily he is quiet and patiently waits his turn, that I immediately knew what he was doing – preventing the tarot card reading. It worked; Gordon went home without reading the cards. I had heard about tarot cards and was curious, but I knew that if I expressed any interest in them at all, Bill would be upset.

When I reminded him of the incident last night, he said he was remembering it too, and the word filibuster was the word he also was thinking of.

Of course he isn’t foolish enough to think that a fortune cookie would indeed be able to tell his future, but as he has explained it to me, he thinks that when people are told something about the future, that it does influence the way they live their lives. This is especially true if the fortune is bad. I reminded him that fortune cookies nowadays never have anything gloomy in them, so he read his. I have already forgotten what the cookies said.

I have superstitions too. For example, when I spill salt, I have to throw some over my shoulder. Part of doing this is so that the gods won’t think I am guilty of hubris. Perhaps going to church is superstitious too. I go regularly but occasionally miss a Sunday. However, if there is some crisis in the family, I will go for sure. My husband’s most insistent superstition is to say to me, “Be careful. Drive carefully. Call if you get into any trouble. Have you got your cell phone?” as I am going out the door on a sunny summer Sunday morning to drive the 2 or 3 miles to church. He does the same when our kids drive off after a visit home. For them he usually adds, “Do you have enough gas?” He is an exceptionally intelligent man (people routinely describe him as a genius) and well-educated (a PhD). No one describes me as a genius and I only have a BA, but I’m pretty smart. Why do we do this?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Deep Thoughts

Quite a few years ago Dear Abby had a long running dialogue about which way was best to hang the toilet paper – so the paper was draping on the outside or near the wall. I don’t usually read the column, but someone mentioned this ongoing discussion as being an example of frivolity. Not long ago a friend of mine, a microbiologist, strenuously exhorted me to install the toilet paper with the hanging paper furthest from the wall so the paper wouldn’t touch where bacteria and fungus breed, the bathroom being a damp and warm place. This seemed sensible, and ever since, I have installed the roll thus.

Later I noted to my daughter that very few people will actually install the toilet paper if they happen to arrive as the old roll is used up. They will leave the new roll on the counter or the back of the toilet, presumably for someone else to install, or perhaps because it doesn’t seem worth the effort for anyone to hang it. She had also noticed this.

Putting away the dishes this morning, I got to ruminating about the process. Most people, I have noticed, put away the glasses upside down. Why, I wondered. Why put the part that is going to touch your lips onto the perhaps dusty or germy shelf? Perhaps everyone but me has completely germ-free, dust-free shelves. Perhaps they don’t want dust from the air to accumulate in the glasses.

In the kitchen I have a small terrycloth towel to wipe my hands and a separate dish towel (in New Brunswick called a tea towel) to dry the dishes. Most people, including my husband, don’t make a distinction and wipe their hands on the dish towel and if they are helping me with the dishes, grab the hand towel.

I have always envied people (usually men) who don’t have to spend any brainpower on such perhaps frivolous matters, although I did read once that D.H. Lawrence loved to wash dishes.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Good Samaritan

I have a new hero, Roseanne Smith.

This morning in the Globe and Mail there was the story of Ms. Smith:
“When Rosanne Smith and her husband, Armand, stumbled upon Curtis Dagenais on Tuesday morning lying in their hay field with only a water bottle at his side, one of the first things the man accused of killing two RCMP officers wanted was a hug. ´He probably hasn't had a hug from anybody in his family for probably 25 years. He has been abused physically and mentally for years and years and years,’ Ms. Smith said yesterday during an interview.”

The Smiths “coaxed” Dagenais into their kitchen and talked to him for 6 hours, trying to convince him to turn himself in. At one point he talked about suicide, but Ms. Smith persuaded him that wasn’t a good way out of his troubles.

Imagine the compassion and the physical courage it took to give the man a hug, to coax him into their kitchen and to talk to him for 6 hours. I had tears in my eyes reading the article. Going through the newspaper is usually a very dispiriting activity, but every once in a while, you come across evidence of the potential goodness of humankind.

Last Sunday in church I read the scripture lesson, the story of the Good Samaritan, and the minister preached on the story. Roseanne Smith gives this world-shaking parable new life.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Wishing I Were Proust

My class at Mount Holyoke celebrated our 50th reunion in May. I didn’t go. I've worried over why because my four years at Mount Holyoke was a tremendously important chunk of my life as I am tracing it. Every day there produced a revelation, especially in the first year. I’ve written about this revelatory nature on May 25. I did go back for two reunions, but I found them very draining. I wasn’t reliving my years there at all – I was trying to keep up with the present. Who were these people? Trying to match them as they now were to what I had known was exhausting. The act of remembrance was distressing. Because I had lived “out of the loop” for so long, I would have known only one person in present time, my roommate, who happens to have a cottage a few streets over from the cottage we inherited. What’s more, she is the kind of person who wants to keep up with old friends, who has a magnificent memory for names and events.

I have always lived in the present. I do look back, of course, but I have a poor memory for details. Certain events do stand out, perhaps because I have told the stories over and over or have written about them, or have used them in my novels. My husband has a wonderful memory and one of his greatest pleasures is remembering the past, talking about it. He can remember many things about my past that I can’t, and in fact I say it is as if he has lived two lives, his and mine, and I haven’t lived one.

I don’t really look very far into the future either. For example, at the moment I am looking only as far as the beginning of October when we will come back from our September stint in Maine. My aunt tells me that she enjoys looking forward to an event, preparing for it, almost more than the event itself.

I have tried keeping a journal or a plain diary, so that I can look back and remember, but the keeping will become more and more sporadic until at last after a week or two it ceases. I have got into the habit of keeping necessary dates -- when we got a new furnace or a new roof. I write down birthdays in my dayrunner.

I keep several different types of lists of “things to do.” The mother in my first published novel, Flora, Write This Down, keeps lists, and as she gets older, she keeps more and more elaborate lists. Over 25 years later, I find myself doing the same thing. That is weird.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Resurrecting the Old Community

My neighbor and good friend Jack is trying to resurrect our old street community. He collects for two, even some years three, good causes, and introduces himself to the new people. He has made a chart with the name of each family. Last year he had a party for the whole street. Most of the neighbors were enthusiastic about the project, brought tons of food and drink, helped out with the setting up and the taking down of the tables, and washed the dishes. I met three families I hadn’t known before.

In May a new family moved in beside us, and they are very friendly and obviously lonesome. Twice the wife has brought us some of their native food. They have two lively children. How lovely to have children around. As one of our neighbors said, Having only old people around is gloomy. It reminded her of death and sickness.

My parents didn’t visit the neighbors – the neighbors visited them. It was always the gathering spot for the adults, and then for my friends and the friends of my brother. I just realized, I am like my parents. People come here. I don’t visit them. Last night, sitting on our porch, the new neighbor said, poignantly, “Why don’t you visit me?” I realized I had to make the effort, but I don’t really know how “to drop in.” I can hardly think of how it can be done. Changing the lifetime habit of mind is going to be difficult. The lady across the street comes to our house two or three times a day, has a cigarette and a cup of coffee. She has done this for the 6 or so years she has lived here, but I have been in her house perhaps only 10 times.

Our little corner of the street, five houses, is now quite a friendly spot. Because I grew up in a little village where everyone knew each other, I do long for a close-knit neighborhood, so I am grateful.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Getting Through Trouble

The last two years we spent in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Bill got his PhD, was a difficult time. When I look back at those years, I wonder how we got through them. The trouble started in August of 1963, when I was 7 months pregnant. Our 3 year old son was playing in the neighbor’s sandbox and came in with gunk on his hands. I looked at the box – an animal must have vomited in it. I phoned the pediatrician who said to bring the three kids in. He looked at our hands to see if there were any cuts where rabies might have entered. The neighbor’s kids had none, our son and I had some. Should we have the rabies shots? The other pediatrician had been present in a hospital where they had made the decision not to give the rabies vaccine and the man had died of rabies. It was determined we would have the vaccine, a shot each day in the muscle of the abdomen. The doctor explained that they were especially painful shots but that after a few days our pain threshold would rise and they wouldn’t be so painful.

The day of the doctors’ decision, the campus police chief came to look in the neighborhood to see if he could find the sick animal. He saw something under our flimsy graduate student house he thought might be an animal, went on his hands and knees to retrieve it, and my hopes soared. But alas, it was only a piece of cardboard.

My brother and new sister-in-law were on the road after their wedding, coming to visit us on their honeymoon, and they arrived just as the awful decision was being made. They were a tremendous comfort to us, although I often have said to my sister-in-law that with such an omen on her honeymoon, she would have been justified in turning right around for home and having the marriage annulled.

I have written about the birth in my post of May 6. My mother had come down to look after our son near the due date, but the baby was 3 weeks late. She and my father had never been apart for more than a few days. On Friday, November 23, we brought the baby home. My husband took our son to the football parade, but when he got to the site, there wasn’t a parade, only people milling around. He inquired and was told that President Kennedy had been shot. In the meantime, our neighbor came to tell my mother and me the news.

On Saturday night, my father went to visit a friend. He was distraught over the death, apparently had too much to drink, and was in an accident on the way home. He nearly died. My mother had to fly home the next day. As the days went by and it became apparent that he was not going to die, we settled down.

We had done our Santa shopping through the Sears’ catalogue. The presents didn’t come, didn’t come, and finally on Dec. 24 Bill went to Durham to see what was the matter. Only one of the presents we had ordered had arrived, a metal racing car, the kind the child gets in and pedals, the present I had ordered from my parents. Bill set out to buy for Santa. He came home with wonderful gifts, a tent, a policeman’s uniform, a life-size dum-dum, a long horn like a medieval page would blow. The car had to be assembled, there were missing pieces and most of the parts that were to go together couldn’t be made to fit, and it was complicated, and about 3 AM, after an argument, Bill went to bed, but I, saying to myself that it was my parents’ present, soldiered on. The car never did work.

On Christmas day my cousin and his girlfriend, also PhD candidates, came by and of course had to blow the horn. After they left, our son complained of sore cheeks. He had mumps. My cousin and his girlfriend got them, the girlfriend having to be hospitalized with mumps in her ovaries.

Several days after Christmas, we drove back to New England to visit our parents. I’ve written a poem about the horrendous trip, the only poem of mine that has ever been published. We drove through a blinding snowstorm; our son was restless with so little room; we were exhausted and worried.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Religion is more like a response to a friend than it is like obedience to an expert. Austin Farrer

We lucked into a wonderful community. We bought a small (1000 square feet) house in a new subdivision. Ours was the second house built on our street. We chose the plan from a book of small house plans put out by the Canadian government, and since we didn’t have any money, having just come from graduate school in the USA, we chose the smallest. That the government would put out such a book seemed unusually thoughtful. The builders, two brothers, were the kind of men that makes New Brunswick so special – humble, honest, conscientious gentlemen, using the word gentlemen with all its best connotations.

Soon there were people who turned the street into a real community, with carol sings, coffee parties, baby showers, birthday parties. The house of our next-door neighbor became the hub for the adults, with people stopping in for tea frequently. The wife kept us all informed of the goings on, a gossip in a good, not a mean way. A few months after Christmas one year, our youngest son said, “There isn’t any Santa Claus, is there?” “Who do you think brings the presents then?” “Dot?” Dot was this next door neighbor.

Ours is the most humble house on the street, but none of them is grand. The house has served us well, although eight years later we put on an addition. We again got lucky. The woman who designed the addition did a super job, convincing us that it wouldn’t be much more expensive to have a two story addition – a bedroom half in the ground with a room up above. This extra room that we didn’t expect is a lovely room, with large windows on all four sides and a lovely view of our backyard, right now lush with its grove of deciduous trees.

My daughter once told me that playing with Barbie dolls on the deck of one of our neighbors, she thought to herself, I’ll never be as happy again as I am right now. The two builders had designed the subdivision with a park in the middle, and it became the hub of the community for the children. The kids played baseball there, and in the winter the city made a skating rink.

Over the 40 years we have lived on this street, I have often thought of the concept of community, of what makes a good one. In the beginning, there was nothing but mud, and we all had to make lawns, a miracle really, and the kids played on the muddy street, road hockey (new to us), constructing dams and rivers. The builders had also designed the street with two curves, to make it difficult for cars to speed. Most of the residents were New Brunswickers, although there were 8 families “from away.” There were 5 professors, a lawyer, a doctor, two teachers, some businessmen, but most of the men worked for the NB government. Only one of the women worked outside the home, although the rest were plenty busy with volunteering, art, serious hobbies, church.

Of course there were sadnesses. There seemed to be an unusual number of deaths from cancer. Kids got into trouble, but an astonishingly high percentage of them turned out fine. People have moved or died over the years, and the 53 children have all grown up and gone. Of the original 25 families, only 10 remain. That is sad too.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Silas Marner

I have just finished re-reading Silas Marner. My husband remembered that Silas had been a member of the Plymouth Brethren. There was no mention of it in the book, only that he had been a Dissenter. A scholar perhaps has determined that the brand of Dissenter was Plymouth Brethren, but I can’t find any reference to that.

I had forgotten so much about the book. I had forgotten the wonderful character, Dolly Winthrop, forgotten that it was so short, forgotten how masterful the plotting is. One of my writer friends in an e-mail today said that a strong plot was now considered old-fashioned. Is that true? Gilead is a wonderful novel, widely praised, and it doesn’t have much traditional plot.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Out of the main stream into a little brook

A strange twist along my way from birth is that I have not participated intimately in the most important issues of my lifetime. My grandfathers were too old to be in World War I, my father too old to be in World War II. I did have uncles and family friends in World War II, as I have written in a previous post, but the war didn’t really hit us. My parents were affected by the depression, but I was too young to feel the effects. I grew up in a small village, and going to the movies involved quite a trek. We went seldom; I didn’t see the movies that influenced many of my generation: The Wizard of Oz or Fantasia for example. I didn’t really begin to watch television much at all until I was 50.

I was deeply affected by one great sea change, that of children of ordinary parents being able to go college. I was the first of my family. By the time my cousins came along, going to college was the norm. My husband was in the Air Force but in between conflicts. We had been in Canada three years before the great struggle over the Vietnam War broke out. We missed the revolution of draft-dodging, bra burning, Chicago protest, long hair.

I am grateful that I did take the road less-traveled by, to New Brunswick, at the time of a great outpouring of the arts here. I was in on the beginning of an influential writers’ group, of the establishment of the Maritime Writers’ Workshop, the Writers’ Federation of NB, and the alternate Gallery Connexion. I was present at the birth of some wonderful novels and powerful poetry. I didn’t have to submit my work, I was asked for it. There was a wonderful sense of excitement here, of things moving. Not only was I, a stranger in a strange land, allowed to participate, I was welcomed.

When we came here, I was unformed, really. I had been educated, I was a wife and a mother, but in a sense, my life was just beginning. In a few years I had become a writer and a bonafide member of a renaissance.

When I go back to my native land, I feel out of place. I feel like Rip VanWinkle, waking up after 40 years and finding myself in unfamiliar territory. I am not, nor ever have been, a complaining expatriate, loathing my native land. I admire it for all it stands for, for its good, although sometimes na├»ve, intentions. When I hear criticism of the USA, no matter how well-deserved, I want to say, “But my people are not like that.” I am still, however, grateful and amazed at what a success for me personally and for our whole family, our Canadian journey turned out to be.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

God's in his heaven

In an e-mail, my friend Ted commented on my blog entries about God’s presence and absence, about God holes. Here is some of what he had to say:

I know Peter Short preached sermons about God being absent, and in genocides, etc. it looks that way, but it’s just a matter of epistemology isn't it? I feel God’s always here, though my sore toe might keep me from paying attention. As I withdraw from all committees and as much responsibilities as I can, I’m neglecting people and sometimes, often, it feels as if God is all there is, and I don’t respect Him much. I blame God for everything; he can’t get out of it. But his answer to Job: esthetic, works every time. Even with the 6 rotting ducks and 2 cormorants that washed up on my shore this last week -- which I had to put in garbage bags. Rank, but I can't help being Whitmanesque about little rottennesses. I have spells of despising humans; I CANNOT understand how some people like the music they obviously do, and I think it’s evil that they do and think that God is gravely remiss. His damned plenitude -- just goes too far. God’s presence is what gets me.

Yesterday was a lovely day, bright blue sky, perfect temperature, long phone calls from loved ones, and a delicious seafood buffet at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel. To top it off, our new sweet neighbours, finding out that it was my birthday, brought me over some of their wonderfully exotic, exciting food. It did seem as if “God’s in his heaven --/All’s right with the world.”

Friday, July 07, 2006


I turned 72 today. My kids and other relatives will phone. My husband will take me out for supper. I had hoped that I would be edging toward being a better person as I aged, but alas, I seem to be getting worse, more crotchety, less patient, and more opinionated. I am not kinder. My father had a series of strokes when he was about 85, and he gradually turned from a gentle, kind man into a raging man. At that time I was often reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that goodnight,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Just yesterday I re-read the poem on mentalmultivitamin. I had forgotten that it was addressed to his father.

Plymouth Brethren

My friend Ted, a regular reader of my blog, has sent me these quotations from Don Akenson’s An Irish History of Civilization, volume 2, about the beginnings of the Plymouth Brethren:

“The moment of creation is when John Nelson Darby, Anglican priest and avocational ascetic, came down from the Wicklow mountains in 1827, broken in body, unstable in mind, incandescent in belief. He created a tiny religion in Dublin, whose chief characteristic is everything that the Church of Ireland is not. His Brethren are not ordained, not salaried, not corrupt, not accepting of dogma. They are committed to a literal reading of the Bible, and what a reading it is…"

"These people extend in England into the Plymouth Brethren and of course they fight with each other…"

"William Bell Riley… becomes one of the two strongest figures in the American fundamentalist movement, an unswerving promoter of John Nelson Darby’s literalist and apocalyptic reading of the bible, and the godfather of the twentieth century’s most influential preacher, the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Off the topic, but not too far

I looked up comic blogs by women recommended by another blogger. I didn’t find them very funny, an age thing perhaps. I usually have the same opinion of women stand-up comedians. Their method seems to be to mention private parts, say the f word, or complain about their mothers. That was funny some time ago, but the shock value has worn off.

Good comedy of any kind is the most difficult genre to write. That’s a vast generalization, but I think it’s true. You apparently can’t force yourself to write it, but you can force yourself to write a novel or a poem. Leo Rosten has an insightful introduction to his second volume of the wonderfully comic Hyman Kaplan stories. He writes that one night when he was in despair, Hyman appeared to him. Rosten wrote the stories when he should have been doing something else. They were a great success, so of course people wanted more. But Hyman disappeared, not to re-surface until twenty-five years later when Rosten was again in despair.

One time long ago, when my husband was worried, he woke me up to read me his first Everett Coogler poem. My reaction was, Oh no, he’s gone round the bend. He wrote quite a few Coogler poems, enough for a slim chapbook, and they were wildly successful. When he performed them at readings, people would howl with laughter. Strangers wrote him fan letters. But alas, Everett disappeared.

I love the Christopher Fry essay, “Comedy”. “…there is an angle of experience where the dark is distilled into light: either here or hereafter, in or out of time: where tragic fate finds itself with perfect pitch, and goes straight to the key which creation was composed in. And comedy senses and reaches out to this experience. It says, in effect, that, groaning as we may be, we move in the figure of a dance, and, so moving, we trace the outline of the mystery.”

Occasionally when I am giving a reading from one of my novels, the audience will laugh. Then I fantasize that I too could write a comic novel. Or maybe a short story.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


How can I fill my God Hole at this stage of my life? A good question. One of the reasons I began this blog was to find out just that. When I was young, the hole was filled by reading religious books and writing what I think of as religious novels. Church played a big part, not because I could sense God’s presence – that strangely was usually absent. However, it was, and is, good to be with people who also are seeking the Realm of God, The Community.

Recently I was given the task for a church brochure to ask some parishioners why they go to church – what do they get out of it. Almost everyone mentioned the community. Two mentioned religion, no one God, prayer, or Jesus.

Prayer is the usual way to fill the hole, isn’t it? “The value of persistent prayer is not that He will hear us…but that we will finally hear him.”(McGill) Lately, God has been absent. Perhaps that is because I have abandoned my strict regimen of going to my office and there reading, praying and writing. I don’t know. Is it something that happens to people as they get older?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A New Venture

About 10 years ago, I decided to write a novel that I myself would like to read, not having a possible audience in mind, but hoping that it would be acceptable to others. Alas, it didn’t work out. For one thing, it didn’t have enough narrative thrust – none actually – and when I tried to insert some, it sounded artificial to my ears. I have been tinkering with it for some time now. While I was away in Maine, I had a eureka moment: it might work as a blog. I had written it as journal being kept by a woman who had recently been ordained and, along with her new husband, given a charge, roughly set in a fictionalized Baccaro, Nova Scotia, a spot I dearly love. The title of the novel is A Meditation on Psalm 139. One of the inspirations for the novel was a service I attended in Baccaro, where the woman minister read the psalm. As I studied it, I thought that it could have been composed by a woman. Harold Bloom had suggested in The Book of J that some of the psalms might have been written by a woman, that there were educated women high up in the courts of Solomon and David.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

God Hole Gene

My grandfather was an early Jehovah Witness, joining the sect about 1920. It was founded about 1916 by “Pastor Russell” as my grandfather called him and later was led by “Judge Rutherford.”

I am not sure which of my grandfather’s eccentricities were his alone and which were associated with his religion. He was a blacksmith by trade, but by the time I knew him well he must have been retired, because he spent his time walking long distances, going from house to house, spreading the word. He would visit my father’s sister, Tempie, and seeing an abundance of vegetables she had just harvested, he would request some to take on his journey. “Mrs. Bartlett could use these.” He also carried discarded clothing to the needy. If we saw him walking up the hill to our house, we would alert my mother, who would quickly hide her cigarettes and ashtray. He remonstrated with me about crossing my legs at the knees—this was bad for circulation. I still don’t cross my legs at the knees. He brought my brother and me treats from the health food store--this was back in the 1940’s--candy made from carrots, for example.

On one memorable afternoon he preached to me and my boyfriend for about an hour about God. I wish I could remember what he said. I was amazed at this memory – he quoted many passages of the Bible – he seemed to know the whole book by heart.
I suspect that what attracted him to the Jehovah Witness sect was its scholarly nature. After he died, my grandmother gave me his Bible. Half of the volume is the actual Bible, half study apparatus. She also gave me his interlinear translation of the New Testament.
His father was a shepherd who had emigrated from England. The story goes that he went to work in the wool mill and at one point had a conversation with the owner. When the owner discovered that he had been a shepherd and was working towards bringing his large family over and eventually having a sheep farm of his own, the owner offered to pay for this dream. I learned from family research done by a cousin that Tom Senior had given some of his land to the Plymouth Brethren to build a church. The church is still there although it has changed its stripes several times over the years.

Tom Senior was long gone when I arrived in this world. He died 6 months after my mother’s birth. My grandfather married late, in his forties. He was 20 years older than my grandmother.

My mother remembered the slight embarrassment of being called in from playing to evening prayers. “The other children knew why I was being called in.” My aunt doesn’t remember the embarrassment, but she does remember the evening prayers. “My father would kneel with me beside my bed.”

I think my brother and I have inherited our God holes from this grandfather. Alas, we didn’t inherit his amazing memory.