A Letter to Mom

I wrote a poem using the Golden Shovel form that I learned from the poet Nikki Grimes. This form uses the words from one poem to create a new poem, using the original as the last words of each line. I was looking for a Mother’s Day poem, and happened across the words my son Carson once wrote to me. Thank you, Sonny! I honor you for the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that you poured into me as a child; and want you to know that these have been small seeds planted in my life, but they have reaped a bounty of blessings on me.

To Nellie Harper (3/23/1920 – 5/7/1968)

Your letters to Dad came to mind as I
longed for a way to love and honor
your memory, your rich legacy. You
never imagined that strangers would look for
your quotidian news with pleasure. The
grace with which you accepted the hard
reality of separation and leaned into your work
kindles my affection and warms my blood.
You were never one to sweat
the small stuff, nor did you melt when things got tough. And

though you confess to getting depressed, tears
on your face are no memory that
your children hold. You
made tuna sandwiches and poured
milk with good cheer, not going into
a dither when money ran out. For me,
I wish I had studied these letters as
a young mother. They are a
fount of wisdom in child
nourishing. And

though we lacked funds, there was no want
in faith, in affection, in friendship. You
took your youngsters to
Sunday School, taught them to know
God, their Heavenly Father, and trust that
He would provide all of these
needs. What wealth we have!

Your story has been
full of love for people, both great and small.
You scattered seeds
of kindness and planted
strength, courage and truth in
my siblings and into my
beautiful and blessed life.
I miss you fiercely, but

I am grateful for your letters. They
remind me again of all we have
been given. Your investment in lives has reaped
a harvest whose yield continues, a
compounding bounty.
You sang a song of the faithfulness of
God, of morning’s new mercies, of blessings
all mine, of bright hope for tomorrow. On
this Mother’s Day I thank you for loving me.

The brothers: Jimmy, David, Danny, Johnny
The sisters: Margaret, Dorothy, with Carol (me) in front
The parents: Nellie and John Harper

The Year in Books

DSC_0543My makeshift stand-up desk for sustained reading

It was a year of Will and Winston. A year of drama, poetry, and history. A year of reading from my shelves, a year of reading aloud until I was hoarse, a year of reading with friends. A year of book podcasts. It was a good year for books.

Disclosure: I turned sixty (the letters aren’t as neon as the numbers). How did that happen? I’m happy to be old, really. But I push myself to get all I can from my remaining years. If I live four more years, I and my siblings will have outlived my folks. (My sister died at 67.) It would be helpful (so I imagine) to know how much time I have left. When will closure come?

How does this affect my reading? I toggle between two options.

1) Reading books to release them from my shelf. These are bookshelves groaning with books I own but haven’t yet read. Not many are books I need to keep. But I can’t let them go unread. I don’t want my books to be a burden on those who survive me.

2) Reading the most excellent books I can in the time I have left. Hence: Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Burroughs, Trollope, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Undset, Wodehouse. I find that having a big goal prevents me from being sucked into books from Kindle First or Free Kindle books or any vehicle that feeds me mediocre reading.

Back to 2017.

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The Literary Study Bible was my edition this year. Single columns, few cross-references made it a good one for reading.

I joined a group on Facebook group that read all of Shakespeare this year. I listened to Arkangel Audio productions as I read along. I treated this as if I were taking a class, planning three-five hours a week for unapologetic reading time. Daytime reading.  I discovered plays I’d never heard of (Coriolanus) and some I wish I’d never heard of (Titus Andronicus).  Marjorie Garber was a helpful guide. Overall it was a fantastic experience.


I’ve been trying to read from my shelf without being so squirrely that I make a silly vow to not buy a book this year. (ha ha!) One of my first rules for living is: Friends buy friend’s books.

I joined a Seasonal Reading Challenge. Each participant sculpts a list for intentional reading the next three months. In truth, this challenge usually adds more books to my TBR (to be read) list because I get so many enticing recommendations from friends.

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See all those Hank the Cowdog books? I’m reading Harry (Potter) and Hank (the cowdog) and passing them off to eager grandsons.

The other piece is audio books. I looked for audio productions of books I owned but hadn’t read. I discovered the Last Lion trilogy on audio and my husband and I listened together. Fascinating stuff! Then, it turns out that in 2017 three full-length movies were released about Winston. Win!

                   

As to podcasts, my affections have cooled for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s What Should I Read Next? Primarily because her recommendations don’t closely enough match my likes. There were a few episodes I loved. But, honestly, I’m tired of her pitching her own book.

I discovered Circe Institute’s podcast Close Reads where I have found my tribe. I started at the beginning and have listened to David, Tim, and Angelina discuss Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, Austen, Marilynne Robinson, and Agatha Christie. I’ll be caught up soon; we start reading Howard’s End in January.

For the two people still reading this crazy long post, here is a link to my Goodreads list which includes fabulous food writing, new fiction, mystery, memoirs, and books on architecture, cultural studies, sailing, shepherding, and art.

Sailing Alone Around the Room

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In my ideal life, I would keep poetry on my nightstand. In my perfect life, I would read it regularly. Sailing Alone Around the Room  had been ensconced there nine weeks;* when I ran out of renewals I started reading.

Humor, the deep-from-within-the-DNA-funny, permeates this poetry.

The first poem places a neighbor’s dog in a Beethoven symphony,
while the other musicians listen in respectful 
silence to the famous barking dog solo, 
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

The poems centered around music (and their abundance) delighted me.

I swooned reading Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales that spoke of the power of gospel music on the radio to create a minor ascension. I’ve been in the car, I’ve been transported. I could hear the overtones; I became a church lady with a floppy hat and matching pumps calling out, “Yes!”

I was pleased to learn a new form of poetry (I won’t mention the name); I did a search to read more. Then I roared with laughter. The joke’s on me — this is a parody! It was a small consolation that book reviewers and other poets also missed the satire.

Another tickle, this in a title:
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

Collins always surprises me. He twists words, insisting I see life from a changed perspective.

* How it got there: reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility  made me curious to see Walker Evan’s photography. In my library’s poetry section was Something Permanent, Evan’s photography paired with Cynthia Rylant’s poems. While my fingers trailed the bindings, I saw Billy Collins. Like ice cream, there’s always room for Billy Collins.

The title reminds me that I still have Joshua Slocum’s 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, on my To Be Read shelf. And also William F. Buckley’s sailing books. Also unread.

Awake Thou Wintry Earth

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Chives growing in my garden, February 12, 2016

Awake, Thou Wintry Earth is almost a life anthem. I came to Thomas Blackburn’s poem by way of Bach’s Cantata 129. When I heard it, I came to understand in a new way that spring is an annual demonstration of resurrection. Listening to this still gives me shivers. Singing it means I end up whispering to tell that dead is dead over a voice that is breaking.

I took a walk around my backyard this morning and was delighted to hear garlic and chives laughing at winter, death, decay.

Awake thou wintry earth,
fling off, fling off thy sadness;
ye vernal flowers laugh forth,
laugh forth your ancient gladness.
A new and lovely tale
through-out the land is spread;
it floats o’er hill and dale
to tell that death is dead.

Here is a joyful organ. 1 1/2 minutes that will lift your day high. Sing along! It’s pretty loud; turn your sound down. Or don’t. The organ is a dominating instrument and its volume is glorious!

Dipping Into Poetry

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My beautiful niece turned 30 this week. Her thoughtful husband decided the best present would be a book with a poem for each year of her life, written by family and friends. I was honored to be asked to contribute and not a little intimidated. Emma is a journalist and her husband Glyn heads the English Department of an International School.

It was delightful to wrestle with words, hugging one than pushing it away. I was overjoyed to use a jewel of a word—Festschrift— borrowed from German in the title. A word my beloved Latin teacher taught me: it means a collection of writings to celebrate a scholar. I’ve read Festschrift a few times but have never actually used it till now.


A Festschrift for Emma: 1996

We gathered the untethered Harper family,
the only assembly ever lacking a wedding or funeral,
one summer week at Stormy Lake.

How you entered the water,
if you leapt or dove,
is a forgotten detail.

What matters is how you surfaced—
surging upwards to the air,
water coursing through your hair,
buoyant, exuberant, confident.

The woman you are today
was visible in the girl who
broke the plane, rising above
the line which divided water and sky.

And Some More Bookish Questions

DSC_0245Sherry at Semicolon posted this fun meme this morning. Here are my answers (today).

1. What propelled your love affair with books — any particular title or a moment?
I grew up in a book-saturated home: books in every room, books in front of every face; never a day without books. Books were not allowed at the dinner table, but most of us tried at one time to hold a compelling book in our lap, under the table, and keep reading. It was inconceivable to grew up a Harper and not love books.

2. Which fictional character would you like to be friends with and why?
Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first fixation and she remains with me, especially at this time of the year. Yesterday, I was making a year’s supply of fire starters (dryer lint stuffed into egg cartons with melted wax poured over it) and thought of Pa and Ma’s preparations for winter. (OK, I missed the word fictional…give me a pass, please?)

DSC_65453. Do you write your name on your books or use bookplates?
All but the best books I read are on a rotation: in the house, read, out of the house. When I write my name I always write it in pencil. I’ve found that the book I love today and think I’ll keep forever might get the boot in ten years.

4. What was your favourite book read this year?
Carol Montparker’s memoir, A Pianist’s Landscape. Here’s a sample. I think an essential mark of an artist is how he or she recovers from a mishap.

5. If you could read in another language, which language would you choose?
Not just one. I’m starting to twitch from the demands of decisions. I’d love to read my father’s Greek New Testament with the cranberry cover. I’d love to read the Latin books on my shelf. I’d swoon if I could read a French book aloud with exquisite pronunciation. And why not Russian? Or Arabic? Or Portuguese?

6. Name a book that made you both laugh and cry.
Jan Karon’s return to Mitford produced loud guffaw-laughs, ugly cries, and everything in between.

7. Share with us your favourite poem.
That f word is making me crazy, even with the charming British spelling. Gerard Manley Hopkins Pied Beauty. Billy Collins The Lanyard . To snort with laughter at his Litany….And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air. There is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto with those last two words: Practice resurrection.

But in this moment, my mind goes to Michelangelo’s LXXIII.

Well-nigh the voyage now is overpast,
And my frail bark, through troubled seas and rude,
Draws near that common haven where at last
Of every action, be it evil or good,
Must due account be rendered. Well I know
How vain will then appear that favoured art,
Sole Idol long and Monarch of my heart,
For all is vain that man desires below.
And now remorseful thoughts the past upbraid,
And fear of twofold death my soul alarms,
That which must come, and that beyond the grave:
Picture and Sculpture lose their feeble charms,
And to that Love Divine I turn for aid,
Who from the Cross extends his arms to save.

I love that old translation, but I have a newer one tucked into the page. Which one do you prefer?

Unburdened by the body’s fierce demands,
And now at last released from my frail boat,
Dear God, I put myself into your hands;

Smooth the rough waves on which my ship must float.

The thorns, the nails, the wounds in both your palms,
The gentleness, the pity on your face—
For great repentance, these have promised grace.
My soul will find salvation in your arms.

And let not justice only fill your eyes,
But mercy too. Oh temper your severe
Judgment with tenderness, relieve my burden.

Let your own blood remove my faults and clear
My guilt, and let your grace so strongly rise
That I am granted an entire pardon.

Please join me and link to your answers (or just write them there) in the comments. If your time is limited, take just one question.

What’s on Your Nightstand, March 24

DSC_3970Although I love the concept of What’s on Your Nightstand, a monthly overview of one’s reading, I have only participated a few times. In a rare and wonderful synchronicity, I  deep cleaned my nightstand area yesterday.

My husband had surgery two weeks ago (he’s fine, thank you) that allowed me seven hours of reading in the waiting room. There was a huge flat-screen TV that looped through Travels in Europe with Rick Steves for 4.5 hours. Eventually, a penguin documentary came on. Occasionally I glanced up, but it wasn’t bad background sound.

Keeping my mind occupied was A Pianist’s Landscape, a book of essays about playing, learning, performing and teaching the piano. This was a book sale find. The cover and title drew me in. Carol Montparker is a Steinway Artist; her essays have been in the New York Times. Delightful!

I’m working on consistently reading poetry. It’s one of those things that takes an effort, but offers rich rewards. I found Wis£awa Szymborska (w sounds like /v/, £ sounds like /w/; thus, Vees WAH vah shin BORE skuh) funny, dark, random, full of irony, beauty and profundity. Many poems didn’t strike a chord in me. But some did. When asked why she didn’t write more poems, her answer was “because I have a trash can at home.” I kept forgetting that these poems had been translated from Polish. The translations are magnificent!

“Disappointing” — two historical novels. Widow of the South centers on the Carnton Plantation near Franklin, TN. I didn’t like that a major part of the plot centered on a contrived and fictitious relationship between Carrie McGavock and one soldier/patient. It was a weird Jayber Crow-ish intimacy.

A Separate Country tells the story of defeated Confederate General John Bell Hood’s life after the war in New Orleans. He marries Anna Maria Hennen, a young society belle, and they have 11 children in 10 years, including three sets of twins. The author uses a scaffolding of facts but most of the story is fanciful. The tone and language is a bit salty for my taste.

I made small progress on my goal to read through Shakespeare’s canon with Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Before I read these, I had thought Falstaff was witty and clever. No, sirrah! His self-aggrandizing, manipulative, lying behavior erased any gladsome thoughts of this main Shakespearean character.

My Kindle read – did you know if you have Amazon Prime you can borrow a book a month on your Kindle? I’m a junkie for books on how to write. To say I have dozens would be only a minor stretch. I love to read them, to re-read them, and to promise myself that someday I will do what they say.

I was reminded to slash away at adverbs and adjectives. Yes. But I really enjoyed Rosenblatt’s comments on education: “Teaching takes a lot of wheedling and grappling but basically it is the art of seduction. Observing a teacher who is lost in the mystery of the material can be oddly seductive.”

Audiobook  This long audio book was mostly tedious, but I was so glad I finished this life of Anna Leonowens. I was reminded how powerful a teacher can be. Prince Chulalongkorn attributed to Anna the decision he made to abolish slavery (without war!) in Siam (Thailand).

For Fun   I love Jane Austen, but I don’t consider myself a Janeite. Among the Janeites was an entertaining read. What struck me was how many ways there are to read Austen. People see virtue, wisdom, feminism, eroticism, autism, therapy, and more in her books.

DSC_3968Reading in preparation for Easter: Silence, by Shushaku Endo and Nikki Grime’s At Jerusalem’s Gate, Poems of Easter.

My Grief Will Not Stop the Green

DSC_9186Parting with a View

I don’t reproach the spring
for starting up again.
I can’t blame it
for doing what it must
year after year.

I know that my grief
will not stop the green.
The grass blade may bend
but only in the wind.

It doesn’t pain me to see
that clumps of alders above the water
have something to rustle with again.

I take note of the fact
that the shore of a certain lake
is still—as if you were living—
as lovely as before.

DSC_3750I don’t resent
the view for its vista
of a sun-dazzled bay.

I am even able to imagine
some non-us
sitting at this minute
on a fallen birch trunk.

I respect their right
to whisper, laugh,
and lapse into happy silence.

I can even allow
that they are bound by love
and that he holds her
with a living arm.

DSC_2792Something freshly birdish
starts rustling in the reeds.
I sincerely want them to hear it.

I don’t require changes from the surf,
now diligent, now sluggish,
obeying not me.

I expect nothing
from the depths near the woods,
first emerald, then sapphire, than black.

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There’s one thing I won’t agree to:
my own return.
The privilege of presence
I give it up.

I survived you by enough,
and only by enough,
to contemplate from afar.

— Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
from Poems New and Collected

Three dear friends of mine are approaching the one-year mark of grief,
the dreadful day they went from wife to widow in a moment.
They came immediately to mind as I pondered this poem.