How Can I Keep from Reading?

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Why I Read, 1

The first answer is easy: because I can’t not read.

I grew up in a book-filled house, the youngest of seven kids. We read in bed, we read in the bathroom (picture a child pounding on the door: “I really have to go. . . and I know  you’re reading!”), we read on the porch swing, we read on the front steps, we read on the couch (we called it the davenport), but we didn’t read at the dinner table. That was considered rude. In the same way people today sneak a look at their cell phone under the table, we all at least once tried to read a book on our laps. We always got caught.

After dinner, we grabbed RSV versions of the Bible and read a chapter of Jeremiah. I know we read other books, but I only remember Jeremiah. (Honestly, in second grade my teacher asked us to define rent. I threw my hand up and swirled it around until she called on me. To tear your clothes.)

We read at the same table while gulping down cold cereal. Every inch of the cereal boxes. Over and over and over. Riboflavin, B12, sold by weight not by volume. Battle Creek, Michigan. 49037.

My dad never left the house with less than four books. Because, you know, you never know.

We grew up without a television (my dad’s choice) so reading was the first avenue of diversion available.

Reading became a habit that followed me into my adulthood. It is my default.

a-day-without-reading

 

 

The Habit of Be-ing

DSC_4059It is my favorite cozy: snuggled in with a grandson, listening to him read. When Noah sounded out the word “before” we took a detour.

Oh, I love be- words; I actually collect them, I said.
You do?
Yes, let me show you!

I grabbed my journal. I am burdened with an insatiable urge to show-and-tell.

DSC_4088Be- words delight me, I explained. So when I spot  one, I write it down.

Later, when all the rest of the house was napping, I watched Noah cut and paste. He decided to make a little booklet. Well, now. Here’s something even I could help with. We could make you a be- book, I shamelessly suggested.

DSC_4063He started scanning every Bob Book in his possession, not the best place to find vintage words. But he found a few! I didn’t quibble about words that began with be that weren’t the prefix be- e.g. Benjamin, best, bend. One has to start somewhere.

DSC_4061When Noah loaded up to go to Safeway with Papa, he grabbed his book and a pen in case he found some more be- words. They found themselves in the beer section (a word he missed!) when Noah backed up into a stack of whiskey. It’s what they call in literature a destabilizing event. Curt threw out his hands trying to steady the waving bottles, mentally calculating the cost of this quick trip to the store. Fortunately, none fell.

But, suddenly, Noah is sitting on the floor with his book in front of him, writing down “Beam.” Few lessons could be found in a more unlikely location.

DSC_4079The next day Noah told Aunt Lindsey about his book. The first words out of his mouth were, Well, I love be- words. Like boat and baseball and balance? she asked. No, b-e- words like before and below. His younger brother Levi chimed in, I love be- words, too! What is your favorite? she asked him. Begin! What is your favorite? she asked me. I looked at her, a vibrant newlywed, and smiled. Beloved.

Besotted

DSC_8169-001Besotted: adj. strongly infatuated.

I do this odd thing for the sheer joy of it. I collect be-prefix words.
All year long, while I read, I stop and copy words to the front
page of my journal. When the journal is full, I look at my
beribboned and bejeweled treasury.

Just in case there is someone else like me, I try to use be-words
in my writing, to bestow on them the joy I’ve betaken.
On an especially good day, I might make up a new be- word.

Now, I am fond of other prefixes.
Enfold, endear, enlivened, encourage…
I might start a new page in the back for en- words.

What does the “be-” do?
It means thoroughly, completely, to make.
It adds intensity.

When I looked it up, I discovered a new be- word:
bethwacked, “to thrash soundly.”
(imagine my hands and fingers flying in excitement)

Two be-prefix words are so common, we almost don’t see them.
Beloved. Greatly loved. More loved than loved.
Become. More than come; to come to be.

What about betray?
Add be- to the Latin tradere,
from trans – “across” + dare – “to give.”

Last year I was beguiled by —
behither (George Herbert)
befogged (Nora Waln)
bedraggled (D.E. Stevenson)

benumbed (Kathleen Norris)
beholden (Anthropologie line)
betokened (L.M. Montgomery)
bespectacled (Leo Marks)

bedecking (Jan Karon)
becalmed (Stewart O’Nan)
setbacks which bedevil modern life (Alain deBotton)
unbeknownst (Joanna Cannan)

bewail (Wendell Berry)
courageous and befitting (?)
bewigged (Elizabeth Goudge)
becalmed (Arabian Nights)

One of my favorites:
befriend, to cause to be friends.

My Thanksgivings

DSC_2423I’m thankful for the gloaming,
old hymns in minor keys,
For Reepicheep the Valiant
and our comfortable Jeep.

Forgiveness for besetting sins;
wood that crackles while it heats,
Bach’s glorious Passacaglia,
fresh mint in my smoothie.

For long long-distance phone calls,
long interlibrary loans,
long BBC programmes,
long tables set with love.

I’m grateful for grandsons, boisterous and brave,
for solo granddaughter’s exuberant cheers,
for garlic in olive oil, for book-lined walls,
for Welsh men’s voices, giving me thrills.

Pumpkin soup, spicy cauliflower,
Billy Collins’ poems, a good red,
Jack Johnson on a Friday night,
and uninterrupted sleep.

Truth, beauty and goodness,
goodness and mercy —
a life bejeweled in mercy.

For bedtime laughter,
down comforters,
freedom from debt.

I praise God for reconciliation,
John Rutter and
friends who want my books.

For the long lens,
Hand-painted cards,
alliteration and articulation.

For the befluttering be-prefix,
Besotted am I—beguiled—,
Bespectacled, bestowed,
Beholden, begladdened,
Beloved.

Extended family, a wedding in Maine, lingering memories.
Gathering from distant corners,
beauty bedecked with generosity.

Reunions:
Finding new friendship with old friends,
Finding old friendship with new friends,
kinship renewed, connections rekindled.

For a sister who suffers
Yet bears it with grace,
choosing silence
When tempted to complain.

Pesto, bubble wrap, a man and guitar on a stage,
Asparagus, steam, good water from the tap.

Sons who move in with their elderly mothers,
Daughters-in-law who joyfully rearrange life.

I’m thankful for the death of death,
for mingled tears, for clean grief.
For new widows who’ve discovered joy (!)
in the suburbs of sorrow.

Asian noodle salad, cilantro, Athanasius.
I will always be grateful for Athanasius.

I give thanks for comfy sweaters, for jeans that fit,
Direct communication and southern windows.

For a working esophagus, for toenails and elbows,
For friends who travel and post pictures,
Different cultures, different customs,
same humanity.

Countless gifts of love.

Emma’s Wedding

DSC_0991Today, it’s been two months since my niece Emma married Glyn. In my life, the big things aren’t cemented until I’ve written them. From writing this wedding I have cowered, knowing my word hoard hasn’t the depth or width required. I refuse to use ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’, yet I’m still searching for the best words.

July 20142It was a grand Coming Together. Emma is American. Glyn is British. They live in Turkey. Their friends live all over the world. Each mileage sign represents someone who came to the wedding.  The only continents not represented were South America, Australia, and Antarctica.

lobsterfeedThis wedding occupied three days. Everyone was invited to the rehearsal dinner aka Lobster Feed, the wedding the next day, and a brunch the day after the wedding. It resembled the medieval feasts that I read about in my books.

DSC_0860The ceremony was held under the ancient apple tree.

DSC_0877The background was my sister-in-law’s glorious garden.

DSC_0763She grew almost all the flowers for the wedding.

DSC_0653My daughter-in-law made the bride’s bouquet.

DSC_0857A sail cloth tent hovered over the festivities.
My grandson said, “Nana, it looks like Narnia.”

DSC_0909The tables were set.

DSC_0910Mismatched china completely charmed me.
‘Elegant simplicity’ set the tone.

DSC_0915All the cloths under the flowers were purchased
at the bazaar in Istanbul.

DSC_1021My brother, the tenor, sang Simple Gifts, a song
that he sang at the wedding of Emma’s parents.

DSC_1022Emma and Glyn listen.

July 20143Kids were welcomed with open arms.
Not often does one hear, “I’m so glad you brought all your kids!

July 20144We’ve always loved Emma; it was easy to see why she loved Glyn.
They are both strong, generous, compassionate, and fun.
Not to mention smart. They have our deep respect.

DSC_1000As long as I’m giving honor, let me say that my brother Jim
and my sister-by-marriage Kathleen were stellar. This event was
the culmination of a lifetime of love invested in their family, work on
their homestead, their habits of beauty, blessing, and hospitality.

DSC_1016Emma’s older brother Will—best friend of bride
and groom—officiated. This was his first gig. We called
him—tongue in cheek—”Brother Will.”

DSC_1163There were some great toasts: sweet, witty, heartfelt.
But at the end of the day, what everyone remembered
and remarked on was Jim’s toast to his daughter.

DSC_0887Then we took the party to the barn.

DSC_1188My grandson (with the hat) rocked the reception
with his unique style of dance.

DSC_1224It is a Turkish custom to have fireworks at a wedding.

DSC_1219It was a magical evening.

BakkerfamilysanscollinThis is our family (missing our son Collin).
The extended tribe (my siblings and their descendants)
present numbered 39. There were gaps here and there.
We cherish time together and relished the gift.

With the help of Facebook and texting, my kids and their cousins
are much closer than my generation was with ours.
It is a delight to see their friendships deepen.

DSC_07052014 will forever be the summer of Emma’s wedding.

My photographer brother’s photos.

Link to the magnificent photographer’s pictures.
(She shoots film.)

A Wreath for Emmett Till

emmetttillThis squeezed all the breath out of my soul. Horror. Sorrow from Emmett’s lynching. Beauty—so sharp it stings—of the words woven so we remember Emmett Till.

Emmett Louis Till (1941-1955) was a Chicago boy visiting relatives in Mississippi. Believing that he whistled at a white woman, two men took him from his uncle’s house and murdered him. Mutilated him. The alleged murderers were found ‘not guilty’  but those ‘innocent’ men openly explained how they killed Emmett months after the trial. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, became an activist for civil rights.

Marilyn Nelson’s poem is a heroic crown of sonnets. A sonnet is a fourteen-line rhyming poem. A crown of sonnets links each sonnet together: the last line of the preceding sonnet is the first line of the next sonnet. A heroic crown has fourteen sonnets followed by a fifteenth, made up of the first lines of the first fourteen. This for a boy whose years were fourteen.

Nelson writes:

The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say.

The poem is a masterpiece of form, a crown that circles around to the beginning. It is a gruesome subject, but we must bear witness to atrocity. Notes in the back explain what Nelson had in mind with each sonnet, pointing out allusions. This, dear reader, is not obscure poetry. Here is the final sonnet, an acrostic collection of fourteen first lines.

Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote.
If I could forget, believe me, I would.
Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,

Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat.
Mamie’s one child, a body thrown to bloat,
Mutilated boy martyr. If I could
Erase the memory of Emmett’s victimhood,
The memory of monsters … That bleak thought
Tears through the patchwork drapery of dreams.
Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath:
Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne’s lace,
Indian pipe, bloodroot, white as moonbeams,
Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death,
Like his gouged eye, which watched boots kick his face.

There is an idea, an ancient idea, that flowers represent ideas. If you’ve read or seen Hamlet, you’ll remember Ophelia’s line, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” My sister-in-law and I were talking about this last month; she told me that she often puts some rosemary in a note of condolence. The wreath is woven not only with words, but with flowers as tropes.

Someone—bless you!—recommended Marilyn Nelson’s book, Carver: a life in poems, which I got from the library. I read a third of the way through, stopped and bought the book. The same with Emmett Till: a library book on my Kindle, but I needed to own it. I now anticipate reading all Nelson’s books. Along with Wendell Berry and Billy Collins, Marilyn Nelson is in my list of favorite living poets.

Between Silk and Cyanide, A Codemaker’s War

“Put down on a half a sheet of paper what difference silk codes would make to our agents.”
“Half a sheet at most!” echoed Davies.
‘I think it could be done in a phrase, sir!’
‘Oh?’ said Courtauld. ‘We’d be interested to hear it.’
‘It’s between silk and cyanide.’

“This book is not a casual read,” I thought, as I waited for my tire to be repaired. A gargantuan TV, three feet away from me, was blaring the Country Music Awards; I was mouth-breathing, an inefficacious strategy to ignore the overwhelming smell of rubber, and reading three times a paragraph on coded message, attempting to comprehend it. After failed attempts at deciphering acronyms, I made my own code on the inside cover with their meanings.

84-charing-cross-road Knowing the author, Leo Marks, was the son of the owner of the bookshop made famous in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Roadwas a big draw to this book. There are many references to the bookshop; it would be helpful, but not essential to have read it first. Although Hanff’s story is set after the war, knowing it provides a fun context.

At twenty Marks begins fighting the Fuhrer with his cryptography skills. He trained agents headed for enemy territory to send and receive messages in a code based on a famous poem the agent had memorized. The problem with poem-codes is that the enemy cryptographers could break the code if they figured out which poem was used. If an agent was captured, he or she would swallow cyanide to keep from telling secrets under torture. The enemy would often continue sending and receiving messages, concealing the knowledge of the capture.

Even as an understudy, Marks understands the the system’s vulnerability. He begins writing original poems for use, a few of which have become famous. Over time he threads together a remarkable innovation to use a one-time, disposable code printed on silk, easily burned after use. This book is the story of his failure and success to spin his silk idea to his superiors.

Marks’ agility with language delights.
→ As a boy he studied the mating habits of the alphabet.
→ A superior officer had a knack for switching on silence as if it were air conditioning.
→ He writes about a desk so small, it was like keeping vigil on a splinter.
Could we have a quick word? He was a verbal weight-watcher.

Marks relates the story of his intelligence with self-deprecating jabs.

The need to justify and its sister frailty, the need to boast, were lethal weaknesses in SOE, and the shock discovery that I was prone to both started me worrying about the coders of Grendon.

While his acute concern and the initiatives he made to protect the safety of the agents shows remarkable maturity for a young twenty to twenty-three year man, the bawdiness that occasionally pops up reminds the reader that he was indeed still close to adolescence.

The story of the code-war fascinated me. I enjoyed the book more after I stopped trying to be an agent in training, when I kept going after I read the explanation without understanding. <grin>

On Christmas Eve, 1943, Leo Marks got word that his girlfriend Ruth had been killed in a plane crash in Canada. He wrote this short poem, which he later gave to an agent Violet Szabo. Wikipedia tells me this poem was read at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is your and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.