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.

Where Did English Really Come From?

Have you ever stumbled upon one side of an internet debate about a subject which seems obscure to you but is consuming the person writing?  That’s what it was like reading John McWhorter’s contrarian book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

The essence of the argument is this:

The real story of English is about what happened when Old English was battered by the Vikings and bastardized by Celts. The real story of English shows us how English is genuinely weird—miscegenated, abbreviated.

[Miscegenation = sexual relations between people of two different races, from Latin miscere (to mix) + genus (race)] There is a Celtic impact on English, McWhorter says, especially from the Welsh and Cornish languages. This Celticness of English has not been acknowledged, so McWhorter is jumping up and down, flinging evidence around to convince the reader, sure, ’tis so.

The first chapter is The Welshness of English.  Sigh... I want to visit Wales.

The first chapter is The Welshness of English. Sigh… I want to visit Wales.

Only language-lovers should read this book of strange focus. Follow the arguments, raise your eyebrow, smile at the coincidences. Just keep reading to scoop up the pearls.

My heap of gems includes:

• Albanian is about 60 percent Greek, Latin, Romanian, Turkish, Serbian, and Macedonian. (My girlfriend has learned Albanian in the last five years: kudos to her!)

• Basque is a language related to no other. (HOW did that happen?)

• English’s closest relative if Frisian, a Dutch relative spoken in the Netherlands.

• This quote made me fizzy with excitement. It still does!

To strike an archaic note, in English we start popping off hithers and thithers. Come hither, go thither, but stay here or stay there. Hither, thither, and whither were the “moving” versions of here, there, and where in earlier English.

• If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, you know ‘Balder the beautiful is dead.’  The Phoenician-German connection made me say Aha!

And then, the Phoenicians were also given to referring to Baal as Baal Addir (“God great”) — that is, Great God. Sometimes they would write it as one word, Baliddir, or even a shorter version Baldir. And there in that Old High German document is a god called Balder.

I went through the index counting languages which are referenced. Seventy!
I can’t say I was fascinated reading this book, but I can say it was fun reading!

The Double Comfort Safari Club

DSC_8889The Double Comfort Safari Club is, I believe, a superb summer read. There’s a little mystery, several chuckles, a few snorts, a large dollop of satisfaction, a sob of grief, and beautiful words like quietude. When is the last time you’ve read quietude? It’s light reading that nourishes and feeds.

There is a moment that capsizes me. It’s when I read a phrase or paragraph that so perfectly captures what I’ve always known, but rediscover as though it is a new truth through the author’s description. That click makes me say Yes!, Of course!, or How did you know?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Some kind people may not look kind. They may look severe, or strict, or even bossy, as Mma Potokwane sometimes did. But inside them there was a big dam of kindness, as there is inside so many people, like the great dam to the south of Gabarone, ready to release its healing waters.

And this:

…this woman, moved by some private sorrow as much as by the words being spoken, cried almost silently, unobserved by others, apart from Mma Ramotswe, who stretched out her hand and laid it on her shoulder. Do not cry, Mma, she began to whisper, but changed her words even as she uttered them, and said quietly, Yes, you can cry, Mma. We should not tell people not to weep—we do it because of our sympathy for them—but we should really tell them that their tears are justified and entirely right.

What makes me love Precious Ramotswe? The way she thinks of and remembers her late father; her sense of justice and putting things to right; her gratitude for the life she’s been given; her directness when dealing with difficult questions; her acceptance of the imperfections of life; her musings on the changes in Botswana, her unswerving hospitality; her patience with the impetuous Mma Makutsi. In a word, she is kind.

An Exaltation of Larks

     Photo Credit: Dan  Harper (my brother!)

In flight, a group of geese is a SKEIN. On water, a GAGGLE of geese.  Photo Credit: Dan Harper

Initially, I misjudged James Lipton’s quirky and curious book, An Exaltation of Larks, missing the playful and fanciful element. When I read that a group of elk is called a gang, I felt only unalloyed disgust. Perhaps among flabby academicians, elk are referred to as gangs. But, I live among muscular mountain men who would laugh in derision at that term. Or fix you with a questioning stare. We sometimes take ourselves too seriously, precious.

This book didn’t grab me until I started from the beginning.

The dedication: For my mother, Betty Lipton, who showed me the way to words. (Swoon. I want my kids to say that some day.)

A CLUSTER of housecats.

A CLUSTER of housecats. Photo Credit: Dan Harper

I loved the Preface best, packed with collectable, copy-worthy quotes.

The heart and soul of this book is the concern that our language, one of our most precious natural resources, is also a dwindling one that deserves at least as much protection as our woodlands, wetlands and whooping cranes.

And this from Elizabeth Drew:

Language is like soil. However rich, it is subject to erosion, and its fertility is constantly threatened by uses that exhaust its vitality. It needs constant re-invigoration if it is not to become arid and sterile. Poetry is one great source of the maintenance and renewal of language.

This is the sort of book that fits well in a bathroom. Read a page, put it down.

Photo Credit: Dan Harper

A TRIP of goats — from Icelandic thrypa, “flock,”? or a corruption of tribe? Photo: Dan Harper

Lipton encourages the reader to join a game, coming up with new collective nouns. The groups that tickled my fancy the most were the medical professions (a joint of osteopaths) and music (a pound of pianists, a bridge of lyricists). Not to mention a load of diapers or a twaddle of public speakers.

Some terms are so familiar we don’t see them as collective terms, as in Shakespeare’s a comedy of errors and a sea of troubles (from Hamlet). The book of Hebrews gives us cloud of witnesses. Does that joggle you linguistically like it does me?

The greatest challenge facing me is that of identification. Before I learn the collective terms [murmuration, charm, exaltation, murder, unkindness and dule] I need to learn to distinguish starlings, finches, larks, crows, ravens and doves.

A GIGGLE of girls

A GIGGLE of girls