A Year in the Company of Words

New Years is such a peculiar holiday on the calendar.  It doesn’t have religious nor historic connotations like most major holidays although it does contain elements of both.  The drinking or party phase section of the population, commemorate it with the required bacchanalia and woozy recovery but the rest of us aren’t so sure of our role.  We can review the year end lists or re-watch  The Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller biopics that seem to appear on each New Year’s Eve TV schedule but by now I know exactly when Lionel Hampton will show up and June Allyson will tug on her ear lobe.  Nope, I don’t want to spend this New Year’s re-watching the same old movies, nor do I want to spend it kicking my poor old liver with an overdoes of scotch.  Instead I want to end the year as I’ve spent it:  in the company of words.

  • Reading New Books – After checking various electronic records and the drain that sucks up my spare income and phone space (Amazon Kindle) I can safely say I read at least one new book every week this year, which was sort of like making a new friend every week.  Some of them, like A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ocean at the End of the Lane went straight to my heart and onto my  re-reading list.  (I am a re-reader of books).  Others were nice and interesting for the interval but not a lifetime love.  A couple, like The Forsyte Saga, could only be defined as “new” books because I hadn’t read them before and one or two I read not from paper or through a book-friendly program, like Kindle, but as text files on a screen simply because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. While each new book may not life up to its hype, each unread book brings new hope when it’s opened.  
  • Re-reading Old Books – When I was in Girl Scouts, we used to sing a song.

Make New Friends,But Keep the Old.  

One is Silver and the Other’s Gold

  • Well loved books are like old friends and I have to stay in touch.  Wherever I go, they go with me and yes, I’ll put down the new books to re-acquaint myself with the prose and poetry that I’ve known for decades.  If that makes me weird, so be it.  I just wish I had more time to spend with them.  Still only part of this word year was about reading
  • 2015 is, for me, the year I stopped writing in short, painful bursts (and re-writing, re-writing and hiding the finished product in shame) and began the discipline of printing something at least twice a week.  Something the public could see and criticize. I still have an enormous amount to learn but I’m not as afraid of failure as I was a few years ago. Instead of thinking, “Oh what if I fail!” and then scrambling to hide under the bed, I’ve learned to think “Of course, I’m going to fail; so what!” I learned I can survive being rejected.  I can’t recommend it as a life-experience but learning I don’t implode after hearing “No” was heartening. I even learned I can write something new to submit for rejection.  Amazing.

Reading, to me, is honest-to-God magic, a way to climb inside someone else’s soul and understand their feelings and thoughts.  Because of words, I know the voices of so many people I’d never have the chance to hear, sometimes voices of people who died long before I was born.  Writing then becomes the act of sending out a new transmission, adding my own voice to the chorus.  Amazing.  Words are a human creation but, arranged well, they bring us into the family of mankind.

So the year slides into it’s final hours as I continue to peck at the keyboard, looking for the next decent sentence.  I hope you had a full and wonderful year with good memories to temper the bad.  May you find a better world next year and a future filled with hope and words. 

Settling In with a Winter Book

Winter is the Season with the strongest ties to Home and Hearth.  Spring and Autumn may pull us to work in our yards and Summer is for Adventure and Travel but Winter, with its long nights and bleak weather, is the time when people sub-consciously pull closer to the places that comfort and protect them and settle in for the Season.  While the winds blast across the open ground and temperatures plummet, we can feel safe as long as we have dry, warm rooms, comfortable seats and a selection of Winter Books to re-read. If there are Summer Authors (and I think there are) that invite the heart toward roaming, there are also the writers that celebrate hearth and home and these are a joy to re-read.  While the Winter stories are rarely in high demand (Winter tales have pages you want to mull over, not rip through) their appeal is eternal and simple.  Winter Stories insist on a mindful awareness of the joys and trials of everyday life.  They celebrate what is real.

New England is one of those places that seems to have a copyright on Winter and Gladys Taber is still one of New England’s best-loved “home-and hearth” Winter Writers.  Robert Frost could scribble out poems about people who underpin their friendships with fences and allow the hired man home to die. That’s fine for Robert Frost, but it isn’t much comfort during Winter.  Instead, readers turned to the woman who fell in love with a 15th century farmhouse named Stillmeadow and made her life there with kids, cats, dogs and twin devotions to the written word and the natural world.  She supported herself by writing about domestic life and no one has written more skillfully or with more mindfulness about the Winter.

“We have an appointment with winter and we are ready. The wood is stacked with seasoned applewood and maple, the snow shovel leans at the back door, the shelves are jammed with supplies. When the first innocent flakes drift down, we put out more soot and fill the bird feeders. When the snow begins to come in all directions at once and the wind takes on a peculiar lonely cry, we pile more wood on the fire and hang the old iron soup kettle over it, browning the pot roast in diced salt pork and onion. As the blizzard increases, the old house seems to steady herself like a ship against a gale wind. . . Snow piles up against the windowpanes, sifts under the ancient sills, makes heaps of powdered pearl on the ancient oak floors. But the house is snug in the twilight of the snow and we sit by the fire and toast our toes feeling there is much to be said for winter after all.” 

Ms. Taber may have been my mother’s favorite writer; I’m sure she’s the only one Mother trusted enough to write to and Ms. Taber’s handwritten reply was one of Mama’s treasured possessions.  It was enough for me to watch Mama’s reaction as she pored over one Ms. Taber’s volumes.  She would sit quietly, with one hand on the edge of the pages and a small smile would appear on her face.  Pages were turned with deliberation.  After spending twenty minutes with Ms.Taber and Stillmeadow, Mama would return to our world, a happier, more serene person.

As for me, I followed a southern star and my favorite hearth writer became Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, that Florida transplant and author of The Yearling and Cross Creek. Ms. Rawlings described the rough but wonderful life she found in the backwoods of Florida and how winter can be a wonderful thing in a place where it’s still seen as alien.

“For all our battles, winter at the Creek is the cozy time, when fat pine fires crackle on all the hearths. I take my dog for a walk up the road at sunset and the wind blows in our faces. I turn back to walk westward home as the red sun drops behind Orange Lake. The dusk comes quickly and we turn in at the gate and shut the house door behind us and drop down in front of the hearth fire in the living room. A fresh log of fatwood thrown on the slow-burning bed of oak coals catches and blazes and roars up the big chimney. The flames light the old white-walled room so that there is no need even of candles, though one or two over the bookshelves are always pleasant, for candlelight on books is one of the lovely things of this world. The ruby-red velvet sleepy hollow chair glows in the firelight. The dog groans for comfort and turns his belly to the heat and stretches out his paws in the ultimate luxury. Only a hunting dog or a cat can share man’s love of the open fire, and if I had a whole kennel full of dogs, on winter nights I should let them all come in to enjoy mine with me.”

In a number of weeks, we will venture out into Spring and run forward again, with our futures.  Take the time this season to be aware of your life and enjoy the comforts of home.  Settle in with a winter book.

A Season for Memory and Love

There’s a reason some people love this time of year; the same reason other folks hate it: family. Tradition dictates we spend part of our winter holidays with individuals tied to us by DNA or marriage and who you are determines whether you like or loathe the custom.  My husband says, there’s a reason family push our buttons faster than anyone else; they installed most of them.  Still, they are the people who define our earliest selves and even when they’re gone, their voices come back in our memories like the song of  The Grass Harp, Truman Capote’s novella about his Alabama childhood.  While it’s not the obvious choice for December, the Grass Harp is a tender remembrance of how love and family shape us all.

Collin Fenwick is the narrator of The Grass Harp, a boy (like the author) cast into the care of maiden aunts.  Aunt Verena is the financial provider, the richest soul in town and, as Truman says, the earning of her wealth had not made her an easy woman.  The other aunt, Dolly, is nature-focused and terrified of all humans in authority but self-sustaining because of her homemade dropsy cure, an old-fashioned name for swelling.  When Verena tries to browbeat the dropsy recipe from the gentle Dolly, a minor revolt occurs and Capote warms to his other theme: there are family we find, not through DNA but through soul.
Collin, Dolly and their friend Catherine Creek hide in a tree-house outside of town and make friends with two other misfits – Charlie Cool, the superannuated judge who has been bossed out of his job and home and Riley Henderson, a Huck Finn of sorts who worries because he cares for no one except his sisters.  These five and a family troupe of wandering evangelists quickly split the town between those who need to follow a different drummer and those who intend to call the tune.
Anyone whose memories of Truman Capote are confined to murder or his waspish love of gossip need to be reminded he was also be a tender, lyrical storyteller. It is through his eyes that we see that the the gentle Dolly is not be as cowardly nor Verena as unwavering as general gossip would have us believe and it is his voice that brings us back to the place that nurtured them both. 

“Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.

It is Dolly that reminds us that the sounds from the Indian grass are the voices of lost loved ones, telling the stories of their lives.  The people are gone but their voices continue to murmur in the whisper of the leaves and the grass, like they sing in the memories of those that love and remember them still. As long as we can hear them, they remain loved and immortal in memory even if in life, they could make us crazy.

So, if the weather permits it in this holiday season, find your own quiet moment outside town and listen to the wind blowing through the long grass.  May you hear the voices of those who defined you and those you found to love.  And may your voice be recalled someday as well in a symphony of grass and the wind.

Unexpected Christmas Presents

Another Christmas is looming fast and I see the hordes of last-minute shoppers whenever I drive by the stores – a vision that triggers my agoraphobia.  Still, I understand the shoppers’ need to seek out each perfect present.  Those presents are for loved ones and each year we want to give them something they want or they need.  So, wish lists can really aid a holiday shopper.  Still, sometimes it’s the present that’s not on the list that makes the biggest impact.

It was 1972 when we celebrated Christmas in California.  My parents drove half way across the continent so we could spend the holidays with my mother’s parents in their San Diego apartment.  California was unalloyed good as far as my sister and I were concerned.  California meant warmth, and trips to Disneyland, and time with grandparents who would move heaven and earth to gratify our every whim. I was 13 and, in Grandma’s words “too old for toys, too young for boys”, so my wish list was fairly nebulous but my sister was much younger and very specific.  She wanted Mattel’s “Barbie Surprise House”, one of the hot-ticket items that year.  Since I was “old enough to know”, Mom told me about the hours she and the grandparents spent scouring stores on the hunt for that prized pink box.  Unfortunately, forays into every “Toys-R-Us” in two states weren’t successful.  My sister’s wonderful gift wouldn’t be available until after Christmas Day.

Mom put us to bed early on Christmas Eve, telling us Santa would avoid the apartment until we were asleep.  I closed my eyes and opened my ears, wondering what delights the grownups had cooked up.  I heard some odd noises and my dad’s attempt to sing but I couldn’t guess what made them all giggle.  Probably a pitcher of my Grandpa’s martinis. 

Christmas morning brought it’s usual avalanche of sweaters and socks, hugs and nonsense gifts as well as Mom’s earnest promise that we would pick up the Barbie Surprise House in a few days since Santa “couldn’t fit it on his sleigh”.  Mollified, my sister cuddled a little stuffed dog Grandma had pushed in her stocking while I studied the source of last night’s mysterious noises.  My family had given me a guitar.

Now, I had not asked for a guitar. I’d never thought about learning to play one.  Yes, I liked music (who didn’t?) and, like most girls I knew, I was taking piano lessons. But a guitar?  What were they thinking?  Did my family want me to become a hippie?

The visit was great and my sister got her Barbie House sometime before New Year.  Funny thing, though: Sis would play with the marvelous toy house until she was tired of it, and then walk away, but the stuffed dog with the club foot and belly-button stayed with her wherever she went. The name on his chest was Henry and Henry became a member of the family, and my sister’s dearest companion. At first he followed my sister through the house, then around town on errands.  If Henry came up missing, Dad would tease her, saying Henry went to the local bar to drink beer, but he would search with us until the little dog was located and returned.  No matter what, Henry always came home again. After a few years, Henry became a family man as relatives came to join him but he remained my sister’s favorite, following her to school and then to camp, college, and into her married life, the most loved gift of her childhood,  When he disintegrated this year, we both mourned.

And, after a few false starts and blistered fingers, I taught myself to play the guitar reasonably well.  I never became great and the tone of the instrument wasn’t much but that unexpected gift filled a hole in my adolescence.  Learning songs and practicing passed some otherwise lonely hours and, even though I still felt awkward and shy  around other kids, I finally had a role; I was the one who played the guitar.  A few years later, another guitar-playing girl moved into town and I made my first life-long, close friend.  The git-fiddle followed me, like Henry followed my sister, and although it disappeared in a burglary, the replacement guitar introduced me to the man I married (another guitar player, of course).  None of the best parts of my adult life would have happened the way they did if I hadn’t learned to play that guitar.  I wonder if my folks guessed, when they picked out that gift, how far their surprise present would take me.

So I’m glad when friends and relatives tell me what’s on their Christmas list.  It makes shopping for them much easier.  Still I keep my eye out for the unexpected gift.  I’ve learned it’s the items we don’t ask for – the ones we don’t even know that we need – that we’ll use  and cherish the most.

The Mystery with a Heart

People have certain expectations about the genres they favor and mystery fans expect stories driven by a puzzle.  As interesting  or well-developed as some of the characters in these stories are, they still exist to serve the central plot and very few of them are driven by ideals.  Holiday stories, on the other hand, focus much more on character and these usually have an underlying moral code.  That’s what makes Sue Ann Jaffarian’s The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary such an unexpected delight.  She balances the requirements of both genres and then blends them to create a mystery with a heart.

 Like Charles Dickens, Jaffarian has a keen social conscience for the downtrodden in our society.  Dickens noticed the growth of the Industrial Age also exploited the least protected in Victorian Society – the poor and children, in particular.  Jaffarian’s story takes us to Skid Row in Los Angeles and the dispossessed of our own era: the indigent, the addicts, the emotionally troubled, and all too often, the military veterans whose return to civilian life is hijacked by untreated traumas.   Because these people don’t fit in with society’s norms and because they tend to distrust the police, they are easy targets for criminal exploitation.  But therein hangs the mystery.
One of the homeless men living on the Row insists he’s being harassed by a streetwalker known as Mistletoe Mary.  Actually, the man says he’s being pestered by her ghost.  While most people assume the man’s complaints stem from the onset of dementia or the last stage of alcoholism, detective Jeremiah Jones has qualifications to determine the truth.  First, as a one of the few who successfully left Skid Row, he doesn’t judge the residents there by the hard times they’ve fallen on.  And Jeremiah Jones knows a thing or two about ghosts.
The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary is an installment in Jaffarian’s cozy mystery series featuring Granny Apples, an endearing and outspoken remnant from California’s early days who loves modern slang and being an amateur sleuth.  At first, Jeremiah needs Granny’s help to learn about Mary and how the most vulnerable people on the Row are being manipulated by others.  When the bullets start to fly, he’ll need her help to avoid becoming a ghost himself!
Like her main characters, Jaffarian combines an understanding heart with practical sense and good humor and she keeps the puzzle in this story on track.  Nevertheless, the greatest asset in this novella is her depiction of the street people as characters.  The poor and homeless are not the despised debris of humanity here, nor are they all innocent martyrs to the Tyranny of Capitalism.  They’re people, some good, some not so good, but all individuals with their own stories, sorrows and hopes. Jaffarian and her detectives never get so involved in the search for truth that they forget their objective is people.
As I said, this is a book that defies expectations and there are times you can almost forget it’s a holiday story.  The setting may be in December but there’s not an dreidel or a reindeer to be seen.  There’s murder and crime instead of presents and ivy and even Granny Apples can’t make the bad guys turn good.  But along with the bad stuff, there’s love and there’s hope and a memory of family, the essence of December’s celebrations.  So celebrate with a mystery this December.  A mystery with a heart.