Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Punctual Rape of Every Blesséd Day

Writing about Cathy Seipp’s death yesterday on Gates of Vienna has led me to a long meditation on my childhood.

What sparked the ruminations was the clear memory of singing Gregorian chant during the many Requiem Masses we were called out of class to chant during the liturgy. I can’t remember how many of us there were…though since our choir director,Sister Marie Therese, is still alive and more active than I am, I will find out. Back then, it felt as though our numbers filled the choir loft.

Not being very good at it, I was ususally relegated to the alto section. Not much tune in the alto section, but we made up in strength for what we lacked in quality. And I liked the ver plain chant of the alto part. It was soothing.

Which led me to thinking about my less-than-optimum childhood and to wondering why I am not more dysfunctional than I am. What factors “saved” me?

This may sound strange, but I have often wondered if group singing had a great deal to do with soothing the savage breast of so many displaced children. We sang all the time: at church, during recreation time, on bus rides to while away the boredom. I know the old songs from the childhoods of the nuns, the songs of the Big Girls (anyone over ten was a “Big Girl” and was of much higher status than we were). These higher beings rolled their hair in curlers, wore bras, and they sang the latest songs - Nat King Cole comes to mind. They were also in charge of cooking and did a terrible job at it. Perhaps I grew up to become a good cook partly in retaliation for all the mornings of burned oatmeal.

Obviously singing is not enough to get you through [“Hah,” say my Observing Self. Just hum a few lines of “Whistle a Happy Tune”]. The linchpin holding everything together was our unvarying schedule. All these years later, I can still recall how the hours of our days were structured, winter and summer. We lived a cloistered life, punctuated not only by song, but more importantly by prayer. Prayers for getting up, prayers for lying down. Prayers before and after meals. The Angelus at noon. The rosary in the nuns’ chapel after dinner. Prayer was the skeleton on which the flesh of our days hung.

When I grew up and read The Eight Ages of Man, I remember the author saying that what saves childhood for many of us is an over-arching sense of meaning. A few months ago I read his daughter’s story of her father’s life. He invented himself, carved out his own meaning. He never even knew his real last name, so when he moved to this country, he named himself Erik Erikson. And - in an attempt to preserve an identity that was closed to him by his mother’s silence re his beginnings — Erikson resisted his Jewish step-father’s fervent desire for him to adopt Judaism. However, I think the rituals and observances of the religion he refused saved him, too. Erikson’s productivity was unflagging.

And his new identity? An attempt to get past the boundary his mother erected, to find his first Self.

My productivity is more porous than his. I never know, on waking up, if I will be scattered and lack all initiative, or if whatever remains of the inner Mafia of my childhood will permit me to move through the day in relative calm, experiencing the initiative that - in more integrated souls - allows one to stay vertical and busy. I read once that happiness means being busy about eighty or ninety percent of the time. That sounds about right to me. In fact, I lust after the energy required to maintain such a virtuous schedule…and on the days that I do, life is glorious.

Richard Wilbur captured it perfectly in this, my favorite of his poems:

Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blesséd day,
And cries,

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.’

Aside from his ode to laundry - obviously he didn’t wash it or hang it out, nor does he suffer from the "rosy hands" that did so...still, since it billows there outside his window on wakening: he knows, oh he knows:

The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blesséd day…

The soul's "bitter love," indeed.

The painting, “Washday” is from a small collection of works by Val Doonican

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saint Patrick's Day Shadows

Celtic crossThis is an up-and-down day for me. Already had two teary spells and the day is still young. Well, youngish…the sun is still making its way across the sky.

St. Patrick’s Day…funny how, as you get older, holidays begin to assume more shaded, bittersweet overtones. Growing up with a Dublin mother and lots of Irish nuns fresh over from the Old Place, I loved St. Paddy’s Day. We always went to Mass. Mother sniffed derisively at the green beer and drunkness of American celebrations. In *her* youth, the pubs in Dublin were closed on March 17th. In Savannah, we went to the wonderful St. Patrick’s Day parade. In South Boston, I watched the festivities for several years with my former in-laws. It’s hazy now: I remember the formal parlors in the three decker homes, and the amazing amounts of beer and politicians. It was a noisy, happy place, though we always went back home to the suburbs before nightfall.

Here in the blue hills of Viriginia, March 17th is the day to plant potatoes and peas. I didn’t prepare the vegetable bed yesterday because of the lashing rain, and now it’s windy and cold. Methinks I’ll commit a venial sin and wait till the spring solstice. Besides, I have to move a raspberry cane I planted in that plot “temporarily” last September.

There isn’t any Irish sentiment where we live. Just as well. It’s become a sad holiday now. My Irish mother is gone, my lovely colleen, Shelagh, is gone, and — worst of all - a friend of the future Baron, a boy with the most wonderful Irish name - killed himself at school on this date several years ago. The fB and I dug up his grandmother’s crucifix and a tall candle to burn in their memory today.

Meanwhile, I offer you a Celtic blessing I found some years ago. I framed it then, and now I use it for this St. Patrick’s Day:

May God’s tenderness shine through you,
to warm all who are hurt and lonely.
May the blessing of gentleness be with you.

May the God of Peace be with you,
stilling the heart that hammers
with fear and doubt and confusion.
And may your peace cover
those who are troubled or anxious.

May the God of Mercy be with you, forgiving you.
May your readiness to forgive calm the fears
and deepen the trust of those who have hurt you.

May the God of strength be with you,
holding you in strong-fingered hands.
May you be a sacrament of strength
to those whose hands you hold.

May the God of Gentleness be with you,
caressing you with sunlight and rain and wind.


Monday, March 12, 2007

March Chores

We began Spring pruning today. I had the Baron cut several large trunks from the fig – opening it up to the light, and moving the mass away from the house. It gets so overgrown in the summer that no light gets into that south corner. As a result, some of the siding at the bottom is rotted. Tomorrow I will take the clippers and neaten up the job.

The butterfly bushes were also cut – not judiciously but right down to the ground. I learned the hard way not to let them get out of hand. Otherwise nothing can grow near them. Or would want to. I like to keep them deadheaded during bloom time. It really extends their season well into Fall. But that is workable in a flower bed only if you cut them back severely in March (around here).

Our flowering cherry put out lots of ugly spouts so those went. Along with branches that too deeply shade the flower bed below it. I never expected it to grown so tall or so deeply branched. Its mate – both of them being bought at the end of a season some years ago for five dollars each-- is planted in the herb bed; it is so much smaller than the one by the house that they no longer resemble each other.

I meant to gather the branches and leave them to bloom inside but forgot them before dark. I hope I can salvage them tomorrow.

Arkansas Black appleI gingerly climbed the stepladder (ever since I fell off that ladder and shredded the meniscus on my left knee, the Baron gets nervous when I venture near it) and began pruning the old apple tree, removing suckers and branches that crossed through the middle. Its mate died off finally last year – so dead that even the remaining flat stump is a little spongy and rotten. Meanwhile the live one will take a bit of work since I didn’t prune it last year. The light was fading by the time I’d cleared the western side of the tree. I don’t know how much longer it has, either. I think I will replace them both with Arkansas Blacks. That is one fine apple. Or maybe Albemarle Pippins. Now wouldn’t that be a treat?

I was wicked with the viburnum. I know you’re not supposed to prune them until after they flower, but I don’t like the shape of this one and I keep trying to work it into something more attractive. Maybe I just don’t like viburnums.

We prepped my “hot box” for seedlings. This little green house is a rectangular wooden frame whose bottom is a piece of foam core insulation cut to fit and nailed on. A storm window fits perfectly onto this rig. The window can be moved a bit as the temperature requires. For very cold nights – of which there will be many between now and May 1st, I have encased an old blanket in plastic – the plastic being rainproof – and it will lie across the window, insulating the box. The whole thing is on the well house roof, which makes it easy to maintain.

Today I cleaned out the winter trash – oak leaves and acorns galore, plus over-wintered little azaleas I need to stick somewhere. Then I put in some prime potting soil. This bag of soil lay on the ground next to the well house all through the winter. When we opened it, I noticed lots of worms already active. They probably liked the ground lobster particles and seaweed.

Last year, I planted many of my annual seeds directly into the soil in the box. This year, I am going to fill the plastic six-celled planters with potting mixture instead and line the box with them. However, with love-in-a-mist, I’ll try a direct seeding into the ground. They don’t seem to move well and I’d like to get a patch established somewhere once and for all.

The nice thing about this homemade green house is that all summer I can bed plants I’m trying to root or move things to a holding place until I can decide where to put them. Wish I’d had one of these years ago.

antique shadesThe daffodils and spring crocus are blooming. Even a couple of hyacinths. The pansies are putting out flowers, but haven’t spread much yet. I see some holes where a few died off during the winter. Will have to fill those soon – I love the antique colors, though some years I’ve done blues and white. And last year I did that strange orange variety. It sure did light up the place. Most of the tulips survived the voles – that trick with Bon Ami in the hole must have worked. It will be weeks before they bloom, though, and then the hostas will come along to cover their straggly ending.

Some unnamed bulb, which must have traveled in with a nursery plant, is springing up everywhere, green and lush. In May, it has a pretty, though not particularly distinctive white flower. This mystery guest, who has been around for about three years now, is more invasive than wild onion. I wait for moist soil and yank up mounds of them and put them in the trash. You have to yank slowly and twist a bit or all you get is greenery. They would be nice naturalized somewhere in a large wildflower plot, but they’re tiresome guests in small beds and large lawns.

I love March – all new beginnings. It has difficult parts, too, because March is Shelagh’s birthday. I never think “March was Shelagh’s birthday. Even though this will be the fourth anniversary of her death, I am still inclined to think of her in the present tense. Shelagh and the Baron shared the same birth date…no matter what I do his birthday now has a permanent shadow.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Are You Spelling Impaired?

Here’s Robert Heckendorn’s List of Hard to Spell Words.

It is good resource for those who find spelling confusing and a chore. For people like my daughter, who, when faced with uncertainty about spelling, had her own rule: “when in doubt, add an ‘e’ somewhere.”

Spelling. Or is it Speling?On the other hand, it is a place of sheer wonderment for those to whom spelling comes naturally. For the latter, they can only ponder (or gape at) the inventive phonetic solutions that poor spellers have come up with to address their deficit.

The author’s list is long, but obviously incomplete. Here is his statement of methodology: [edited for clarity and spelling errors - D]

Here is my list of over 1000 hard to spell words.

Here are some important points about this list:

  • Sometimes a word is entered as a misspelling of a particular meaning such as “dam”.

  • These spellings are for American English and not British English or any other language. I may occasionally treat a British spelling as a misspelling of American English. This is not meant as an insult to the English any more that my saying that driving on the left side of the road is wrong in the US. You will get arrested for it here. I drive on the left when I am in England and on the right in the U.S. I adapt to local custom.

  • The same word may be misspelled more than one way. People have different ways to misspelling and I try to include a variety.

I accept new entries and corrections.

The words come in pairs: the first word is the misspelling, the second word is the correct spelling.

Here is a list of just the correct spellings (which is not always up to date).

Here is a list of just the incorrect spellings (which is also not always up to date).

Have fun!

And here is a brief look at his compilation, though I urge you to scroll through the list at your leisure:

Presbaterian Presbyterian
Tootonic Teutonic
Tusday Tuesday
Wendsday Wednesday
abanden abandon
abizmal abysmal
abriviate abbreviate
abscound abscond
absorbant absorbent
absorbtion absorption
abstanence abstinence
abundent abundant
acatemy academy
acceptence acceptance
acceptible acceptable
acceptibly acceptably

And here are two personal favorites, though you will notice they don’t carry the Shelagh rule of adding an ‘e’ somewhere when in doubt. On the other hand, maybe these would-be spellers were never in doubt at all:

angshus anxious
farmasudical pharmaceutical

The website has an address in its URL, but it no longer leads back to the author. Too bad, I’d like to see what he teaches besides the obvious “Remedial English for the Poorly Educated Freshmen.”

It’s definitely a wasteland out there.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Gus van Horn’s Fact Checker

I’m a little loose with facts myself. I figure if I get even an adjective wrong, someone will show up to set me straight. So I see fact-gathering as a game of pick-up sticks. I try to nudge them out of a story, but sometimes the whole thing collapses.

Mr. (that's Doctor van Horn to you, bub), however, has an impeccable source for facts: his cat, Jerome. This is evidently a moniker the cat chose for himself, no doubt in honor of St. Jerome, who was Pope Damasus I’s secretary. (though I haven’t actually asked - that would be fact-checking and this blog is for wool-gathering and jumping to conclusions).

Mr. Doctor van Horn explains:

I’ve intended to write about one of my best friends for quite awhile, but have mentioned him only a couple of times so far and only in passing at that. We have been close collaborators for over a decade. He has stuck with me through thick and thin. I am, of course, talking about my cat, Jerome.

Jerome is, of course, his nom de plume, and I just learned of it today. He is a cat of many eccentricities and surprises, not the least of which is his pen name. In fact, almost everything about this fine beast is eccentric in some way, and his uniqueness will pervade my whole account. He is at once the most unusual and, by far, the best pet I’ve ever had.

In the post, Mr. Doctor vH describes their acquisition of Jerome, and his probable ancestry:

… we checked out a few books on cat breeds and determined that he is probably at least part Turkish Van. Because he has been such a great pet and is getting on in years, my wife and I are talking to breeders to get a better idea of whether he really is a Turkish Van. Especially after seeing an entire row of Turkish Vans at a cat show awhile back and recently describing him to a professional breeder, I am fairly sure that he is a Turkish Van. We certainly don’t expect another one to have the same personality, but the next cat my wife and I get will be a Turkish Van. Jerome’s temperament was probably shaped by his being rescued, but he also seems typical of his breed.

My word! Jerome is still with them and they’re already planning on his replacement. I do hope he doesn’t discover this in his fact-checking. Vans are smart and if he reads that part, things may not go so well…the trauma might cause him to be unable to ever check another fact again.

And one important disagreement I have with Mr. Doctor van Horn’s ideas re his cat’s gentle, friendly nature: he describes Jerome’s precarious existence before being rescued and to this he ascribes his benignity. It is my experience that cats - or any mammals - who are neglected or mistreated while young do not go on to acquire gentle, grateful natures as a result. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a window for acquiring a social nature and it closes very early. Cats and kids can compensate, but they’ll never regain lost ground.

Nope, in this case it’s genetic - he’s got a Van.

As it is also genetic in the case of my neurotic cat, Lulu. What a mess. My vet says that in cats a fearful nature is passed on through the paternal genes. Her daddy must’ve been a feral beast, indeed, for she jumps at the slightest movement.

We got snookered when she wandered in through the open door of the church and I let the future Baron take her home while I made noises about having to give her to SPCA. After all, we already had two cats as it was. Of course, we never quite made that trip.

And as fortune would have it, eventually Lulu turned out to be my “chemo cat.” While otherwise quite leery of everyone (especially after the dominant cat started making her life hell, while I was in chemotherapy and would curl in a fetal position in bed, indescribably cold and tired, Lulu would jump up and curl in the curve where my knees bend. She was a nice warm lump, content to lie there for hours. Ever since, on occasions when I haven’t felt well, I feel her lying next to me.

Lulu computesEver since I put her on clonazepam it has made all the difference. Ms. Congeniality? Not exactly. But she will come when called now instead of hiding under the bed, and sometimes, of her own volition, she will jump up where you’re sitting and peer into your eyes. Black cats seem to like eye contact.

She has developed a rotten habit: yowling in the middle of the night as though she has lost track of where we are. She does this routine right next to the bed, so if I call her to climb up, she does…and then settles down to sleep. However, just as often I exile her to the kitchen. Damn cat.

Of course if you’re sitting in front of the laptop, she thinks her perch ought to be the keyboard. So I have to remove her and then wipe the keys of any trace of her germy derriere.

Now this creature is our only cat. George, the male calico, was hit by a car while hunting. Moe, the fB’s beloved cat, who once fell down an old well and was stuck there for five days before the fB came home from college and found him, had his neck broken by a dog…we think. Moe couldn’t move very fast, so he was an easy target.

Only Lulu remains. And it is far, far too late to send her to the SPCA. Besides, her sleek black coat is beginning to be flecked with white…

I tol ya that the blogosphere is an automatic fact-checker. Turns out that Mr. van Horn ain't no mister at all. He's Doctor van Horn.

Proves my point about fact-checkers, hmmm?