Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Fairest of Them All

On the surface, Where the Lilies Bloom is a quaint story of an Appalachian mountain family, struggling to get by. However, the title itself tells the depth of a story that is meaningful to girls everywhere.

The crux of the story is based on two promises fourteen year old Mary Call made to her father – to keep the siblings together, and not to let Devola marry Kiser Pease, no matter what.

Over the years we have heard the term: Parenting by Proxy, the creating of a surrogate parent out of one of the children, usually the strongest. In my forty plus years, I have seen this happen time and time again, just as it has to Mary Call in the story. Often she will lament that she is raising three children, although Devola is four years older than herself. After the loss of their mother, Mary Call, the smartest of the lot, is put in this position. Look around at the girls you know. How many of them are raising their siblings by proxy? It happens to boys too, but most often to girls. It doesn’t just happen in single-parent households. This is also one of the drawbacks to two working parents.

Mary Call places a burden on herself to keep the secret of her father’s death from the community. She does this out of fear of the siblings being placed in separate foster homes and adopted out to families, never to see each other again. Children today do the same thing, only for different reasons. Perhaps it is a parent’s addiction, or abuse, or homelessness. The basis of the fear is just the same.

The Luther children have always dealt with the idea they are mountain folk, and don’t necessarily fit in with their more affluent urban classmates at school. Poverty is more than an economic issue. It leaves scars on children they will carry with them their whole lives. Sure, many become greater than that of their childhood, but the scars are always there. Mary Call, in addition to the stress and burdens of home, has to deal with the taunting and teasing from her peers. I don’t need to go into the effects of bullying on children. However, in Mary Call’s case she takes it in stride, always keeping her eyes focused on the mission; until winter comes.

The winters of our lives are always the most difficult to navigate. Winter is the season in which all things come to an end, in preparation for a new beginning. Mary Call is faced with the possibility of starvation, homelessness, and losing her sisters and brother, regardless of all the efforts she has put into keeping her promises.

Love is a blinding thing. The love Mary Call had for her father, blinded her to the help that was readily available, and offered throughout the story. Mary Call was bound to the promise of keeping the siblings together. However, the promise she made regarding her sister, Devola, was the very thing that could save them all – from everything. If only she could get past her father’s prejudices against a man he didn’t really know at all. He hated Kiser Pease for who he was, and no other reason.

This is important so listen up. We feed our children love and hate every day, regarding everything from the flavor of ice cream to the color of someone’s skin. Sometimes the heaping helpings of love we show to our children only serve to validate the hate we are feeding them at the same time. Children who love their parents do not want to disappoint or disobey those same parents. Out of love they learn to hate. I want you to think about that for a long time. Think about what you say in front of your children, about whom, and why.

Mary Call is a young girl who lives within the pages of one of the best coming of age stories ever written for girls.

We, women, are a fair land, the fairest of them all, because we are where the lilies bloom. It is our duty and obligation as mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and friends, and members of the community – great and small, to ensure the garden is well tended that the lilies will bloom in due time.

Through literature, we learn to live, to love, and to conquer.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Railing Against the Machine

They say there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that has been will be again, no matter the weary dreams of men. The thoughts and theories of a Utopic society where all is fair and right in the world are lost in the common threads of the web of life.

In Episode Two of James Joyce’s historic novel, Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus proclaims, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake!” There are many theories as to the meaning of Joyce’s choice of words within the context of the novel, one of them being Stephan Dedalus’ desire to overcome his own less than stellar childhood. Not so ironically, after reading the biography of James Joyce, himself, it is glaringly apparent that Ulysses is a veiled biography of Joyce’s own emotional world, since boyhood.

Joyce didn’t grow up in your average household. His father was nowhere near father of the year, and his mother, well in Joyce’s eyes his mother was weak and in need of protection, as well as an overwhelming amount of love and adoration. Thus, throughout the iconic Ulysses, Joyce smatters the contents with attributes of amor matris.

The entire work of Ulysses is a diatribe of Joyce’s view of the world in which he lived as a child, and the one in which he lived as an adult; in some cases nothing more than an exercise in stream of consciousness. In my humble opinion, it is Joyce making sense of the world in the only way he knew how – through the art of writing – giving order to the chaos.

Which brings all things full circle. There are none of us who have had the ideal childhood. By way of misfortune, or by way of fortune, all of our pasts are flawed, marred, and scarred. Whether we grew up in lavish homes or in mud huts, we all began this journey in the same conglomeration of star dust as human beings – impractical and imperfect.

We go about our lives, growing into the expectations of the environment in which we are immersed. Most people never question, or at least outwardly question, the outcome of their lives. You grow up in poverty, you die in poverty. You grow up wealthy, you die wealthy. And in either case the world keeps turning.

And then, there are those who rail against the machine; like James Joyce. Of all the things in the world he did not want to be the most was to be like his own father. He knew, since the time he was about ten years old, that the likelihood of that happening was pretty high. His father was cynical, and critical at best, when it came to Joyce’s obsession with writing, and learning. In those days, you rose no higher in society than your father’s position. If you did, you fought like hell to get there, with no regrets and no apologies.

Joyce was, by no means, a heralded author in his day. In fact, he was more popular in Great Britain and Europe than he ever was in his home country of the United States. American society was, to his chagrin, much like the man he knew as his father – cynical and critical, but Joyce never gave up, he didn’t quit. He kept on writing and traveling abroad, because that was where he found the meager bits of joy that existed in his life.

Sometimes we have to go deeper than the story that we are reading, and delve into the life of the author in order to understand the true depths of the premise. Sometimes, first impressions are not the ones intended, and we cannot judge a person by the chapter of their life we walked in on. We aren’t perfect, not a single one of us.

Ulysses was written in eighteen separate, yet connected, episodes, covering the entire life of a man we simply knew as James Joyce. He was, at times, impractical in his methods, improbable in his theories, and imperfect in his life. But at the same time, James Joyce was iconic in writing one of the most remembered works of modernist literature. James Joyce a.k.a. Stephan Dedalus overcame his childhood by simply being who he was – with no regrets and no apologies.

In literature we learn to live, to love, and to conquer.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Making the Most of 24 Hours: It's all we got.

“The chief beauty about time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoiled, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” ~ Arnold Bennett, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Father Time has taken his leave just in time for the arrival of Baby New Year. This is the time of year many reflect on all that has been, and dream of all that might be. Yet as the year rolls forward, thoughts of nostalgia are lost to the busy-ness of everyday life, and dreams are replaced with “I don’t have time.”

From How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett is most often quoted as above, and a fine sentiment it is. However, Mr. Bennett heralds a warning in the following paragraphs of his work:

“But before you begin, let me murmur a few words of warning in your private ear.”

When someone makes a statement such as that, it tends to command attention. Imagine an elderly gent at the coffee shop whispering such a thing to you. Would you not become paralyzed in the moment, wondering what it is that he will say?

Without further ado, let me explain what those murmured words were, from way back in 1917. Mr. Bennett speaks of ardour and what a treacherous thing it can be. You see, we all want to do well, and be well. We begin our endeavors of “turning a new leaf,” in whatever manner, with fervent intent. We pronounce to the entire world our intention to change something we are not quite so comfortable with about ourselves. We begin in earnest the work that it requires.

“Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own.”

It’s like running a marathon. If you begin the race with all your energy, by and by you will find that it becomes more difficult to finish. At one third of way, you are gasping for air and chugging water. Two-thirds, you are holding your sides and heaving every breath, desperately looking ahead for the finish line. And, not quite at the finish line, you collapse from exhaustion, where we meet our old and comfortable friend, Failure.

“A failure or so, in itself, would not matter, if it did not incur a loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence.”

We’ve all been there at one New Year’s Day or another. “I’m going to quit this, that or the other thing. I’m going to do this, that or the other thing.” You can fill in the blanks. We’ve all made our proclamations to the world; and we’ve all failed in the aftermath of our own arduor.

The premise of Mr. Bennett’s work is living to the fullest in the 24-hour day we are all given. Budgeting our time, talent and treasures to fulfill our need for happiness and contentment. Most of us spend approximately ten hours each day in the going to, being at, and coming home from work. We often lament those ten hours of every day, because we would rather be doing something else. As we go forth into the unknowns of 2016, keep in mind, our jobs do not define who we are, nor do they tally our worth.

Mr. Bennett has given us much to think about:

  • First, let us not bite off more than we can chew at the beginning of the year. Take your New Year’s resolution in small doses, and allow yourself the energy necessary to reach the finish line. The success or failure of the endeavor falls on each of us, and how we approach the turning of a new leaf in any regard.

  • And second, take each 24-hour day we are given, and maximize the outcome. Make each moment count, whether we are at work, or home, or wherever it is we might be. Life was never meant to be lived in relentless sorrow, grief, misery or pain. The sun rises each day, and with its dawning comes a new opportunity to choose to live happy.

There is much to be learned from literature. Through literature we learn to live, to love, and to conquer.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Peculiar Children

“I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was. Likewise, I never imagined that home might be something I would miss.”  ~ Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

As children, we never imagine our lives to be extraordinary, unless of course we are engaging in the land of make-believe. And, oh what a land make-believe can be for small children. It is filled with the fanciful and improbable, perhaps a vast kingdom of our very own, or pirate ships, or mayhaps even the wild, wild west.

As we grow older, as we all do, we put our childish things away and begin to behave as adults do. We become stoic, prim and proper, or to put it simply, we become just like everyone else. Soon, the land of make-believe becomes distant memories of a time  long forgotten and lost in the hustle and bustle of adult life. We forget how to dream.

I don’t know about you, but when I go home to the small town where I grew up, I find myself wandering in the mists of time. Everything is different, yet the same. The schoolyard of the elementary years still sits a half a block from the house where I grew into a young lady. When I look across the landscape, I see a different playground than the one that exists today. I see a tall silver slide, where Henry fell from the top and in all of our seven years, we believed him to be quite dead. He wasn’t. I see the old wooden merry-go-round and hear the chanting voices of children crying, “Faster! Faster! Faster!”

My eyes move toward the city swimming pool that sits empty just across the street. The scene shifts to a hot summer day when I stood staring into the abyss of the ten feet of water below me. The kids in line behind me taunting me to jump, I face my fear and take a leap of faith.

I kick the dust and gravel of the alleyway that separates the school from the neighbors, making my way toward home – home that isn’t my home anymore. Strangers live in that old house now. Sure, I know the mother. She was my older sister’s best friend all those years ago. Some things change, but the walls of that house, they hold all the laughter and the tears of my youth. The basement the scene of a roller disco unlike anything the world had ever seen, and probably should never see again. It was the venue for world champion gymnastics, and the greatest superstars that would ever grace the stages of the world.

At the end of the driveway stand two great mountains of snow, where King of the Mountain took on a whole new meaning. Our mother would scold us for digging snow tunnels, certain they would cave in and kill us all. In the spring, the melting mountains became streams that swelled into rushing rivers where paper or stick boats raced their way to the finish line – the grate to the underbelly of the city.

Just up the hill and a ways more the open fields are covered in snow. The smell of fuel and the roar of the snowmobiles as they raced, bouncing across the crests of snow fill the air.
Our lives as children were anything but ordinary; we simply failed to see just how extraordinary it was. Our hearts and minds were open to the possibilities of the universe. We were uninhibited in our imagination and our hope for something more, something grander than we viewed as our ordinary lives. Perhaps, we appear a bit peculiar in our memories. Perhaps we weren’t quite what we would view as perfect. But, oh what an extraordinary time it was.

Children need to imagine, to dream and to hope. They require something more than the mundane existence of mini-adults. They need to get to dirty, and bruised. They need to create adventures they otherwise wouldn’t have. They need to have a place to go back to when they have grown, and smile, and laugh, and perhaps take just one more spin on the merry-go-round, chanting, “Faster! Faster! Faster!”