Monday, December 24, 2012

Lessons from The Long Winter

For Christmas, a passage from one of my favorite American storytellers:

"There's nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day," said Pa. He looked down at Grace, pulling at his hand. "Well, Blue-Eyes, what do you want?"

"A tory," Grace said.

"Tell us the one about Grandpa and the pig and the sled," Carrie begged. So, taking Grace and Carrie on his knees, Pa began again the stories that he used to tell Mary and Laura in the Big Woods when they were little girls. Ma and Mary knitted busily, in quilt-covered rockers drawn close to the oven, and Laura stood wrapped in her shawl, between the stove and the wall.

The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty, closer and closer to the stove. Icy-cold breeze sucked and fluttered the curtains around the beds. The little shanty quivered in the storm. But the steamy smell of boiling beans was good and it seemed to make the air warmer.

At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea." - from the "October Blizzard" chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

Storytime. Hearty soup and hot tea. The smell and warmth of a fire. These are some of my favorite simple delights in winter that Laura describes. What are yours? I thought of this passage when this past cold December weekend I savored a bowl of homemade vegetable soup my mother made like her mother used to make. I dreamt of days indoors with a pot of tea, the candles on, entertained by a story. I know many people don't enjoy winter, but I love it, as I enjoy all four seasons.

What strikes me about Laura's books are the universal appeal of what she delights in as a girl on the prairie, and how they are as relevant in 2012 as they were in the 1880s setting The Long Winter takes place during. Television is filled with commercials this time of year with fare like a mother getting satisfaction over giving her kids some footware (made in China, I'd guess) or two young boys trying to convince their parents to get some fancy gizmo (next scene: the parents are playing with the device themselves). I'd rather live in the Laura world of simple pleasures. I feel like this maddening retail push for Christmas earlier and earlier has sucked at times the joy out of the season for me.

The past few years I've been participating in a local library's annual holiday program to buy a clothing item for an anonymous resident in need. I picked a card from 10-year-old girl off of the tree who wanted a winter coat. Along with the coat and a scarf/hat/glove set, I packed a copy of The Long Winter from my local book shop, with a nifty kitten bookmark (I love a fun bookmark, don't you?) I hope she likes it. I loved the book, which I read recently for the first time. The "Little House" series also puts into perspective my own perceived struggles. When I think about not wanting to eat leftovers another day, I remember the Ingalls family surviving on brown bread for months. When I turn up the thermometer, I'm grateful I don't have to spend my days twisting wheat to burn for fuel.

On my way to the bus from New Jersey into New York City, I often pass a man in his 30s or 40s, who is walking slowly and looking down at his device. I've never seen him without it. Laura's description of the prairie reminds me to look around the world regularly. I hope our society stops and looks around more often, and it's a little depressing seeing the number of young children gazing down at phones and gadgets and not looking at the world. One of my favorite things to do when looking out from the 11th floor of my New York City office building: watching the birds in flight, in a sort of ballet in the sky, or those perched high in snug nests, far from the harried life below passing by them. I wonder what the birds think of us?

"Winter is the season of the imagination more than any other for me. Landscapes are magically transformed by snow," the sonic storyteller Sting tells us in an interview promoting his album, If on a Winter's Night.

Of the song Soul Cake he says, "Souls cakes were there to appease ghosts of the past...It kind of ties in with the record of treating the spirits of the past so that you can move forward." I like that idea too.

Winter, he says, is " a dark time. It's a cold time. It's also a time of warmth and family and love and tenderness." After the news events as of late, what could be more important? Happy Christmas and season's greetings to you all.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

September, October and November Storytellers: Three Months of Books

If it were not for the escape of a good book, you would surely find your blogger on a You Tube video, "Commuter Meltdown at Port Authority." If you're familiar with the R.E.M. video for Everybody Hurts where everyone's stuck in a traffic jam, sad looking faces, watching life pass by them, that will paint the picture what the commute has been like ever since our East Coast storm. A man muttered, "Welcome to the new America, folks" after another day of long lines. Holiday music pipes in mockingly with songs like "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," when it doesn't feel like that way at all.  When I get home from my cubicle job which involves being on a computer for eight hours a day, I look at my home computer with a sense of dread.

I've been doing something I hadn't been doing a lot of: turning on the television. The other night "You've Got Mail" with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks came on, a film I'll never tire of. It's such a love letter to New York City (which the film reminds me is so enchanting except in places like Port Authority), to the art of letter writing, to books and storytellers. I love how letters document books read (Meg Ryan's character speaks of her love of Pride and Prejudice) and just everyday life, like a butterfly getting on a subway stop and getting off on another.

A book of letters started my storytellers (some mentioned in a prior post but worth revisiting).
West from Home, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, $3.98, Better World Books. A collection of Laura's letters to husband Almanzo while visiting daughter Rose in San Francisco where the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition was held in 1915. This is like reading someone's diary. Imagine if you penned letters to your loved ones and they were published decades letter. I've read that Martha Washington burned 41 years of correspondence with George Washington after his death to keep their private life safe. Laura's letters don't reveal any deep dark secrets, but do have some interesting tidbits - who knew they once spoke of moving to New Zealand before moving to Florida? There's quite an awkward letter from daughter Rose to her father that her mother, "Mamma Bess" is "growing fat" from all the food at the fair. I started this on the plane ride to San Francisco and wouldn't have visited the enchanting Palace of the Fine Arts (built for the exhibition) if I hadn't.

What would Mitt Romney's journal say? I read that he kept one during the campaign. A journal is my next storyteller, Seeds of Hope: The California Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, part of the Dear America series, $3.98, Better World Books. I can't believe I never came across any of the Dear America books until I searched for gold rush diaries in preparation of my trip.

I've heard my favorite historian David McCullough talk about drawing people into history through good storytelling, and these fictional books are a wonderful way to do that with historical notes at the end. In the notes of this storyteller is the song Clementine. I never knew this was a folk song about the Gold Rush since I only vaguely knew the chorus and not the rest of the song:

"In a cavern, in a canyon
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner, Forty-niner,
And his darling Clementine"

I now understand the significance of 1849 and the mass migration to California in search of riches. Books read are mentioned in entries here, like Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Last Days of Pompeii, Jane Eyre, and A Christmas Carol, about "a rich man with no friends" which would foreshadow events to come in this travel diary of a young girl in Sutter's Fort.

A Columbia Diary, the real life diary of Clementine Brainard, $4.95, from a historical themed bookstore in Columbia, California. She talks of everything from making squash pies and doing the washing to fire and duels, which according to the footnotes, California saw more duels with guns than any other state in the union, including the South.  She mentions going to the "lyceum." The footnotes tell us, "The Lyceum Movement in the United States was an early form of organized adult education based on Aristotle's Lyceum in Ancient Greece. Lyceums flourished in the mid-19th century particularly in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Columbia's Lyceum met once every week for lively discussions on various topics."

I love this idea of adult education. In a society whose politicians always talk of "education" I don't think we value it enough really. Reading is yes an escape from soul sucking lines at bus terminals but also part of continuing education for me.

Some storytellers just magically find you. After reading an announcement in the local paper about the library in Hawthorne, New Jersey's fill a bag of books for $3 sale, I stopped by after work. I walked like there was a magnetic force to these two books: 

Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye  and...

The Sands of Time, by Michael Hoeye.

I soon picked up No Time Like Show Time for about $4 from Better World Books.

In short, these books are about a watchmaker mouse, Hermux Tantamoq and his adventures with aviatrix Linka Perflinger in the jungle, the desert, then theater. Add to the equation his eccentric neighbor, the cosmetics tycoon Tucka Mertslin and his pet lady bug Terfle. But the long answer is these books are about so much more. My mind was racing with topics like revisionist history (where did I read the winners write the history?), what defines art, and the societal obsession with anti-aging and the big business behind the beauty industry. I thought of this book when I saw a Today Show segment about some institute declaring green would be the color of the year next year and that we should all be wearing green clothes, wearing green Swatch watches, buying green furniture and so on. I ponder a lot the mob mentality in our society and the factors of why people follow "trends" or celebrities. I wish people would be more questioning of where the items the "celebrity" or "designer" brands are made (often China and anywhere but the United States).

These are some of my favorite storytellers of the year. I actually want to write the author a fan letter. Hermux writes gratitude letters to the universe. He often gives thanks for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the mysterious. He writes in one,

"Thank you for maps and compasses. Thank you for winding rivers and crashing waterfalls. For empty canyons and rising moons. For campfires and carrots. And for some time to get to know Linka better.

By the way, thank you for time in general. I wonder what time is exactly and where it comes from. I've never considered it before. And where does it go? I wonder how much time I have. Have I spent it wisely? Or have I wasted it?"

I think about that too. I waste a lot of time on the computer (mostly surfing) and not turning it on is part of resisting that temptation, but I still enjoy gathering and sharing my thoughts here, even if it's on a less regular basis.

I think my gratitude letter for this weekend would be,

"Thank you for books. Always for books. Thank you for lunches of potato leek soup at the farm and for butternut squash casseroles at Tea and Sympathy. Thank you for farms in general for there would be no potato leek soup or casseroles without them. Thank you for friendship - in two legged form or four. Thank you for letters, and for cold, rainy nights indoors. Thank you for a fictional mouse for reminding me to give thanks, and for long lines at Port Authority, which means more time lost in the pleasure of a good book."

What would your gratitude letter say? What storytellers are you grateful for? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments sections, or write a private letter to the universe today.