28 April, 2014

Spring Reads: A List

After a long,
frigid,
blizzard-filled,
not-one-but-two-colds,
not-one-but-two-round-of-antibiotics,
snowmageddon
snowpocalypsed winter...
plus the eff-you,
thoroughly-unpredictable March climate notwithstanding...

SPRING IS FINALLY HERE.

[*Cue: Handel's Messiah "Hallelujah" chorus, and REVIVALIST-STYLE RELIEF HOWL*]

Spring is a time of fresh starts.
New beginnings, clean slates; when the last vestiges of grey sludge on the corner of February Lane and Desperation Boulevard melt away, and as the citizens sigh with relief (for they no longer have to consider 20ºF a sign that it's "getting warmer...") The farmer's market stands fill with flowers, the light lingers longer, the trees burst out with fresh green leaves, and one feels the need to clean the corners of their closet with a cotton swab...

It is time to start again. 
Renewal.
Rejuvenation.
There’s just something about this season that makes us ready to let go of the past.

So after you drag 75% of the clothing you don't wear anymore to the nearest donation center, why not crack open a brand new book? For spring is the perfect time to shake off your crikeykillmenow winter funk and try something brand spankin' new.

What better to read, during this season of renewal, than great books about the bittersweet joys of starting over? Here is a curation of ideal seasonal reading, all with lush spring settings and inspiring themes that make one feel refreshed and energized. Even when chilly breezes blow, spring never loses its sense of possibility...

So curl up on a blanket, and enjoy these in the park on a sunny spring day...

* * *

1. These are my rivers by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Springtime is all about poetry. And American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is 'one of our ageless radicals and truebards.' In his peerless 'Everyman's' voice, Ferlinghetti combines a Whitman-esque celebration of the natural world with a deep bow to a surrealist tradition, and in "These are my rivers" has gathered over four decades of poetry with the added bonus of more than fifty pages of new work.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and founder of City Lights Books, blazed his way onto the literary scene with the 1958 publication of A Coney Island of the Mind, marking him as one of the first and greatest "Beat" poets (though his more refined poetic sensibility showed just how different he was from what "Beat" eventually came to mean.) What followed were numerous collections such as Pictures of the Gone World, and Wild Dreams of a New Beginning among others, all expertly drawn from everyday life.

These are my rivers is a compendium of work from throughout his entire career, including 27 new poems, and reveals an ongoing interest in matters political and sexual from an ever-maturing point of view. Unlike poet Allen Ginsberg, whose 'Collected Poems' showed an artist struggling with decline and decay, Ferlinghetti seems to maintain his calm in the face of age; as well as a recognition of his connection with readers.

Even though it first appeared in Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, These are my rivers is where I first discovered what I consider to be Ferlinghetti's greatest poem "Deep Chess."


2. The Griffin & Sabine

 Trilogy by Nick Bantock

Sometimes, when one reads a book, the experience goes beyond engaging storytelling, believable characters or impressive prose.


Sometimes? Reading gets personal.


Sometimes, a book reaches up through the pages, and grips you by the throat, and says
I know you... I am speaking to you...” 

And perhaps you would be a fool to listen to that voice. Perhaps a lot of things. But, as William Blake says, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” So persist I did.



When I was 16, I was introduced to author and visual artist Nick Bantock's trilogy of books (Griffin and Sabine, Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean), and was instantaneously moved by it in a way I had never been moved by a book before. 



The book is a boundless feast for the senses—visually stunning, emotionally stirring, mixing a touch of mystery, philosophy, mythology and even a dash of science fiction, upon the pages containing (simultaneously immaculate and chaotic) "mail art" artwork, all used to tell a story. This homage to the old fashioned post, combined with its phantasmagoric love story, were all created by Bantock himself, the product of his romantic and mischievous mind.

Depressed London artist Griffin Moss receives a postcard one day out of the blue from an unknwon South Pacific Island. It simply states:
Griffin: It's good to get in touch with you at last. Could I have one of your fish postcards? I think you were right the wine glass has more impact than the cup. —Sabine
But Griffin had never met a woman named Sabine. How did she know him? How did she know his artwork? Who is she?

Thus begins the strange and intriguing correspondence of Griffin and Sabine. Each letter they exchange is pulled directly from an envelope attached to the pages of the book, so the reader must engage in the delightful, forbidden sensation of reading someone else's mail. Come on: that's sexy stuff. 



I had never seen a book like it.
I had never seen a work of art like it. 

But my fascination went beyond that— I had to know what kind of a person had the capacity to create something like this. Something so stirring, and evocative and true.

For years I devoured every scrap of his work that I could get my hands on in an attempt to understand it, and truthfully, him, further.
I felt as though his books were speaking directly to me.  

I’m sure we’ve all felt something similar. 



Yet I had never even met him.

And then one day, I did meet Nick Bantock.

I was terrified, not because I felt intimidated, but because I was afraid I might be wrong about him. It is always crushing when an idol comes crashing down. So I was relieved to discover that I was exactly right. 
We have become very dear friends. 


Sometimes it truly is enough to know that people like him are real. 

They do exist.


3. Un abril encantado or, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.

The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy.

Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.

The book is stunningly penned, but a faithful and glorious film adaptation was made in 1991 that certainly deserves a viewing of its very own.


4. Howards End by EM Forster

I first read Howards End under the expert inspirational tutelage of “Lady” Judy Chu, my high school British Literature teacher of such remarkable influence. I read it in the spring, when every blossom and glittering dappled leaf seemed to beckon me to the country estate. It is the perfect time of year to this classic. My work, lovingly thumbed high school copy still sits upon my adult bookshelf—complete with my 17-year-old scrawl penning such comments as:
"Well: London sounds dreary."
"Note to self: sign every letter 'BURN THIS...'"
and my favorite:
"Oh! All of this LOVE!"
Like all of Forster’s early novels, Howards End concerns itself with Edwardian society. As a member of the upper-middle class, Forster had keen insight into its attitudes and social mores, which he expertly rendered in the novel. But it was his profoundly humanistic values and interest in personal relationships that made all his books truly universal.

The major themes of Howards End are articulations of such philosophies: connection between the inner and outer life, between people, the future of England, and class conflicts; and above all connection-connection between private and public life, connection between individuals-and how difficult it is to create and sustain these connections. Howards End has been called a parable; indeed, its symbolism reaches almost mythic proportions at various points in the novel.

But the magic lies in the novel’s remarkable heroine Margaret Schlegel—without question the literary heroine I first “recognized,” and prayed resided within my own soul. Margaret is a font of love, intellectualism, imagination, and idealism, and the shimmering inner life of her mind is all shared with affection by the (charmingly biased) Narrator (quite probably the voice of Forster himself).

But it is Margaret’s “battle cry” that makes Howards End a masterpiece of the heart.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This, one of literature's greatest "children's novels" is among the most stirring tales of family, belonging and the healing powers of nature in the English speaking language.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, England in 1849. Her father's work as a silversmith and master of decorative arts kept the Hodgsons in relative affluence until his death in 1854. The consequent decline in the family's fortunes only worsened in the ensuing years, as all of Manchester found itself suffering a severe depression brought about by the American Civil War. The Hodgsons, facing poverty in England, immigrated to America in 1865. There, they traveled to a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee, in search of a moneyed American uncle who had promised to support them. That help never materialized, however, and the family was forced to take shelter in an abandoned log cabin.

The move from industrial Manchester to rural America greatly affected young Frances, who was then only fifteen. Though she had always been captivated by storytelling, it was only in America that Burnett began to seriously consider writing in order to supplement her family's meager income. The cover letter she sent with her first published story, which appeared in Godey's Lady's Book, described her goal most succinctly:
"My object is remuneration." 
She received it: thirty-five dollars, which was, in 1868, a nearly princely sum. She became the family's chief means of support, writing five or six stories a month at a time when it was exceedingly rare for a woman to have a career.

Burnett was one of the most commercially successful and widely-read authors of her day. Her book Little Lord Fauntleroy was possibly responsible for keeping a generation of boys wearing ruffles and mauve velvet knee breeches. Her other novels (including The Little Princess) were wildly successful, but none was more instantly beloved than The Secret Garden, which was heralded as a classic upon its publication in 1909.

In The Secret Garden, the events of Mary Lennox's early childhood mirror those of Burnett's own:

The Secret Garden opens by introducing us to Mary Lennox, a sickly, foul-tempered, unsightly little girl who loves no one and whom no one loves. At the outset of the story, she is living in India with her parents—a dashing army captain and his frivolous, beautiful wife—but is rarely permitted to see them. They have placed her under the constant care of a number of native servants, as they find her too hideous and tiresome to look after. Mary's circumstances are cast into complete upheaval when an outbreak of cholera devastates the Lennox household, leaving no one alive but herself…

Mary is sent to live in Yorkshire with her maternal uncle, Archibald Craven. Misselthwaite Manor is a sprawling old estate with over one hundred rooms, all of which have been shut up by Master Craven who has been in a state of inconsolable grief ever since the death of his wife ten years before the novel begins. Shortly after arriving at Misselthwaite, Mary hears about a secret garden (that belonged to the late Mistress) from her good-natured Yorkshire maidservant Martha. After her death, Archibald locked the garden door and buried the key beneath the earth. Mary becomes intensely curious about the secret garden, and determines to find it…

Both Mary and Burnett experienced the death of their parents followed by a reversal of fortune, as well as a great sense of dislocation upon being taken from the country of their birth to one utterly foreign to them...

The novel is not merely autobiographical; it was written while Burnett was also very much under the influence of the ideas of the New Thought, theosophy and Christian Science movements; and Burnett's idiosyncratic fusion of these philosophies held that the Christian god was a kind of unified mind or spirit, with whom any person might commune. This spirit was held to be present everywhere, and especially in nature. Proponents of the New Thought also extolled the power of positive thinking (the fervent contemplation of what one hopes will happen), and held it to be a form of communion with the divine spirit. One could ostensibly cure oneself of illness through this kind of magical thinking, or change the character of one's fortunes.

Such ideas had a profound influence upon the writing of The Secret Garden—particularly as the inspiration for what Colin and Mary call "Magic." It is, of course, also visible in Burnett's depiction of the landscape (as represented by the garden and the moor) as having healing or restorative properties.

This book was deeply woven into my childhood (as was the almost perfect award-winning musical penned in the early 90s by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon)— for the message of a young girl who, through nature, tenacity, and the power of her thoughts alone could heal the sick. A message probably more profoundly affective than I realized at the time—this story spoke to the displaced little girl, whose greatest and most fervent wish, was to heal her father of illness...
"Come spirit, come charm, come days that are warm. 
Come magical spell, come help him get well..."

5.   As You Like It by William Shakespeare

If you are to visit any single piece of Shakespeare in the spring, one should look no further than a visit to the Forest of Arden—the setting of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and chosen home of the banished daughter (of an equally banished Duke), the utterly sublime Rosalind.

Arguably Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, Rosalind is the woman whom scholar, Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom describes as “the first real lover in all of modern literature.” Rosalind is strong, sensitive, wise, raunchy, romantic, witty, profound and petty. She is the first to make fun of love, and also the first to let herself be fully embraced by all its joy. But perhaps her greatest quality is her wise, accepting, trenchant, and at times almost peaceful self-awareness. As Bloom says "Rosalind is unique […] in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share."

In the spring of 2001, I played Rosalind as a final farewell to Interlochen Arts Academy—the location of, without a doubt, the happiest and most influential days of my life thus far. I was also desperately in love— with the young man that would become The Love of my Youth. I spoke Rosalind’s words to him from the deepest corners of my heart. And he spoke Orlando’s back to me. This was love at its purest, at its most innocent and delicate. Laced with trees, and warming light, and Shakespeare’s most romantic words.

It was everything that one ever hopes, and dreams,
and should ever be so lucky to have
when you are seventeen
and truly in love for the first time
and it is Spring.


Happy reading.

     Happy Spring. 


14 April, 2014

“I am that I am”

A special excerpt for Passover. I adore the symbolism of the Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of the ancient Jews from their bondage in Egypt because to me, it is speaks to oppressed people everywhere. Exodus represents an honest bid for a human being's most essential right--freedom.

*

After the class had been dismissed for the day, the Rabbi beckoned to Mikhail who nodded, gathered his books, and made his way to the Rabbi’s great wooden desk. Rabbi Syme grasped hold of the tzitzit on his prayer shawl thoughtfully before setting his gaze upon him.

     “Mikhail, my boy, your thoughts are extraordinarily advanced for a boy of your age…” Mikhail’s stillness neither refuted or confirmed this fact. “Indeed, your grasp of the trials of Exodus is so exquisite and all comprehending…” But he could not continue—his heart had been flooded with every possible emotion. When he had gathered himself again, he locked eyes with the Mikhail. “Tell me, my son, does your Uncle have any idea—” he looked away, pausing slightly“—of what you are capable of?”

Mikhail stared at the Rabbi in shock.
No one had ever named his condition.
It was something no cleverness, not even his, could ever understand.

     “No, Sir” he replied, his voice so small he was unsure he had spoken at all.

The Rabbi’s eyes glinted.

     “Mikhail, I wanted to share something that you yourself reminded me of: freedom is dynamic. It is an active thing.”

Mikhail tilted his head, intrigued.

     “—On Shabbat, when we are commanded to rest instead of work, we are experiencing what, on the surface, seems to be the opposite of something else. But just as Shabbat is much more than the absence of toil, so, too, is the freedom of Exodus more than the absence of bondage.”

The boy understood.

     “Free a man of the constraints that limit and inhibit his development, and you have a free human being. Freedom is the natural state of man.”

He looked away from the boy for a moment and recalled the youth of his own searching self.

     “My boy,” he imparted with a ferocious passion that shook them both by the throat, “There is nothing negative about our human potential—do you understand me? God Himself created you the way you are. Do not let anyone in this world convince you otherwise. And you are capable of anything, my boy. There is and shall always be a disparity among the gifts God has granted men, but we all deserve equal consideration. All men, no matter how low, how basic or how tormented, deserve compassion, dignified brotherhood, and respect.
     “But part of respecting all men is respecting ourselves. Recognizing that God has blessed you. By embracing these gifts, we live as God lives, with love for all He has created—with an open heart.
“Thus our sages have said: ‘In every generation a person must see him-self as if he has himself come out from Mitzrayim.’ You, of course, know what Mitzrayim, this Hebrew word used for ‘Egypt’ means, do you not?”
     “…Boundaries…” the boy whispered.
     “It does indeed—and the effort to free ourselves is a perpetual one.”

The Rabbi removed his spectacles and looked deeply into the eyes of the boy,

     “I promise you, Mikhail, you truly blessed child of our Lord, I promise you will find the strength to overcome the oppression of your circumstances. This fight is your purpose—the strength for it inherent within you. Like rocks of salt shaken in water, the turbulence soon it asserts itself in perfect order. My boy, you are supported by the Greatest Parent of them all, and He has endowed you with your gifts, and therefore believes in their power. And, for the record my boy: so do I.”

The boy grew very still.
The tears collecting in the corners of his eyes stung with the foreignness of care.
He was filled with a gratitude he had never known.

     “Do you recall the Father’s response to another one of his most gifted sons?”

He did.

The boy wept silently into the blackness of his coat and whispered,

     “I am that I am…”






04 April, 2014

Big Trash Day

(4-and-a-half weeks on)

It was the night before big trash day—you know: the day you put out your “big trash” on the curb for it to be carted away to the “undiscovered country.” Last month’s big trash day almost shamanistic-ally removed the deathbed mattress and our death-beige carpets. That initial purge was like grief Viagra—we were on a roll. Re-doing the house, beginning with the upstairs, became the largest chunk of our daily activities.

Some of it was marvelous— Grey and Kent moving through the house as ‘Tessa,’ redecorating wildly, all of us in stitches. The strong scent of paint filled the house, its acidic odor burning off the smells of disease, and the windows flew open, somehow washing the place clean with the freshness and oncoming frosts of November in the air.
But other parts were not marvelous at all.

Tonight I sat at the curb, my body unfathomably fatigued; it was all I could do to remain awake. My back and every muscle sore, my head dense with dulling fog. The steady rain upon the street, rooftops and curb fell upon me too as I sat in a tormented ball within the seat of my father’s black leather swivel chair—the noisy, worn out chair that lived-on in his office. The one my mother had always hated. The one I associated with the sound of his IBM typewriter, that still smelled of him and held the unmistakable imprint of his body. I sat, feeling that imprint left upon the worn leather, soaked to the bone in the freezing rain. I would stay there all night.

 
*


I am…


I am thirteen and sitting on the bed with Dad, frustrated beyond all reason by my homework for 8th Grade Money Management. I do not understand money, or how to manage it, and despite my horrific attitude, he is very slowly explaining everything with great patience until I absolutely do. Only a few years back, we sat in the very same positions reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and now I am being asked to manage money like an adult and I do not want to grow up. Most of all I do not want to disappoint him.

*

It is Thanksgiving 1998 and it feels as though everyone in (and several friends from out-of) town, are at 1367 gathered around our Chickering piano singing show tunes. Duets, solos, and finally, we all erupt in an emotional chorus of the Act 1 finale of Ragtime— my father’s eyes closed, his voice the strongest and most impassioned of us all.

*

I am fourteen and driving to my relatively new Groves High School with Dad, just as we have done every single morning since time began. He pulls up right in front of the back entrance on Evergreen Road. We hug, I kiss him on the cheek, and we exchange “I love yous” before I grab my purple backpack and run inside.

Before heading inside I catch the eye of Sarah Randall, a girl two classes ahead of me whom I’ve known since the summer before we moved to Michigan. She’s getting out of the car driven by her father, whom I wave to. Mr. Randall’s face looks thoughtful as I make my way inside.
I will learn a few years later, how much watching the Silbers say goodbye at the school entrance means to him. I’ll learn that when he’s having particular trouble with Sarah, that he will say, “you know how Al and Michael Silber say goodbye to one another every morning? If you could ever do that for me—just once—it would mean the world to me.”

I will learn, years later (when Mr. Randall also dies prematurely, in his case, from pancreatic cancer), that Sarah will listen. It will, in its own small way, change a little piece of their relationship.

*

It is the third Saturday of August 1995—the weekend of The Woodward Dream Cruise; a classic car event held annually in Detroit to celebrate the essence of Motor City.

After World War II, people began to “cruise” in their cars along Woodward, from drive-in to drive-in, often looking for friends who were also out for a drive, celebrating a new sense of freedom. Now the Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the entire world.

We’ve lived here a year, and we decide to pull up to Woodward and take a peak at the event that spans all the way from Pontiac to the State Fair Grounds inside the Detroit City limits, just south of 8 Mile Road. It is absolutely majestic. Most of the cars on display are vintage models from the 1950s to the early 70s—muscle cars, street rods, T-birds and corvettes, but there are some turn-of-the-century gems, some custom, collector and special interest vehicles all dating across the last century and change.

The initial sight renders all three of us momentarily speechless.

*

I am in the kitchen and it’s one of the rare nights when Dad has taken it upon himself to “cook” dinner. Mom and I stare down at our plates—a mass of crunchy, practically raw vegetables slopped in butter lay before us in meager piles. The only indicator that they have been “cooked” at all is that their once-colorful skins are charred so black the food is indistinguishable, so close to barbeque coal one might as well be eating it straight from the bag.

     “Dad?” I ask, careful not to pierce his pride, “What… is it?”
     “It’s stir-fried vegetables!” he replies, with the enthusiasm of a college kid who has recently made their first batch of Kraft Mac N’ Cheese without calling the fire department.
     “I see…” says my mother, pushing a few of the blackened vegetable turds around on her plate.
     “Don’t panic—“ Dad urges, “It’s not burnt.”
     “Eh…well then what is it?” I ask.
     “IT’S CAJUN…”

…Uh huh.

*

I am playing Miss Hannigan in the 3rd Grade production of Annie at El Rodeo School in Beverly Hills, California. It is my first theatrical experience and even though I am merely eight, I know that I am a hoot as I copy Carol Burnett’s performance from the film, down to every intonation and (inappropriately, for an eight-year-old) drunken idiosyncrasy. It is the morning of, the day of the performance and I am not the least bit nervous. At breakfast Dad says “you should eat.”
But I do not.
Despite never forgetting a movement, line or note prior to this day, I forget the words to my song for the first time ever whilst singing my big number. (Forevermore I have always eaten something before a performance).

*

I am on the banks of Quarton Lake getting ready for my very first ice skating sojourn outdoors, on a natural body of water. We have lived in Birmingham, Michigan for a few fledgeling weeks and Quarton Elementary School (where I have recently been enrolled in the 4th Grade) has an annual Quarton Lake Skate that features skating for parents and kids alike, as well as a vat of hot cocoa. I held my Dad’s hand as I took my first-ever steps onto a frozen lake, skating until my nose was red and dripping from the excitement of the cold.

*

I am at Dairy Deluxe on Woodward and 14 Mile; the classic Birmingham summer hangout that goes by many unofficial titles (among them, the "Twirly Dip," "Double D," "DD," to name but a few).
A Snickers flurry was a summer classic (that is most likely what I am enjoying), or some make it extra Detroit-y by adding Sander’s Hot Fudge on top (un-be-liev-ab-le.) The joy of a visit to Dairy Deluxe is indeed in the quality of the ice cream and various confections, as well as the little quirks that make it (and have kept it) so small-town-charming over the years. In reality Dairy Deluxe is really nothing more than a hut with a giant, neon ice cream cone sign atop it.

But it is much, much more. The same people have been running Dairy Deluxe for well over twenty years and they still write down your order by hand on bits of paper, count your change out with their minds and make your order themselves, handing it to you through a teeny tiny window box on the corner of Woodward and 14 Mile Road.

*

I am driving along Maple Road, rounding the strange curve any non-native Birminghamer would find confusing— right at the twisty point where suddenly you are confronted with what I always blasphemously referred to as ‘Christian Corner’— where the “First” Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches all appear in a clump, sprung up like eager flowers drenched in holy water.
On the same strip of Maple (between the churches) sits the beloved Mills Pharmacy; where as a kid Dad used to take me in to buy as much candy as possible for a single dollar (it was his way of teaching me about counting out and budgeting money). Individually wrapped Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids were only 10¢. Candy bars 50¢. Laffy Taffy, Pixie Sticks, Runts, Nerds, Necco Wafers, the list was endless. A charming bearded man behind the old-fashioned candy counter used to greet us, and he was so like the one in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you practically expected him to burst into song at any moment. It was pure magic.

Passing Mills Pharmacy now I realize: every memory is now merely another painful nostalgic touchstone. None of it, not one single thing, will ever be magical again.

*

I am on the curb in the chair on big trash day.
I have been out here for hours.
I am soaking wet.
I am touched on the shoulder by Lilly.
The moment had arrived to just surrender...

When we woke the following morning, all had been cleared away.
If only all of it were that easy.


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