I guest posted over on Dean Robertson’s blog today with some thoughts on creating scenes of violence in my fiction . . . . and on experiencing them in the works of others. Here’s the link! Have a look!
I’ve been working my way through this book lately, a few letters at a time. Nick K. Adams has carefully annotated and edited the one hundred letters that were sent home by his great-great grandfather, David Brainard Griffin, who enlisted as a private in the 2nd Minnesota Volunteers shortly after the start of the Civil War.
Griffin comes across as an endearing soldier, inquiring constantly after his three children, his wife, and the many relatives and neighbors in his southeastern Minnesota home. What interested me the most as I read the letters was the gradual shift in his mental state over the years.
The letters begin in September 1861 and go through September 1863, shortly before Griffin was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. At first, he’s terribly homesick; almost every early letter features a few tears as he reads letters from home or thinks about his children. And like most people on both sides of the conflict, he entered it with confidence that the war would be over by springtime. But as the war drags on and his regiment pushes farther south, the flush of confidence wanes. Griffin’s answers to his wife’s questions about when he thinks he’ll be coming home grow less certain.
Griffin’s attitudes and intellect are about what you’d expect of a sharp but not highly educated Midwestern farmer. In his distaste for hypocrisy and his frank evaluations of the high-ranking generals, he’s like most of the small farmers I know today. When his friend Jery (never identified by last name) manages to obtain a medical discharge from the regiment under questionable circumstances, Griffin doesn’t overtly question his character or patriotism, but his unspoken reservations come through clearly. Like many on the Northern side, Griffin entered the war with little more than a general distaste for the institution of slavery, thinking more about the preservation of the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, he gradually comes around to the belief that slavery should be abolished – more for the effect such an action would have on the Southern cause than for any moral motivation.
Nick K. Adams, who edited these letters, is a retired elementary school teacher who now engages in writing and storytelling. He is to be commended for the painstaking care with which he presents the letters; their original orthography is retained, but annotations help us follow the occasional confusing references and keep us informed about the place of the 2nd Minnesota in the larger context of the war. This volume of letters is a valuable addition to the original source material of the Civil War. While they will appeal mainly to the specialist and to the Civil War aficionado, the human emotions of these letters, and the rich detail of camp life they reveal, would make them a useful resource for writers and amateur historians seeking an in-depth understanding of daily life in the Western Theater.
A few weeks ago a friend and I walked to the Chinese restaurant near my co-op and brought back steaming cartons of vegetable lo mein, fried rice, two Spring rolls, and my favorite—roasted broccoli (enough to save for lunch the next day). The order—white cartons stacked neatly in a large white bag—of course included small packets of soy sauce and several fortune cookies.
I always look forward to the slight crunch and sweetness of fortune cookies after the salty Chinese food, but the two I grabbed that day were stale. I was on the verge of throwing them out, along with their predictions for my future, when the edge of a slip of paper caught my eye. It read:
“You will find luck when you go home.”
That piece of paper, greasy at one corner, wrinkled from its near-miss with the garbage, is taped to the door of my kitchen cabinet.
“I know that our relationship to those places we inhabit and leave and for which we search is the informing metaphor of the spiritual life in any tradition and is, in fact, the governing reality in our lives; the spirit of place is in our bones” (Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, 116-117).
I grew up in the South, in the hills of North Georgia, and so—even more than most—I have that bone-deep sense of belonging to a place, of that physical bond with land. In his small novel, The Unvanquished, William Faulkner describes the forced and hasty departure from home of two boys, with their grandmother, just ahead of Sherman’s army on its March to the Sea. They take along basic provisions—and bags of soil from the plantation.
One morning about twenty years ago, one of my cousins and I drove out to the land where I grew up. We were going to see the log house my parents built which neither of us had seen since I left for college at seventeen.
After the house was built, Mother and Daddy carefully cleared narrow paths into the woods and down the steep hill between the house and the “patio,” a structure made entirely of mortar and large stones from the creek bank. On the day my cousin and I were there, all those paths were completely grown over; there wasn’t a trace of them. We sat for a few minutes, looking with a kind of hopelessness at the uninterrupted woods, seeing no possibility for navigation.
I glanced back and stepped out of the car. I walked cautiously, but without hesitation, across the overgrown yard and onto the path that led by twists and turns through a quarter acre of dense trees and underbrush to the edge of Cedar Creek. Those stones and trees, that path, buried in thick vines and roots and many seasons of leaves, are my bones.The skeleton of that land is my skeleton. I never faltered. My cousin followed. We sat by the creek for more than an hour without speaking.
There is a reason that all those houses and apartments and rooms over all those decades never quite satisfied my search for home. Not one of them, even the wonderful co-op, in the wonderful walking neighborhood where I live now, ever will be home.
Home is not a place, not a location, neither house nor woods nor hills nor any ocean. Home is, as Esther de Waal writes in her 1984 book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, a sense of being “earthed;” it is the Biblical concept of stability or steadfastness.
Of Metropolitan Anthony, “a monk and a bishop,” she says only,
“He has found his centre of gravity; he is wholly inside himself. This is the stability of the heart.”
Home, the particularity of place, is significant because it points always to something beyond itself.
It points to home.
A hymn whose name and provenance I have forgotten includes this line:
“We are all God’s children; the journey is our home.”
And, finally, this road to our real home can never be easy. Benedict writes in his Rule of the novice monk:
“‘Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry’ says the opening sentence, and the novice is to be left knocking at the door for four or five days. He is then warned about ‘the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God’ If he promises perseverance in his stability after two months. . .If he still stands firm. . .he is taken back. . .and is tested again after six months, and then again four months later.”
Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is also available on Amazon.com.
The news out of Oregon is not good. A few armed crackpots have taken over the unoccupied headquarters building at a wildlife refuge in order to protest the incarceration of a couple of ranchers who were convicted of arson.
Nobody should break the law in this way. But the history behind this standoff goes a long way back. And Ozarks residents probably hear some familiar notes in the complaints of the ranchers. In a smaller and more geographically limited way, the creation of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways caused the same kind of wounded feelings, and had an impact on the lives of longtime residents, as the actions of the Bureau of Land Management did out West.
Any time a government agency moves in to take control of land for a perceived greater public benefit, or to take ownership of privately owned land, the same tensions will come up.
Here’s an interesting article on the history of land acquisition by the National Park Service for the Ozark Riverways.
I came by an interesting book the other day. It’s called Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, and it’s part-memoir, part-religious meditation, part-biography.
The story is this. The author, Dean Robertson (despite the unorthodox first name, Dean is female) had occasion to stay for some months at the Lydia Roper Home, a home for elderly women in Norfolk, Virginia, while recovering from a fall. During her time at the home, Robertson led a Bible study group with some of the women who lived there, starting with four and gradually growing to around a dozen. She also became curious about Lydia Hand Bowen Roper, the home’s namesake and inspiration. Some might say “curious about” is an inadequate phrase, preferring “obsessed with.”
In Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, Robertson draws together three threads: her personal journey from ailment to recovery, from withdrawn-ness to engagement; the stories of her Bible study group, the women who made it up and their encounters with Biblical texts; and the teasing-out of the sparse details of the life of Lydia Roper, whose husband, a wealthy lumberman, endowed the home shortly before his death in 1921. The result is an odd, charming, occasionally frustrating, immensely enjoyable book.
The women of the Bible Study group are a varied group, some inquisitive, some uncommunicative. Robertson portrays them vividly. For a sort-of memoir, the book is less forthcoming about Robertson herself. We learn that she is a retired academic who grew up in north Georgia, and not a whole lot else. This reticence is unusual for a memoir, and I found myself wishing for more internal revelation. Lydia Roper also remains stubbornly inaccessible to Robertson’s efforts at inquiry; she left little written record, and her family’s memories are vague. Robertson describes her frustration at her efforts to uncover more about the elusive Lydia:
At this point, the result is uncertainty, and all I can find is that sometime in 1920 or 1921, Captain John Roper either “built,” “established,” “donated,” or “founded” the Lydia Roper Home. The Home either was, or was not, intended as a haven for Confederate widows. Two sources say yes; a local historian who grew up in the area says, “The Confederate widows twist likely came about as a result of rationalizing having a Damn Yankee establish a very useful and needed charitable home in an extremely Confederate area. Even one hundred years after The War, partisan feelings about Northerners were still quite strong.” A family member says the original charter more likely read something like, “ … for impoverished white women in the city of Norfolk.”
Anybody who’s engaged in research into an obscure historical figure or event can relate to that “Well.”
What holds these three threads together? To me, it’s the searching and the losing. The women of the Bible study group work their way through Old Testament and New, responding to the stories in conventional and unconventional ways, searching for meaning, consolation, and explanations, all the while growing older and more frail. They lose their faculties, their health. Dean Robertson keeps looking for Lydia, even as Lydia continually recedes on the horizon. Memories fail; stories prove untrustworthy; yet the effort rewards itself. The writing is literary and highly crafted, but not overly so; the characters of the women shine through.
The book contains a lot of discussion of the various characters in the Bible, particularly women. I’m just about the least qualified person in the country to talk about that element of the book; Bible study has never interested me. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the originality and soundness of the exegesis. I’m more interested in the human stories of the elderly women who gather in the second floor parlor of the Lydia Roper Home. And these stories – warm, touching, and often sad – are well worth the reading. Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is a lovely book, especially for the spiritually-minded.
I’m heartened by the recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about more preliminary activity on creating a trail on the old Rock Island Line through south-central Missouri. Someday, this trail and the Katy will create a huge loop for hikers and bicyclists. What a treat this will be for lovers of the outdoors!
I bought The History of Tree Roots, Phil Howerton’s new book of poetry, a couple of weeks ago and have been leafing through it ever since. Like most books of poetry, it’s better read a few pages at a time.
Howerton’s specialty is the brief observational lyric, and his subject is the rural Ozarks. A native of Dallas County who now teaches at Missouri State University-West Plains, Howerton has an intimate knowledge of the artifacts of rural life and teases meaning out of them with understated patience: the rock-lined well, the sprouting fencerow, and as in the title poem, the exposed roots of a tree, “holding in place what little remains / of a soil that once held me secure.”
As that pair of lines indicates, the dominant mood in this book is one of loss. Not nostalgia for what is lost, but simple recognition of the loss and meditation on what is now missing. Howerton’s poems are not sentimental in the conventional sense, but they convey strong feelings by their insistence on attending to what is disappearing from Ozark life and what has – and has not – appeared instead.
The physical objects that are the subjects of many of these poems represent values that we associate with earlier generations of Ozarkers: stoicism, simplicity, family loyalty, and skill in the art of ‘making do.’ The poem “Abandoned Barn” recounts these values in the sad light of the barn’s abandonment. “Store against tomorrow / reap within reason, / return to the soil / more than what was taken. / A sheet of tin / roofing rises and falls / in the wind.”
But the Ozark way of life is not portrayed as a thing of unalloyed virtue; that tight-lipped stoicism can conceal provinciality and loathing of the nonconformist. Several poems meditate on old photographs. What is plumbed in these photographs is often the one who is looking away, the one whose expression reveals hidden longing, or the one who is never in the picture to begin with.
The newspaper where I used to work used to publish occasional poems sent in by subscribers, and the common thread in those verses was always the celebration of Ozark scenes and characters, hound dogs and porch-sitters, broomsedge and bloodroot. Phil Howerton takes these cliché-prone subjects and retrieves them by refocusing, changing the angle of view, and noticing the less-noticed.
“Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens famously wrote, and Howerton’s poems follow that dictum by paying attention to the ordinary things and people around him. And from his noticing, we discover that even ordinary things have un-ordinary depth.
The book is available from amazon.com, among others.
– Phil Howerton
• Try to remember the name of the waterway that separates Delaware from New Jersey. Can’t recall. Go to atlas. (It’s the Delaware River/Delaware Bay, by the way. You’re welcome.)
• Spend fifteen minutes or so with atlas. Dang, those things are addictive.
• Notice that the atlas appears to show a tiny bit of Delaware on the east side of the river. Can that be right? Head for the computer.
• Sure enough, there are not one but two pieces of Delaware on the New Jersey side of the river! Oooo, time for Wikipedia.
• Aha! Great stories! Killcohook is known by locals in Salem County, N.J., as “the Baja,” and it’s where teenagers go to drink, criminals go to dump cars (and once in a while, a body), and hunters go to shoot out of season. Because the local authorities can’t touch them! They’re legally entitled to, but it’s a roadless, mucky area, and their patrol cars get stuck. And it’s an hour by road from the rest of Delaware.
• But why is it in Delaware in the first place? Ahhh…..a better story! During Colonial days, a British court ruled that the entire riverbed within a twelve-mile radius of New Castle, Delaware, belonged to Delaware, up to the low-water mark of the river. Not a big deal until the 1920s, when the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging the river channel and dumping the silt on the New Jersey side. The manmade island that was created at Killcohook was part of Delaware, but eventually merged with New Jersey although the old low-water-mark boundary remained. As for the poetically named Artificial Island, it was created when fill dirt from the creation of a nuclear power plant crossed over that magical twelve-mile radius from New Castle, thus creating a little piece of Delaware where none had existed before.
• Learned that the geographical term for these odd bits of territory is “exclave” (as opposed to “enclave”). Nice word. Gotta remember that. Kaskaskia, Illinois, is the nearest example that comes to mind, along with the “Kentucky Bend,” a chunk of Kentucky that is separated from the rest of the state by a bend in the Mississippi River. The biggest exclave I can think of worldwide would be East Prussia when it was separated from the rest of Germany, but maybe there are others that don’t come to mind immediately.
• But what’s up with that “twelve-mile radius“? Back to Wikipedia. Turns out that the circular top of Delaware is part of that twelve-mile circle, which was specified in 1682 when the Duke of York granted the land to William Penn (although it wasn’t until 1750 that the center of the circle was definitively established as the cupola of the courthouse in New Castle.) That weird border delineation led to court fights that lasted until 2007 involving Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware at various times. In 2008 the Delaware House of Representatives considered a symbolic bill to call out the National Guard to defend its interests against encroachment by New Jersey.
• Now wouldn’t a war between Delaware and New Jersey be something to behold? I don’t know about you, but to me this was a heck of a successful hour.
Missourians of a certain age may remember Jean Bell Mosely, and those who are not of that age should learn about her. She was a prolific writer whose work was characterized by a gracefulness of style and a clarity of observation that many of us would envy.
Her work was conventional in the sense that it stayed within accepted social norms; she was an exceptionally good citizen in the community where she spent most of her life, Cape Girardeau, a churchgoer and faithful alumna of Flat River Junior College (now Mineral Area College) and Southeast Missouri State College (now University), having been the valedictorian at both Doe Run High School and the junior college. So you won’t see her name in the list of ground-breakers. But her devotion to craft and her exceptional observativeness are exemplary. Her stories were published in Woman’s Day and The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, and her books, six in all, came out from the Fifties through the Eighties. She died in 2003 at age 89.
But the way most people in Southeast Missouri experienced her work, I suspect, was in her newspaper column “From Dawn Till Dusk,” which appeared in the Southeast Missourian and was frequently republished elsewhere. She and another Southeast Missouri writer, Thomza Zimmerman of Advance, alternated columns, and they were eagerly read throughout the region. Mosely’s close observations of nature and of human nature were particularly insightful. She began writing the column in 1955, and the last one was published five days before her death. How’s that for meeting your deadlines? In that final column, she mused about how the clothing worn by the various caregivers at her medical facility reflected their personalities and perhaps their unspoken wishes.
I hope I am still writing in the week before my end, and if I am, I’ll try to remember to end whatever I’m working on with the word that Jean Bell Mosely used to conclude every column: Rejoice!
Fascinating analysis by my old friend Terry Bollinger.
The TOP Blog — Nov 1, 2015
It is the day after Halloween, and a zombie is shuffling through the halls of the Republican Presidential nomination process. Like most zombies, it does not yet realize it is dead.
My somewhat retro future prediction for this blog entry* is that the Presidential campaign of Governor Jeb Bush died from a self-inflicted short, sharp, shock back on October 24, a week before the debate in which he did a truly and exceptionally conspicuous job of not standing out in any way.
More specifically, on October 24 Jeb chose to leap far beyond the bounds of the social contract envelope of what is acceptable for a Presidential candidate to say.** That envelope of acceptability varies by both candidate and audience, and is absolutely gigantic for Donald Trump — a fascinating topic for a future blog entry.
Alas, for Jeb Bush the contract for…
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