Sometimes in the midst of a world crisis like our current pandemic, an example emerges of something which can help all of us take heart and which encourages hope for the uncertain future. The recent survival of a 102-year-old woman who had contracted Covid-19 is such an example. Here is my tribute to her and to our humanity in general:
The Old Know How to Fight (A Salute to the 102-Year-Old Woman Who Survived Covid-19) The old know how to fight, In withered hands and bones Are hidden all the secrets A callow youth bemoans. The old ones lie in wait For ills that trip us up, And long before a vaccine They drain the bitter cup. It halts their steps, it lingers In corners of the frame; It wants to be so deathly, This thing with scarce a name. They gasp for breath, it's true, They suffer like us all, But in their suff'ring still skirt Sometimes, the deathly pall. Somehow, they sometimes outwit The thing that hunts them down, That seeks them specially, As if it wants renown. Renown, of dev'lish kind, For robbing us of those Who patterned all our days, And succored all our woes. But, the old ones know some tricks, If not garlic on the chest, Then, peppers in the rafters, Things we've scorned with the rest. Or, they show unusual spirit, When everyone is ill, And rewrite every textbook And refuse death's loathsome chill. So, let's fight as hard as may be To keep them all alive In tribute to their wisdom And lessons in how to strive. Let's not traffic in lame excuses, Such as "Well, it seeks the old, And better them than us, They are nearer dead and cold." For, if they teach us one thing It's not to count them out Before the chips are counted, Before the final rout, Let's celebrate all victories Especially those of the old, Because this foe we're fighting Wants us all dead and cold. ©Victoria Bennett, 3/29/20
Stay safe and be well, one and all. Shadowoperator
Since the 1950’s, when America’s consciousness of race relations began to be raised willy-nilly (a good thing, one must see, long overdue), books on the topic of race have proliferated exponentially, from both black and white authors. My topic today centers around three books by three white female authors, and examines some ways in which the three books differ.
Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help perhaps attained the highest degree of somewhat mixed attention and notoriety because it not only drew excellent actors to it on screen, but also because it attracted a lawsuit, which hit the news as well. In the story set in the 1960’s, a Southern-raised white woman, nicknamed Skeeter, has her awareness of her black nanny’s life reality altered forever by getting better acquainted with her from an adult perspective rather than from that of a dependent child. She tries to help the nanny, Aibilene, and another black woman, Minny, by engaging in writing a book from their reminiscences of working for white families in the South. The entire community of black employees ends up contributing bits and pieces of detail, but this book is somewhat disappointing because as has often been said of other efforts of the kind, it has the sort of kindness that comes from noblesse oblige, from giving a hand up rather than offering a hand across. It’s a feel-good book in many ways, centering its disapproval on obvious villains and acts rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of the many tiny ways in which everyone can use lessons in cultural awareness. The lawsuit in real life which arose from this publication came about because even though Stockett apparently pledged herself not to use one of the contributor’s names (for this book has a meta-dialogue going on, in that it was researched in somewhat the same way that the fictional book was), she merely spelled it differently (fictional character, Aibilene, real-life nursemaid of her brother Robert, Ablene), with the result that Ablene Cooper was advised even by the brother to sue Stockett. Ms. Cooper apparently found the characterizations of her in the book insulting and embarrassing. All in all, this book is one stage, perhaps the first and most elementary, that a reader might travel on the road to awareness.
Another book takes a similar tack, but handles the entire relationship between the white child and her black caretaker more delicately (this time the white protagonist is a fourteen-year-old instead of being Skeeter’s home-from-college age). The child is instrumental in getting her black nanny, Rosaleen, out of a degrading job with the girl’s father and busting her out of a jail cell where she is being kept, beaten and weak, for a small offense and for defending herself against people trying to keep her from voting. Still, somehow, this child’s version of noblesse oblige is less insulting than that in the previous book, at least in the mind of this reader, precisely because the character is a child and cannot be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of adult discourse. In this book, The Secret Life of Bees, the child has a sense of natural justice regarding her black companion rather like that of Huckleberry Finn in that eponymous novel, as opposed to the high-handedness of Tom Sawyer. By a series of fortunate flukes and a sort of natural spiritual instinct, the two women find their way to the household of a group of black sisters with a connection to the girl’s dead mother, and learn the intricacies of the art of bee-keeping. This book maintains as well a spiritual element, in which the black women and the girl practice the worship of a Black Madonna, represented by a ship’s masthead they once came into possession of. This book is set in the 1960’s as well (in South Carolina), but the conflicts that arise from racial tensions and stresses are the background for the girl’s coming-of-age; Sue Monk Kidd has wisely chosen to center the novel closely to the subject of gradually evolving maturity and womanhood, and the child becomes a more mature adolescent in the company of her black saviors. This book is more affirmative of black politics and awareness because it reflects the reality that a young girl/teenager is more likely to be taken care of by a group of supportive women than she would be, or would be able to be, for them. The sisters are represented as caring for their own, and capable of caring for others, and as the centers of a vibrant and deeply spiritual community. This is perhaps the second evolution of awareness a person might pass through on the way to a more mature understanding of race relations.
The third book, Small Great Things, is a novel which takes place in contemporary times, in a hospital in Connecticut. The title is taken from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” I find it the most maturely conceived and executed of the three novels. First of all, the author took a notable risk: she is white, but chose to write not only from the perspective of a black labor and delivery nurse in a hospital, but also took the risk of entering the minds of a group of white supremacists, thus tackling the unenviable task of attempting to practice the old adage “to understand all, is to forgive all,” which is of course far from being literally true, but which has a germ of truth. She uses that germ and the huge overall injustice of what happens to the black nurse together, to show that though our situation is perilous, with difficulties complicating things from both sides of the racial divide, we can still sometimes win out over some of the problems we face. This book is a challenge to simplicity, particularly simplicities of the sort which arise in The Help. The nurse is attempting to take care of a white baby who comes under her care in the birthing unit of the hospital, but when the white supremacist parents see her, they demand that no black person be alloted to care for their child. The conflict comes for Ruth Jefferson (the nurse) when the baby needs to be resuscitated, and she is the sole responsible person available: does she go ahead and try to save the baby, or abide by the parents’ expressed and written instructions for no black person to touch the baby? She hesitates, and as another adage says, and as it is true for at least a while in the novel, “She who hesitates is lost.” The rest of the novel occupies itself with how the follow-up lawsuit against her (which deprives her of her job) affects her, and how her son begins to act out in response to his mother’s troubles, how her friends (and apparent friends) react, and what happens as well in the family of white supremacists. There is a certain amount of back story for both sides, which deepens and enriches our understanding of the whole conflict. As well, Ruth Jefferson is not pictured as a saint; she has her own moments of feeling petty or vengeful, which are truthfully related for the audience in the fictional courtroom as well as on the meta-level of the book, so that the courtroom scene isn’t an easy giveaway to one side or the other. For me, this book represents the best of the three books, with Sue Monk Kidd’s book coming in a good second. Stockett’s book, a book very popular with a lot of book clubs, just as the other two are, may certainly be considered a place to start in raising one’s own consciousness, the more especially if one has not read a lot of fictionalized accounts of race relations. I feel that if someone has not read these books before, now is the time to take advantage of being able to buy one’s books, of one’s Kindle account, of the cheaper prices of second-hand books, or of one’s local library offerings, to read them and sort out one’s own impressions. Keeping up with factual accounts is of course paramount, but fiction has a way of sneaking in that’s more subtle, and it can offer a range of suppositions and positions that can help people feel what their neighbors “across the way” feel, see what can be seen from other vantage points, and of course change their attitudes of prejudice. Fiction, in its subtlety, also can show us just how insidious such prejudice is, and we can see its trail where we never thought to be on its track. If I’m going to spend the post spouting adages, then surely the last should be “Know thyself,” which speaks to our ability to know the ways in which we ourselves, however enlightened we think we may be on either side of any situation of racial divide, fall short, with an eye to correcting ourselves. That’s all for today, and just in case you think I’m too solemn today, you should know that all three of these books are quite lively and not ponderous and preachy, though there are certain things worth preaching about, certainly. Shadowoperator
Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help, and What You Will Get Out of It
For many, many people, the GoFundMe campaign site is familiar only as a site which helps collect funds for scholars, people who need operations, children who are suffering from some disease which is costly to treat, or homeless people who need shelter. Some of the requests are even done in memoriam of some person or group of people, to help their survivors out in a time of grief and need. All of these more than worthy causes deserve your attention and a contribution, however small it might be. But it can also be uplifting to donate to the beginning of a creative enterprise which will bring interest, encouragement, and joy to the minds of young adults who encounter it, and to this end I am asking for your donation, however small, to the campaign organized by a friend of mine, John Rattenbury, for the novel now operating under the working title of Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah.
As you may or may not be aware, self-publishing even under the aegis of a publisher who covers many costs can be fraught with expense and financial setbacks, and it is to avoid these pitfalls that John is asking for your free will donation to his goal of raising roughly $2000 to cover cover art and initial publication costs. But I feel that probably at this point, you are beginning to wonder, “Yes, but what’s in it for me, other than a momentary feel-good experience? When if ever will I see the results of my effort to be helpful?” To the end of answering these questions, I am going to provide a couple of responses which I hope will encourage you to join this worthy effort and contribute whatever you can to John’s drive.
Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah is the story of a teenage girl, an Egyptian citizen of dual descent (she is also Persian), who learns to deal with challenges in a world which seems determined to underestimate her and her ability to influence affairs, whether small or world class events. It is a historical fantasy in the sense that it retraces not necessarily what actually happened, but what could have happened, in the Eastern world soon after the death of Cleopatra, always accepting that Mithra, the heroine, has a magical stone, thought to be behind some of the efforts to build the pyramids, which helps her and strengthens her considerable powers of personality. She and Lucius, a friend and cohort from a Roman legion whom she meets up with by accident and forms a lasting friendship with, make a perilous journey along the Nile to escape the Romans pursuing them, whom they both have reason to fear. This is a tale full of adventure and magic which both intrigues the imagination and provokes the support of young people everywhere in their search for justice and equal treatment of themselves and those whom they champion. Though Mithra relies upon her magical stone as she travels along the Nile, the resounding “message” (which doesn’t detract from the “fun” of reading the book) is that loyalty, personal fortitude, and persistence outweigh evil-doing and brutality and that however young, every person can make a positive difference in the world around them, with or without the fascinating powers of magic and mystery (which, however, also abound in the book to compel our interest).
As to when you may expect to see this book on shelves and on sites for purchase, John has been encouraged by the fact that his prospective publisher finds the book already well-written and compelling, which we hope will lessen the time needed for its finalization and presentation to the public. If you are interested in contributing to the fundraising for the publication of this book, please visit this link: Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help and What You Will Get Out of It
The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, is a curious and thoughtful book, and a bit of a category-defying one, about how religion affects two different women, distantly related, and how the conflicts about religion play out in the society around them. It bills itself on the back cover as “part detective story, part historical fiction,” but that is a bit of a misnomer. The historical fiction part isn’t about a famous person, as most historical fictions are traditionally–but maybe that’s a good thing, as in the huge five-volume non-fiction compendium called The History of Private Life, who knows? At any rate, Ella Turner, who pursues her family history in alternate chapters, eventually manages to “touch base” through time with her distant ancestress, Isabelle du Moulin, while living in France with her own husband, and getting to know the French people and the French countryside.
The book is a sort of a mystery as well, and a love story, because not only must Ella accept and come to terms with a large degree of loss in terms of history, but she also falls in love while in France (spoiler alert) with someone other than her husband, and this has certain consequences.
The two women’s stories shadow and reflect upon each other’s conflicts, Isabelle’s as a Huguenot in changing France, hunted by Catholic enemies, accepting a far less than perfect life with a brutal husband, and Ella’s, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to value her or appreciate her differences, but gives her the famous French cold shoulder.
Actually, to say that the two women’s stories are similar is an understatement, because some of the same sensations, exact experiences, and thoughts occur to the two of them in a sort of spooky and extra-sensory fashion, as if Isabelle were speaking to her descendant from the grave. And the grave is concerned in more than one way, though I won’t give that matter away.
A lot of men might think that this is a book mostly for women, but merely because it has a female character in the lead (who is also a midwife) and deals with some haunting and emotional experiences are not reasons to dismiss it as not fit to read for half of the human race. In fact, a lot of men might be improved by a reading of this book, in the sense that they might become more sensitized to some of the ways women think of and process historical data, the more personal way some women choose to interpret data, and the like.
And the picture of a contemporary small French town is yet another reason to reach for this book. Like small towns everywhere, these are gossipy, close-knit, and somewhat homogenous, but loveable in a lot of their characteristics, as Ella comes to find. I hope you will pick up this book soon and enjoy it as much as I did. For additional reading by this author, you might pick up Girl With a Pearl Earring or Falling Angels.
It sometimes happens that I am sitting alone, after having worked at something non-verbal all day, and I suddenly am taken with a feeling of sadness, not quite loneliness, but a need to reach out for words, expressions, little nuggets of language to register where I am now. Not where I am in reference to location, of course, though that could work too on another day, but where in the aether I am finding my bearings, by writing. This is a poem about that:
A Need for Words
There is a need for words, sometimes, you know,
Though much of our life is set against this notion;
We suppose that all is said and done entire
When we have fully experienced the emotion.
Yet, the feeling so overwhelms and overstays
That still the controlling touches of noun and verb
And even the adjective, adverb, preposition,
Can help us the agony to restrain and curb.
Even consummated love, in it eager grasp
Can belittle or besmirch our human drive
To be in charge of what affects so nearly
The dearly bought hour which helps keep us alive.
For, we are too willing often to admit
That love itself is a part of our life force,
And yet, to express all the back and forth and doubt
We rely on only more contact with the source.
And just like romantic love, the other relations
Of our days, the ones we think of as commonplace things
Sometimes defy us in their developments,
So then, we are left with all uncertainty brings.
But to put a thing in words, you must have an idea,
A thought, a pondering, a hint as to how it works,
Thus your words themselves can then become your guidelines
As to just where in the whole event your problem lurks.
Therefore, let me not forget my main resource now,
At a point when I am bewildered and afraid,
Let me always remember how to spin neat phrases,
To reward, spout love, construct theories, or upbraid.
And as for that man, our dear La Rochefoucauld
Who said, “Our words are meant to conceal our thoughts,”
He’s only just one of many subtle thinkers
Who can show how to tie an enemy in knots!
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/13/2019
There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one. This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity. It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book. I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised. Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.” I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved. Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.
And this is the point: we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute. Maugham is none of that in this book. We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage. Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first. To begin at the beginning:
Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle. She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame. His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household. So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed. And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen. The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you. He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.” So far so good.
But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers. In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to. They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy. When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign. In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone. But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work. With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group. So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try. Again, it doesn’t work. They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin. They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church. They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head: it works, and she is healed.
The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego. They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.
Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself. A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.
A Record of Birth and Death, and a History of a Community–Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year”
Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes. She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you. She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles. Bird by Bird. Travelling Mercies. Help Thanks Wow. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.
No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott. She writes from the heart for everyone. She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship. She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same. She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child. And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding: she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges. And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year. You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all. Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,: my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it. Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works. But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!
There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness. In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray). Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.
How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up. One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense. And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion. A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.
I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen. That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more. I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice. I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient). Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.