A book arrived yesterday that made me giddy. Scott saw me squealing over it and wanted to know what all the excitement was about. I tried to think how best to explain it to him.
“Okay, imagine that John Lennon and Elvis Presley were pen-pals. Say they had a lively correspondence, letters flying back and forth for years and years. Now imagine that this book is a collection of those letters.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Who are they really?”
I sighed happily. “Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence.”
Scott: “Um…?” But he knows me well. “Gardening?”
“Yes. Only my two favorite gardening writers EVER.”
“Like you had to tell me that.”
Everything about this book makes me smile. Editor Emily Herring Wilson’s introduction begins,
Gardeners are often good letter writers, and whether they write to describe what’s blooming today or to remember a flower from childhood, their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put away tools in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden. Because it is impossible to achieve the kind of perfection they dream of, they try to come to terms with their dreams by talking back and forth about their successes and failures….
Katharine S. White was, of course, the esteemed New Yorker editor whose occasional gardening columns are collected in the first horticultural tome ever to win my heart: Onward and Upward in the Garden. I had only to read her opening essay, the famous 1958 column that both celebrates and gently mocks gardening catalogs, critiquing them like works of literature, to know that here was a kindred spirit. Evidently Miss Elizabeth Lawrence, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Southern garden writer (whose Gardening for Love I quoted the other day), felt the same spark of recognition. In May of 1958, Elizabeth wrote Katharine White a letter to say how much she’d enjoyed the New Yorker column, adding,
I asked [my friend] Mrs. Lamm if you were Mrs. E. B. White, and she said you were. So please tell Mr. E. B. that he has three generations of devoted readers in this family. My mother’s favorites were the one about leaving the mirror in the apartment vestibule, and the one about homemade bread. My niece adores Charlotte’s Web.
The mirror and bread essays (“Removal” and “Fro-Joy”) can be found in E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, and if you know me at all, you know this sort of interwoven rabbit-trailing fills me with utter glee.
That first letter from Elizabeth to Katharine is fun, folksy, and smart, full of suggestions for other garden catalogs Mrs. White might enjoy. Several of her recommendations became fodder for subsequent ‘Onward and Upward’ columns. For nearly twenty years, until Katharine’s death in 1977, the two women wrote back and forth. So far, I have only read the first two of these letters. There must be hundreds of them in this book. I’m positively aflutter over the idea of such riches.
I didn’t get farther than the first letter last night because I found I had to interrupt it in the middle and go reread the Katharine White essay. Which led to another googlesome rabbit trail to see if any of the old catalogs she references can be read online. The Roses of Yesterday and Today catalog, whose author at the time, a Mr. Will Tillotson, had an “informative and occasionally rhapsodic” style that charmed Mrs. White no end, is still around—though Mr. Tillotson died in 1957, a fact Mrs. White adds in a sorrowful postscript at the end of her essay. The 1959 catalog seems to have been reprinted some years back. In her essay, Katharine quotes extensively from the 1955 and 1956 catalogs, which she says she borrowed from a friend, adding, “I must not keep them long, because though she has never bought a Tillotson rose, she reads Tillotson every night before she goes to sleep.”
Mrs. White is similarly fond of Amos Pettingill, the “peppery” and “highly distinctive” persona holding forth in the pages of the old White Flower Farm catalogs. When I first read Onward and Upward as a college student (avoiding my English lit assignments, no doubt), I immediately sent away for a copy of the current White Flower catalog, even though I had 1) no garden; 2) no money; 3) no business poring over garden catalogs when I ought to have been plowing through my coursework. I can’t remember now whether Amos Pettingill was still dispensing wisdom in its pages. If he was, he had a new ghostwriter by then, since the original Amos, Mr. William Harris—a writer for Fortune magazine (and, with his wife, founder of White Flower Farm)—died while I was still in middle school. The welcome letter at the current White Flower website is signed “Amos Pettingill,” so someone is keeping up the tradition, I see.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia I learned from the footnotes of Onward and Upward: William Harris’s wife was Jane Grant, a New York Times writer whose first husband was Harold Ross—Katharine White’s boss at The New Yorker. When Katharine wrote that essay, she had no idea she was singing the praises of her boss’s ex-wife’s new husband. Having just learned that Harold Ross was “one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table,” I can’t help but imagine how Dorothy Parker must have chuckled wickedly when she heard. Because of course Dorothy Parker would have heard.
Elizabeth Lawrence’s taste in garden literature ran in a more down-home direction. Her Gardening for Love (polished and published after her death by Allen Lacy—the third name on my Top Three Garden Writers list) focuses on the advertisements of country farmers and farm wives in agricultural market bulletins. I tried very hard, one summer during graduate school, to track down some of these old bulletins, but that was before the Google and my search was unsatifactory. You can probably get them on eBay now, but I haven’t looked.
Ha, I couldn’t resist, I’ve just gone and looked. Not at eBay: a Google search for “market bulletins” turned up a link to the Louisiana Dept. of Agriculture’s current market bulletin, which you can download just like that. The ads—to which I turned immediately, since those were Miss Lawrence’s special fascination—read exactly like the ones she quotes from the ’50s and ’60s.
“Belinda’s dream rose, knock roses, 6 colors, drift ground cover roses, Little John bottle brush kaleidoscope abelia, Lady Banks roses, Shishi camellia, in 3-gal. containers, $10-$18/1; 30 varieties azaleas-camellias, $4-$25/1. L— C—, Husser, Tangipahoa Parish.”
This very same Louisiana Market Bulletin makes numerous appearances in Gardening for Love. And I know this post is already a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation (where perhaps E. B. White stands in for Kevin Bacon?), but there’s another literary connection worth mentioning: it was Elizabeth Lawrence’s friend Eudora Welty who first introduced her to the market bulletins.
“Years ago Eudora Welty told me about the old ladies who sell flowers through the mail,” writes Miss Lawrence in the opening chapter of Gardening for Love. “She put my name on the mailing list.”
Like Eudora’s novels, the market bulletins are a social history of the Deep South. Through them I know the farmers and their dogs, their horses and mules, and the pedigrees of their cattle. I wonder whether the widow with no family ties found a home with an elderly couple needing someone to take care of them; whether the bachelor with no bad habits found a congenial job where the hunting and fishing were good; whether puppies got homes and lost dogs were found. And I wonder who bought the little farm with the pecan trees and good clear well water.
Most of all I like to think about the hard-working farm women who are never too tired, when their farm work is done, to cultivate their flowers gardens. They always find time to gather seeds, to dig and pack plants, and to send them off with friendly letters. To all parts of the country they send them off—yard plants, houseplants, and window plants. Reading the flower lists is like reading poetry, for the flowers are called by their sweet country names, many of them belonging to Shakespeare and the Bible.
Elizabeth Lawrence seems to have enjoyed the correspondence with her “hard-working farm women” as much as she loved their flowers, for the letters she received from them play a huge part in Gardening for Love. “The farm women are great letter writers,” she says, “and usually answer (delightfully and often at length) if a stamped and addressed envelope is enclosed.”
Of course, reading about these correspondences now, in 2012, I can’t help but think about the changed landscape of letters. I’ve never been very good, myself, at putting literal pen to actual paper, let alone following through with a stamp. Take away my keyboard and I go mute. We talk to each other now in blog posts and comment boxes, and in emails, IMs, texts, tweets, status updates—and this thrills me. I’m not a communications neo-Luddite. I love that we have so many ways to connect, nowadays. Still, it’s hard to imagine a collection of emails filling me with the same kind of soaring joy I feel at holding the White-Lawrence correspondence in my hands. “Dear Miss Lawrence,” writes Katharine in reply to Elizabeth’s first missive, “it was delightful to get your your letter…”
Yes, it really was. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go read letter number three.
But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century…
In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins.
That last bit cracked us up and we had to spend a while proclaiming the title in sonorous tones.
We enjoyed the story of the Book of the Dun Cow even more than the story in the Book of the Dun Cow, if you see what I mean. Marshall drops in intriguing details and doesn’t explain them: “But a learned man carried away that book to the East.” Who? Why? Where?
We’d have liked to hear more of Mary A. Hutton’s poem, “The Tain,” of which only a snippet was included—the Brown Bull’s death:
“He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, ‘midst his own hills, he died.”
Later we decided it was time for Rilla to meet The King of Ireland’s Son, and Padraic Colum’s rollicking, lilting prose swept us off on a grand adventure. Oh, such chills when the Eagle looks at the King’s Son with the “black films of death” covering her eyes!
Hmm, this is all sounding rather gruesome, but I guess I’m just calling out the gruesome bits. We were laughing ourselves silly at certain parts of the morning’s reading. And Colum weaves in such irresistible poetry:
His hound at his heel, His hawk on his wrist; A brave steed to carry him whither he list, And the green ground under him,
I put the fastenings on my boat For a year and for a day, And I went where the rowans grow, And where the moorhens lay;
And I went over the stepping-stones And dipped my feet in the ford, And came at last to the Swineherd’s house,– The Youth without a Sword.
A swallow sang upon his porch “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,” “The wonder of all wandering, The wonder of the sea;” A swallow soon to leave ground sang “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”
In no particular order, some books and links we’ve been enjoying this week:
Adam of the Road. Newbery-winning middle-grade novel by Elizabeth Janet Gray. We’re only on chapter three so I haven’t much to share about it yet, but it’s delightful so far. Young Adam’s father is Roger the minstrel, and Roger has been off at a respected minstrel school in France while Adam’s attending school at St. Alban’s. And now Roger’s coming back, and I’m guessing from the title that Adam’s hopes will be fulfilled and he’ll be accompaning his father on a journey. Loads of good rich detail here, including, in today’s chapter:
“Sumer Is Icumen In,” a very old English round which I remember learning in a college poetry class. We had to memorize it in Middle English. (I can also still recite the opening of The Canterbury Tales, thanks to Prof. Kraus.) The modern English translation of “the bullock sterteth, the bucke verteth” had, naturally, my nine- and twelve-year-old daughters in hysterics. Scatological humor has no statute of limitations.
Beanie reread the St. Alban chapter of Our Island Story to refresh her memory of that tale, since the book opens on the feast of St. Alban in the town of St. Albans. On a walk, Adam and his friend Perkin pass the crumbling remains of the old Roman buildings from centuries past, and we found pictures of these at Wikipedia.
We’ve been reading bits of Gombrich’s A Little History of the World as well as sections of The Rule of St. Benedict. I looked all over for our copy of The Sailor Who Captured the Sea, a lavishly illustrated picture book that tells the story of the Book of Kells, but it hasn’t turned up yet. (We read it a few months back, though. It’s around somewhere.) Sister Wendy’s The Story of Painting has a nice section on the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
I had the pleasure of seeing this scroll (scroll down, no pun intended) up close in real life at our visit to Sandra Dodd’s house in Albuquerque last month. It’s a marvel. (I am still kicking myself for forgetting to take pictures during that visit. It was a good lesson for me—I kept my camera close at hand for the whole rest of the trip!)
Yesterday, by chance, Rilla pulled Barbara Cooney’s picture book Chanticleer and the Fox off the shelf, based of course on the Chaucer tale. We meant to read that (again) today but we got distracted by our old timeline, the one Jane and I began in New York in the year 2000 and which graced our wall for the four years we lived in Virginia, filling up with colorful entries. It has been in a roll on top of a cabinet the whole time we’ve lived here in California because I couldn’t find wall space for it. Too many bookcases! But today it occurred to me that it would fit in the living room/dining room if we stretched it all the way across the fireplace. It just barely fits—the dinosaurs wound up tucked behind some bookshelves, but we know they’re there.
ETA: More links & books I forgot in the comments.
“The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks.”
This quote, attributed simply to a “Mr. Mathews” in the Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study, elicited a chorus of giggles from my flock this afternoon, when we encountered it during an hour spent informing ourselves about crows. Beanie, the nine-year-old, especially enjoyed it, and I heard her repeating it to herself shortly afterward.
This morning all our plans for the day went up in…not smoke, but mercury. Half the children have fevers and sniffles; some are worse than others. We canceled Shakespeare Club, much to the regret of the teenager and her mother (sob—we were to begin rehearsing scenes from The Scottish Play today), and although the older girls aren’t sick, we thought it best to forego their piano classes as well, lest we pass these unpleasant germs around.
Late in the morning, Rose and I spied a trio of crows quarreling on the phone wires out front. As we watched, it became evident they were fighting for a particularly choice perch on the fixture jutting out from the top of a pole. One bird claimed the spot, and the other two took turns wheeling and diving at him. He wouldn’t budge. They had us in stitches. Rose said it was like Saturday mornings on our sofa, when the children wrestle over the remote control.
We are often amused by the crows who haunt our yard, so we decided to find out more about them. Comstock was, as usual, more than helpful. (But if ever, ever, ever a book begged to be converted to a digital format, it is that unwieldy three-inch-thick behemoth!)
“The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds,” she writes. “It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly….”
The kids enjoyed Comstock’s descriptions of tame crows, especially the story of one bird who “was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird seemed to understand the game and was highly indignant if the boy played out of turn and made shots twice in succession.”
Of course now we all want a crow for a pet.
After Anna Comstock, we had to see what the internet could tell us about crows. There was Robert Frost, of course, feeling cheered (as were we!) by the antics of a crow—
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
And Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows.
Comstock had told us that when a flock of crows (excuse me, a murder of them), descend upon a field, one of them always stands sentinel. Rose thinks the crow in the left foreground is probably this bunch’s sentinel.
A tame crow seems to have caught Picasso’s interest, too—
Woman with a Crow, Pablo Picasso.
When you’re talking about crows, Aesop comes to mind. We recalled the fables of the Crow and the Pitcher, and the one about the Fox and the Crow with the bit of cheese.
Crow poetry makes me think of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”—rather a grisly tale, but gripping! Here’s a YouTube clip of the poem being read (not sung) aloud in Scots. There’s an English translation below the “more info” link. We also listened to this version sung by The Corries—still grisly, but quite lovely.
We put some peanuts on our patio table and were almost immediately rewarded with a comedy routine performed by three curious crows—the same lads from this morning?—who were terribly intrigued by these Delicious-Smelling Objects left Unattended on the Flat Thing—intrigued but too suspicious to do more than cock their heads and eye them warily from the back of a chair. Then up they’d wheel and careen around the yard, swooping low over the table but never Getting Too Close.
Rose is keeping a count on the peanuts to see if the crows get brave when we aren’t looking.
Another week full of drafts and snippets, words squeezing into the teasing interstices of busy days. Most of what I jotted down had to do with the subjects that got their hooks into us: a chronicle of paths wandered, links explored.
During our Balboa Park day last week, Jane strolled through the Timken Museum of Art. One piece she found particularly compelling was Benjamin West’s Fidelia and Speranza, painted in 1771. West was a friend of Benjamin Franklin (his portrait of Franklin’s famous moment with the key and the kite is a hoot). Jane was struck by the image of the girl (Fidelia) holding a chalice with a serpent looking out from it. A little digging informed us that the sisters are figures from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Faith and Hope, who reside in the House of Holiness to which Una (Truth) guides the Red Cross Knight.
Thus as they gan of sundry things devise,
Loe two most goodly virgins came in place,
Ylinked arme in arme in lovely wise,
With countenance demure, and modest grace,
They numbred even steps and equall pace:
Of which the eldest, that Fidelia hight,
Like sunny beames threw from her christall face,
That could have dazd the rash beholders sight,
And round about her head did shine like heavens light.
She was araied all in lilly white,
And in her right hand bore a cup of gold,
With wine and water fild up to the hight,
In which a Serpent did himselfe enfold,
That horrour made to all that did behold;
But she no whit did chaunge her constant mood:
And in her other hand she fast did hold
A booke, that was both signd and seald with blood:
Wherin darke things were writ, hard to be understood.
Her younger sister, that Speranza hight,
Was clad in blew, that her beseemed well;
Not all so chearefull seemed she of sight,
As was her sister; whether dread did dwell,
Or anguish in her hart, is hard to tell:
Upon her arme a silver anchor lay,
Whereon she leaned ever, as befell:
And ever up to heaven, as she did pray,
Her stedfast eyes were bent, ne swarved other way.
Well, that led to a lot of Spenser-related digging. We can’t undertake to read much of Faerie Queene right now; we dove into The Odyssey this month and I think one epic poem at a time is enough!
The week’s other big research project (for various children) had to do with Tamagotchis—the craze has resurfaced here, after a year of dead batteries. Growth charts, game strategies, daily logs: it’s like living in a research lab. One of the sites that turned up on our search was this critical analysis of Tamagotchi use, which I found quite interesting, especially this bit:
I was reminded of Professor Ken Goldberg’s Tele-garden, a web-based project where users can plant and water seeds in a small garden through the use of a remote robotic system. In a presentation on the project, Professor Goldberg mentioned a shift from the Paleolithic Hunter/Gatherer state of the World Wide Web (brief forays into the world of technology for the purpose of apprehending some piece of information) and the Neolithic Husbandry model supported by the project (where users must devote sustained interest and effort to foster growth).
The Tamagotchi is indicative of a similar shift in video game modeling. The majority of video games (especially popular video games) hinge on a model of conquest and succession – temporally limited tasks with set goals attainable through skill and reflexes. Key examples range from Pac Man and Galaxians to Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat. Player/users identify with the “main character” of a simple narrative – “destroy or be destroyed”. Having completed a set amount of destruction, the player/user rests for a moment before taking on a progressively difficult level.
Notable exceptions exist. The most popular of these is the Maxis line of Sim- products, including SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimEarth, SimAnt, and others. Here we see the stirrings of the “Neolithic shift”. The user is responsible for the growth and maintenance of a town (or world, or ant colony, or whatever) and the ultimate goal is to simply “flourish”.
What do you think? Do you prefer Hunter/Gatherer internet experiences, or Neolithic Husbandry?
Speaking of hunting, I fell into a research project of my own last night, as you know if you’re my friend on Facebook or Twitter (which seems to be a synthesis of the hunter/gatherer and husbandry models, if you ask me). For fifteen years I have wondered which version of the Te Deum was the one referred to by Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy. Vanauken writes:
St. Ebbe’s sang the Te Deum to a setting that made a triumphant proclamation of the line: “Thou art the King of Glory, O-O-O-O-O Christ!”—the O’s ascending to the mighty ‘Christ!’
St. Ebbe’s is the Anglican church in Oxford the Vanaukens attended around 1950. Between YouTube and ChoralWiki, I have investigated, well, scores of scores (ba dum bum), looking for that particular setting of the Te Deum. A commenter at the MusicaSacra forum suggested it might be Benjamin Britten’s Festival Te Deum: that’s the only score I’ve found that has ascending O-O-Os, so perhaps he is right.
But most lovely and stirring of all is this piece a Twitter responder reminded me of: not the Te Deum, but rather the Non Nobis. I remember how I was moved to tears by this music (and this scene) when I saw Branagh’s Henry V several years back. I meant to buy the soundtrack (score by Patrick Doyle) but forgot all about it. How is that possible? This—this is unforgettable.
What we read today (an excerpt; “the astronomer” is a boy named Dick, who is stargazing with his sister, Dorothea):
“Got it,” he said. “Just over the top of the hill. Come and see it.”
Dorothea joined him. He pointed out the bright Aldebaran and the other stars of Taurus, and offered her the telescope.
“I can see a lot better without,” said Dorothea.
“How many of the Pleiades can you see?”
“Six,” said Dorothea.
“There are lots more than that,” said Dick. “But it’s awfully hard to see them when the telescope won’t keep still. How far away does it say the Pleiades are?”
Dorothea went back to the fire and found the place in the book.
“The light from the group known as the Pleiades (referred to by Tennyson in ‘Locksley Hall’)…”
“Oh, hang Tennyson!”
“The light from the group known as the Pleiades reaches our planet in rather more than three hundred years after it leaves them.”
“Light goes at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second,” said the voice of the astronomer in the darkness.
But Dorothea was also doing some calculations.
“Shakespeare died 1616.”
“Well, if the light takes more than three hundred years to get here, it may have started while Shakespeare was alive, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps. Sir Walter Raleigh may have seen it start…”
“But of course he didn’t,” said the astronomer indignantly. “the light of the stars he saw had started three hundred years before that…”
“Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Bows and arrows.” Dorothea was off again.
But Dick was no longer listening. One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. Sixty times as far as that in a minute. Sixty times sixty times as far as that in an hour. Twenty-four hours in a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Not counting leap years. And then three hundred years of it. Those little stars that seemed to speckles a not too dreadfully distant blue ceiling were farther away than he could make himself think, try as he might. Those little stars must be enormous. The whole earth must be a tiny pebble in comparison. A spinning pebble, and he, on it, the astronomer, looking at flaming gigantic worlds so far away that they seemed no more than sparkling grains of dust. He felt for a moment less than nothing, and then, suddenly, size did not seem to matter. Distant and huge the stars might be, but he, standing here with chattering teeth on the dark hill-side, could see them and name them and even foretell what next they were going to do. “The January Sky.” And there they were, Taurus, Aldebaran, the Pleiades, obedient as slaves…He felt an odd wish to shout at them in triumph, but remembered in time that this would not be scientific.
—from Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome,
one of the Swallows & Amazons books
Where it took us:
* We read the opening of “Locksley Hall,” a long and complex poem which I enjoyed thinking my way through later in the day. With the kids, I read and discussed the first several stanzas, all of us lingering especially over:
Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.
* Of course after that we had to see the Pleiades. Discovered Google Sky. Oh. My. Goodness. Truly, we live in an amazing age.
* Spent a long time playing with Google Sky, looking up many constellations including all those mentioned in the Winter Holiday chapter. Rose told me the story of Orion being chased by the serpent, and we read the legend of the Pleiades, those seven sisters, daughters of Atlas. Beanie fetched D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths because both she and Rose wanted to read me several relevant passages.
* Hunted up our copy of Rey’s Find the Constellations and read about the different magnitudes of stars, among other things.
* Rose found Sirius, the Dog Star, her favorite star, says she, because she loves Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel, Dogsbody, so.
“Here about the beach I wandered,” Tennyson’s poem continues, “nourishing a youth sublime / With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time…”
I don’t know about “sublime,” and we’d have to substitute “internet” for “beach,” I suppose, but yeah, it was a pretty nourishing morning.
I already put this Blue Yonder post in my Google Shared Items, but I know from my stat counter that only about a dozen of you will click through, and this post is waaaay too funny to be missed: Purple Daze.
“I want you to know that my house stinks. It stinks really badly. It stinks like a man from Tyre.”
We took our own little purple dye rabbit trail once, but I wasn’t ambitious enough to promise a tie-dyeing session of our own. (This is possibly a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot. Goodness knows I wrote enough natural dyes in the Martha books. Matter of fact, the part where Auld Mary uses stale urine as a color fixative was one of the favorite parts of the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate attorney, who, along with the heir to the estate, had to approve all my manuscripts before they went to press.)
Anyway, my hat is off to intrepid homeschooling mom Stefani for following through on her stinky, stinky promise. Those are some gorgeous shirts, by the way.
Yesterday my kids pulled out a CD we used to listen to all the time: the soundtrack to Snoopy: The Musical. This was a play I loved as a teenager, when it was performed by some friends at a different high school. I had a crackly tape recording of a dress rehearsal which my sisters and I listened to ad nauseum. We had, after all, outgrown the soundtrack to Annie by then, and I had yet to discover the melodramatic satisfaction that is Les Miz.
So when Jane was five or six and I, for no particular reason, found myself humming one of the dear old Snoopy songs, I hunted around online and found a recording. Ah, the bliss of Google! My tiny girls loved the album, as I knew they would. A singing dog! A boy named Linus! A squeaky-voiced Sally belting out tongue-twisters!
Later, as the girls grew, they connected to Snoopy on different terms. One of our favorite songs on the album, “Clouds,” is like a theme song for homeschoolers. Charlie Brown and the gang are lying around looking at the sky, and someone asks Charlie Brown what he sees in the clouds.
“I see a—” he begins, but Sally cuts him off to sing that she sees: “A mermaid riding on a unicorn.” Peppermint Patty sees “an angel blowing on a big long horn.” Linus, ever my favorite, is a visionary. “I see Goliath, half a mile tall, waving at me….what do you see?”
Poor Charlie Brown. How can he get an answer in edgewise? Lucy sees a team of fifty milk-white horses; Patty sees a dinosaur; Linus sees Prometheus, waving; Snoopy, grandiose as always, sees the Civil War. The entire Civil War.
You could spend a year rabbit-trailing your way through this song. The Peanuts kids know their history, I’ll give ‘em that. (Although they seem to hit a bit of a roadblock when it comes to a certain American poet/storyteller, as evinced by their poor classroom performance in the hilarous song “Edgar Allen Poe,” elsewhere on the album.) When these kids gaze at the clouds, they see Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Fall of Rome, and even all twelve apostles, waving at Linus.
Linus: “The Pyramid of Khufu!”
Sally: “You too?”
All but Charlie Brown: “Seven Wonders of the World…”
For our family, this is a song of reciprocal delights. Some of these cloud-tableaux are historical events the girls already knew about, and the idea of Snoopy beholding an entire war sculpted in cumulus is irresistibly funny. Some events are things my kids first encountered in the song. When, years later, we read about the Rubicon in A Child’s History of the World, there were gasps of delighted recognition from everyone including the then-two-year-old. Click, another connection is made.
So I was happy to hear the Peanuts gang belting away once more yesterday afternoon. It has been a couple of years since last they regaled us with their splendid visions. The girls have encountered more of the world, more of the past, and so they have more to connect with in the lyrics of Charlie Brown’s imaginative friends.
As for Charles, alas. The gang, having at long last exhausted the gamut of grand happenings to see in the heavens, demand of Charlie, “Well, what do you see?”
Says Charlie, glumly (and you probably remember the punchline from the Sunday funnies when you were a kid): “I was going to say a horsie and a ducky, but I changed my mind.”
(Cue hysterical laughter from little girls. Every. Single. Time.)
Just don’t take this the wrong way: you make it sound so easy. Lay the right books around the house, throw in a little yarn and cool background music, and away you go! I know it can’t be so simple all the time.
I thought about this all day, and I realized that this really is the easiest thing I do. If I am alert and open for conversation, present and mindful in the way Leonie has been describing, the connections happen like fireworks, pop pop pop pop pop all around us.
That post wasn’t meant to be a blow-by-blow account of our day. I had just finished jotting down notes about the cool things we talked about that day, as I try to do most days, for my own enjoyment really, and I thought it might be fun to flesh out the notes a little over here. But there were lots of things that happened yesterday that didn’t make it into my little connections list, and not all of them were easy. One of the kids had a particularly rough afternoon. By the end of the day I was a shriveled husk of a person, and Scott probably read desperation in my eyes when he walked through the door. His jovial hustling of the kids outside to run races is undoubtedly what saved me from blowing my calm-and-patient streak. (Owe you one, honey.)
So my goodness, please don’t read that post as an account of a perfect day. It’s the account of some awesome moments in a pretty typical day. I am suddenly reminded of a conversation I had with Alice not long after I made the cross-country drive to San Diego alone with my kids. Alice was in the planning stages for her upcoming Golden Gate adventure, and she was trying to decide whether to drive or fly to San Francisco. “Seriously,” she asked me, “how bad was it?”
I replied, “No worse than any regular day at home.”
I still remember her peal of laughter: she saw at once what I meant. Any day at home in the company of many small children is full of challenges. There are great moments, and there are moments when the sound and fury threatens to swallow your sanity. I love this life, this stay-at-home mom stuff. I’m grateful to be able to do it. But there’s no denying it’s a bumpy ride at times. My toddler has decided she is morally opposed to sitting in her carseat. She has no choice, but every journey begins with an outraged protest. My four-year-old falls apart if I put my keys on the counter instead of in my purse. My introverted nine-year-old would love nothing more than to be at home all the time, but she is sandwiched between sisters who bubble over with eagerness to Go and Do. We compromise, we bend, we go up, we go down. Every day has its moments. Gorgeous moments, and moments of the sort that make a 2500 mile road trip seem like a walk in the park.
But the connections moments? Apart from the difficulty of climbing out of my own head and being alert and present for those around me, this really is the easiest part of my life.