The Closet

April 4, 2014

Our 5 3/4 year old grandson said to his mom and dad last weekend, “Well, I finally figured it out.”

“What?” they asked.

“Life,” he answered.

“Life?” they wondered.

“Yeah, life is like a closet full of really great things.  It has a door on it and when you make good choices, that door opens and those wonderful things pour out.  But when you make bad choices, the door stays shut,” he told them.

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman, is our most recent book club selection.  Our group chooses books randomly – which our laid-back, adventurous group embraces – but you never know what you might get next.  Even those who choose might be surprised, but that’s just fine b/c we all just love a good story, so we run with ’em.  Someone mentioned that this particular book was the subject of a TV show, (which I’d never heard of), but b/c Barbara, our English teacher, had recommended it, I was looking forward to reading it.  And I was not disappointed.  Kerman’s memoir of her year in a federal prison is a great read, with grace, beauty and love revealed through the lives of many whose own closet doors had often been shut b/c of their choices, b/c of the choices of others or just because.  I didn’t want to put the book down.

Piper Kerman tells it like it is; she doesn’t try to pretty it up.  She’s honest about others, the circumstances and her own choices.  And sometimes her candor, coming out of nowhere, kicks you in the gut and causes you to stop right where you are:

‘When they shackle you, try to flex your wrists so there’s a little more room, and if you try to catch the marshal’s eye when he’s chaining you, maybe he won’t cuff you so tight your circulation goes.  Oh, and double up your socks so the restraints don’t make your ankles bleed.’

‘Pray they don’t send you through Georgia.  They stick you in a county jail, and it’s the worst place I’ve ever been in my life.’…

I went to talk to the Marlboro Man.  ‘Mr. King, they’re shipping me out on a writ, to Chicago.’  I actually succeeded in making him look surprised.

Then he laughed.  ‘Diesel therapy.’

‘What?’

‘Around here we call the airlift ‘diesel therapy.’

I had no idea what he was talking about…..

….After a rough pat-down, a female marshal checked my hair and my mouth for weapons, and the hop was on to the stairs up to the plane. 

On board were more marshals, enormous beefy men and a handful of weathered-looking women in navy blue uniforms.  As we clinked and clanked into the passenger seating area, we were greeted by a wave of testosterone….

Con Air is like a layer cake of the federal prison system.  Every sort of prisoner is represented…

I was feeling more positively about everyone’s shackles….

Con Air does not fly direct….At one stop more women got on.  One of them paused in the aisle, waiting for a marshal to tell her where to sit.  She was a scrawny little white woman, missing teeth, with a cloud of hair that was an indeterminate shade somewhere between gray and peroxide.  She looked like a woebegone yard chicken, like she had led a hard life.  As she stood there, some wise___ called out, ‘Crack kills!’ and half the plane, which must have contained some crack dealers, busted out laughing.  Her homely face fell.  It was like the meanest thing you ever saw on the schoolyard.  (pp. 257, 262, 263)

And some hardly have any closets at all.  🙁  🙁

 

 

 

 

Swinging on the River

February 27, 2014

Spring is the first time in the year to check for swing – if you’re by the river, that is.  A rise in the temperatures, a change on the calendar, a short walk to the water and the boats will be there:  the Washington College Crew Team during the week, and the Chester River Rowing Club on the weekends.  The early bird-ers can catch the view in the mornings but the afternoon strollers can watch the grace and beauty of the sport then:

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define.  Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it.  Others find it but can’t sustain it.  It’s called ‘swing.’  It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.  It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant.  Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once.  Each minute action–each subtle turning of wrists–must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other.  Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars.  Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own.  Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation.  Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language.  Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.                                    p 161, Boys in the Boat

Ivan: not just for a snowy day, but for any day….

February 26, 2014

It’s been quite a winter, unusual for us here.  We don’t usually experience such snow or so much bitter cold.

One morning, about a month ago, I was walking at Wilmer Park, next to the River, and I heard something.  It wasn’t a big something at all, but a very small sound.  I wasn’t sure what it was because all around me, it was so still.  (My footprints were only the 3rd set seen in the snow).  Then it dawned on me that I had heard the ice on top of the river cracking.  In the frigid frost, that was the only sound there was.  And I thought again, for the umpteenth time, “Wow.  I love living in Chestertown where I can walk every day by the water.”  It’s been a thought of mine, way more than just once, that living here is like being on vacation.  At least, that’s how it seems to me.  But guests tell me, too, that they feel the difference here.  Chestertown doesn’t have a corner on the “quiet market,” but you just can’t beat the opportunities that quiet brings.

But thankfully,  quiet does come in different places….

 

People call me the Freeway Gorilla.  The Ape at Exit 8.  The One and Only Ivan.  Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but they’re not me.  I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Humans waste words.  They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Everyone knows the peels are the best part….

I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Humans speak too much.  They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.

It took me some time to recognize all those human sounds, to weave words into things.  But I was patient.

Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.

Gorillas are as patient as stones.  Humans, not so much.

pp 2 – 3, The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, 2012.

 

Ivan has more to say, even though he uses his words sparingly.  And I think you’ll want to know what those words are.  I recommend this lovely little book – not just for a snowy day, but for any day.

 

Going-Home Faith

February 12, 2014

The Americans’ story, in The Boys in the Boat, of the 1936 Berlin Olympic 8-man rowing race for the gold was so riveting, frustrating and exciting that I could barely get through the race chapter (called “Touching the Divine.”)  I don’t know that I would’ve been able to, except that I knew the outcome of the race before beginning the book.

The chances of the boys in the boat for the gold medal looked doomed.  They had a drafty, cold place to sleep.  The race was rigged, in that the best lane assignments were given to the host country (Germany – a few years before WWII) and to Hitler’s buddy-country, (Italy), rather than by qualifying times.  Their own stroke man was so ill he was practically in a coma during the actual race.  The starters were out of view from the coxswains, causing the race to begin before the boys knew it.  It was a mess.  They won anyway.

They found that Joe had been lying awake there all night.  He had spent much of the night simply staring at his gold medal, contemplating it as it hung on the end of his bunk. As much as he had wanted it, and as much as he understood what it would mean to everyone back home and to the rest of the world, during the night he had come to realize that the medal wasn’t the most important thing he would take home from Germany.

Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air in the Husky Clipper while it drifted down the Langer See beyond the finish line, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him.  In the last desperate few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment when Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing.  Except for one thing.  He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it.  He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, ho shred of indecision.  He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade.  And he had done it.  Over and over, forty-four times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.

…Now he felt whole.  He was ready to go home. 

                                                  (p. 355, Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown).

 

“Boys in the Boat” (1936 Berlin Olympics)

February 6, 2014

     …it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry….None of [his] recollections brought him to tears, though.  It was when he tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

     At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory.  Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements?  Finally,…I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew.  To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both–it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition.  It was a shared experience–a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love.  Joe, was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.      (Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown, 2013, p. 2)

George Washington’s Secret Six

January 9, 2014

Since I’d just finished this book the day before, and since we were talking about something else that made me think of it, I told our 5 1/2 year old grandson a few things about it.  “Yeah,” I said, “Benedict Arnold wasn’t a nice man; he was kind of mean, and he owed our country a lot of money*, then he had to figure out how to pay it.”  (We were playing with some pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, so it just came up).  “He made a lot of bad choices and decided the only way to pay was to ask the British commander, General Clinton, if he needed a spy.  Adrian was all ears.  He knew about the kids’ book, I Spy, and often uses that particular phrase in conversation, but this took “spy” to a whooole new level.  During this telling, his mommy got home, but he barely heard her (and he loves it when she gets home), but he just hardly noticed, since we were at a good part:  Benedict Arnold, in all of his badness, on the one side, was too much to pull away from.  And on the other side, to tantalize further, were our spies, the true Patriots: our unsung, unnoticed, unknown American heroes, who had provided so much valuable information to George Washington, while living in constant danger.  Since we’d been in the middle of playing store, I told him about Robert Townsend, the quiet storekeeper who learned lots of good stuff from the British officers who frequented his store.  Gosh, we had really only begun to scrape the surface of the story when Emily returned home.  But it was probably enough for one day.   I recommend the book, a true story, since I could hardly put it down.  Besides, you might have an interested little one in your family who’d be all ears, too.

* Arnold owed over 1,000 pounds to the Colonial government for undocumented expenses during the unsuccessful raid of Quebec in 1775.

“In The Garden”

December 8, 2013

It’s December and a strange time to title a post “In The Garden,” but that’s where I was today:  in the garden of my childhood.  As we sang the old hymn by that name today at a sort-of-cousin’s funeral at the church where my Aunt Sara played the organ for so many years, I traveled instantly back through time.  I was six years old again, singing in the car with my mother and sister as my father drove.  I was a little girl singing in the pew of Kennedyville Methodist Church as my Aunt Hilda played the organ.  It was the same song, then as today, sung the exact same way, with the pauses coming at the exact same places:  “And He walks [pause] with me, And He talks [pause] with me….” It was my sister who sat beside me today in the pew, just as she’d sat beside me when we were young.  My cousin, his wife, and their grown son – more of my family – sat in front of me.  The nurse I used to sing duets with sat behind me, then on the way out, I saw Carol filing out also, just a few people back from me, after the service.  All of them knew me when I was just a kid. Carol was my dear friend who loved me in that same church when I was just 24 years old, when I knew nothing but thought I knew everything.  So today when we all knew some of the same things and some of the same people, in that same place, singing that same song in that same way, it was a gift.  Merry Christmas to me.  Thank you, Lord.

Three Waves

December 4, 2013

One of our guests was the one who’d told me the “trick.”  I’d been telling him about the 4th grader I’d been working with (around the corner at our local elementary school), and he said he’d been a teacher, too.  Since I’d explained that my young charge couldn’t read, our guest patted his own arm 3 times, beginning at the top, then in the middle and at the wrist, one pat at a time, at first slowly, then in quicker succession, then finally sort of sliding down all three spots into one smooth motion – to illustrate the trick of sounding out an unknown word for a beginning reader, then blending the sounds together to form the word.  When I’d shown it to Pete (name changed), he’d grasped the concept immediately and had begun using it.  He used it today during our 45 minutes together as he was reading me pp. 8 – 17 in The Cat in The Hat, and I was thrilled to see him do it.

A focused fiend in figuring out and finding new words, Pete’s attention and determination are unwavering as he both reads and listens to me explaining things during our sessions together.  I sit in awe and delight as I watch the lights in his eyes shine brighter as he reads line after line.

Today, we began with planning a paragraph.  (Our assignment by his teacher has been to tackle the theme of topic sentences as we ferret them out in pre-written paragraphs).  Because he’d been so excited the other day as he was telling me all about his sister’s upcoming birthday events, I thought he might want to use those experiences to write his own paragraph with his own topic sentence.  So today we began with Pete first taking notes about the birthday excursion.  When he told me about the laser tag, I said, “OK.  Write ‘tag.'”  He did.  For the bowling, I said, “Write ball,'” so he did that, too.  And so he continued punctuating his animated descriptions of the activities with his one-word notes.  In trying to steer him towards writing the topic sentence for the paragraph that we would write tomorrow, I asked him what each of those activities had in common, expecting him to say something like, “They were things that we did.”  But he said that each one involved speed.  Oh.  “Right,” I thought.  That certainly was a common theme.  My incorrect low expectation was duly noted and corrected mentally.  His astute answer will be the perfect jumping off point for his topic sentence when we pick it up again tomorrow.  He was excited about finishing it.

When he’d read today’s first page of The Cat in The Hat, I knew he was ready for me to say to him, “Now read it with expression.”  He took the bait and he re-read the sentence.  I grinned at him and said, “Do it with more,” so he took a deep breath and tackled it again, reading like the champ that he is – like he was onstage.  He read the whole page that way.  I pumped my fist up in the air and practically shouted.  He beamed, and continued reading.  Time was growing short but he finished 3 more pages.  At the end, and as the rest of his class was gathering their things together for recess, he finished his reading and I shot both of my hands in the air, declaring him the undisputed reading champ of that 4th grade table in the back of that room.  I signed his tiger paw sheet (the school’s redeemable reward system) and he got his own things and went into the line by the door.  After I’d gathered my things and stopped behind them in the hallway, he looked back at me, grinned and waved.  He did that 3 times:  three waves and three grins.  My heart was full and I left Garnett Elementary School for the day.

Thanksgiving Prayer

November 25, 2013

Standing there among the granite markers with a woman she’d barely known until today, Betty Jewel felt pieces of herself fly off and hover over them like blackbirds.  Until today she’d been sure of her own color and of her own place.  Now, with her heart opened wide by the kindness and unexpected possibilities of Cassie Malone, she saw herself in a different light, a woman with mercy and grace pouring over her like water, and hope spreading through her as fast as kudzu on a ditch bank.  In spite of the fact that her daughter was still missing, Betty Jewel sat down on a pink marble tombstone, her lips moving as she silently gave thanks.

p. 138, The Sweetest Hallelujah, Elaine Hussey

Holden and Hand-Holding

November 23, 2013

I’d never read Catcher in the Rye, so I borrowed it from our daughter’s bookshelf the other day and have been tucked away with it tonight for much of the evening.  I am enjoying Holden Caulfield’s commentaries on life but was getting a little weary of reading so many g__d__’s.  He has far too much sense to use such limited vocabulary, but one of his anecdotes made me stop reading to copy the passage down.

     …she was terrific to hold hands with.  Most girls if you hold hands with them, their…hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they’d bore you or something.  Jane was different.  We’d get into a…movie or something, and right away we’d start holding hands, and we wouldn’t quit till the movie was over.  And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it.  You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not.  All you knew was, you were happy.  You really were.

One other thing I just thought ofOne time, in this movie, Jane did something that just about knocked me out.  The newsreel was on or something, and all of a sudden I felt this hand on the back of my neck, and it was Jane’s.  It was a funny thing to do.  I mean she was quite young and all, and most girls if you see them putting their hand on the back of somebody’s neck, they’re around twenty-five or thirty and usually they’re doing it to their husband or their little kid–I do it to my kid sister Phoebe once in a while, for instance.  But if a girl’s quite young and all and she does it, it’s so pretty it just about kills you.  (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, pp. 79 – 80).

There you go:  some Saturday sweetness for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Location, Location, Location.

You might notice the WAC Administration Building cupola out of the corner of your eye as you walk onto Simply Bed & Bread's brick path, since our house is just a stone's throw away from the college. Or it might be the ...
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