Tuesday, September 12, 2017

At a Church.  The speaker, introducing a book for discussion at a reading group, read from it, “The soul is tender….”

Yes, the soul is tender.  And there are times that we need to be attentive to that need.

The soul is also bold, resilient, and strong.  These are the qualities I want to read about.  Where do I do so?  Emerson, Thoreau, Tennyson, the minor, didactic poets of nineteenth century American literature, the epics from classical literature.

Spearmint.  The spearmint I planted last spring is reaching out of its container.  I will soon transplant it into the yard.  It is not good to hold back living things which want to grow.

Notes on Reading.  Fiction.  J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Scholastic, 1997; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Scholastic, 1998; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Scholastic, 1999.

The first three books of the famed series are fun.  The plots are exciting, the characters are well-drawn and memorable, and the details of the fantasy are vivid.  The sense of wonder is in close proximity to the reality of evil.  Favorite character: Ron, for his understated, wry sense of humor.  Throughout the series there is a thematic emphasis on the consequences of choice and the importance of friendship.

Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.  Joyce Rupp, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lesson from the Camino.  Orbis, 2005.

Rupp and a companion became pilgrims on the Camino from Roncesvalles to Santiago, Spain, a thirty-seven day walk.  She tells the story, not chronologically, but through perceptions and insights about life from her experiences.  These “life lessons” are titles for the twenty-five chapters; one of them is the title of the book.  She illustrates her learnings by interesting details about the experience, including diary entires.  The book enhances the spiritual lives of the readers.

Notes on Reading.  Fiction.  Kent Haruf, Benediction.  Vintage, 2013.

Set mainly in a small town in eastern Colorado, this is a novel of ordinary people doing what they can with the circumstances they have and choices they have made.  There are a dying man, estranged from his son, hoping in a unsettled daughter; a good minister frustrated by his mission, and his disgruntled wife and suicidal son; a lonely widow of thirty years and her daughter, a spinster teacher; a neighbor bringing up her grandaughter.  All illustrate Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation.  It is a work of solemn beauty.  (Haruf does not use quotation marks for dialogue.  I do not use them to indicate quoted text.)  Quotations from the work:

He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch.  So the truth was he was dying.  That’s what they were saying.  He would be dead before the end of summer.  By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town.  Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.  (P. 5)

It’s all so pointless.

You’ll get better, dear.

How will I get better?

. . .

You forget after a while.  You start paying attention to your aches and pains.  You think about a hip replacement.  Your eyes fail you.  You start thinking about death.  You live more narrowly.  You stop thinking about next month.  You hope you don’t have to linger.  (P. 48)

I’m doing the best I can, Mom.  That’s all I can say.  I’m getting along the best I can.  You can tell Dad that much too.  (P. 153)

She became part of the history of the town, like wallpaper in the old houses–the aging lonely isolated woman, the unmarried schoolteacher living out her days among other people’s children, a woman who’d had a brief moment of excitement and romance a long time ago and afterward had retreated and lived quietly and made no more disturbance.  (P. 178)

They bowed their heads.  May we be at peace together with Dad Lewis here.  Lyle [the minister] said softly.  May there be peace and love and harmony in this room.  May there be the same in all the difficult and conflicted world outside this house.  May this man–he stopped and spoke directly to Dad in the bed–may you leave this physical world without any more pain or regrets or unhappiness or remorse or self-doubt or worry and may you let all your trials and troubles and cares pass away.  May you simply be at peace.  May each of us here in this room be at peace as well.  Now we ask all of these blessings in the name of Jesus, who himself was the Prince of Peace.  Amen.  (Pp. 236-237)

[the ending] And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out of the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards, (P. 258)


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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Another Kind of Almanac.  A friend, who grew up in Pennsylvania, told me that his father had his own way of determining seasons:  winter began on December 1; spring, March 1; summer, June 1; autumn, September 1.  He thus varies about three weeks from the regular almanac.  Though this practice may seem solipsistic to some, I like the idea.  Why should we not follow our own seasons and celebrations of them?

Late Summer.  Summer has become tired.  Days are noticeably shorter.  Blazing and baking heat have receded, though September here can be as hot as any other summer month.  Crepe myrtle trees have finished blossoming, and the blossoms left, at least on some days, are muted in color and more noticeable because of the lack of other blossoms.  The leaves of dogwood trees, even after rains, have begun to curl inward, seemingly tired of the outward thrusts of growth.  Annual flowers in my hanging baskets have stopped blooming, and the leaves are dying.

Endings.  We are good at celebrating beginnings: births, New Year celebrations, first signs of changing seasons.  Do we do as well at celebrating endings?  An inspiriring celebration of a life at a funeral service  or a joyful wake in honor of the departed is always welcome.  A celebration to end a season with thoughts of what has occurred can be a positive punctuation of time passing.

Notes on Reading.  Fiction.  Phillip Lewis, The Barrowfields.  Hogart, 2017.

I am impressed at the craft and power of this novel.  (1) Lewis makes references to Poe, and like Poe, he can sustain a mood that results in a powerful emotional response.  For example, a mood of student jocularity caused me to laugh aloud at the conversation at a drinking party.   A mood of sustained foreboding resulted in my eyes watering when I found the tragic outcome of one of the main characters.  (2) The book explores family relationships and influences, both positive and negative, that children carry into their adult years.  (3) There is an obvious love of dogs and horses.  (4) There are moving descriptions of night skies at the ocean and in the mountains.  (5) Lewis explores the idea of the relationship between home and identity, using references to Thomas Wolfe.  (6) There are several deftly drawn memorable episodes:  the despairing, noisome conditions in a nursing home; a book burning in the mountains, led by a nefarious preachers; lovers lost at night in the mountains, threatened by horses; a harrowing descent into madness because of depression and alcoholism.  With vivid and convincing details, Lewis holds the reader’s attention throughout this well-written novel.

Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.  Adrian Owen, Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death.  Scribner, 2017.

Are people in comatose, physically unresponsive, vegetative states aware?  Research tells the author that about 20% of those he examined are.Is communication with them possible?  Yes. The book explains recent breakthroughs that enable us to do so.  The book also examines such ideas as the meaning of consciousness and its development in humans, the value of life, the arguments for right-to-die and right-to life movements, and individuality, and it projects further accomplishments in the field by the use of medical technology.  Owen uses particular, relevant, and easy-to-understand examples to illustrate abstract and philosophical ideas.  The book is thus informative, interesting, and provocative.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More Magnolias.

Since she admired magnolia flowers, I thought I would find one in reach to take and give her for the drive on the next leg of her trip.  On our walk that day, we found none.  “Have they finished flowering?” she asked?

I didn’t know.

Today, on my walk, the same one we had taken a week ago, I saw two magnolia flowers that I could reach.  But my friend is no longer visiting, and I did not take one for myself.

We sometimes miss our Lords of Life through bad timing.  I suppose that we can miss our entire lives by bad timing.

In a Dream.

Seated across from me at a large breakfast party was a former colleague.  She said, “You’ll be glad to know that (a name a didn’t know) finally retired after 58 years of teaching!”

“58. Years?” I said.  “Why?”

“He doesn’t know,” she said.

I awoke, laughing.

A Sojourn in Eastern NC

Billboard:  Your Wife Is Hot.  Better Get the Air Conditioner Fixed.  (I would not use this company, but there are obviously those who find this puerile, sexist advertising funny.)

A Scarecrow:  I was startled each time I saw the scarecrow in the neighbor’s yard from my second floor bedroom window.  Does it work for crows as well?

At a Restaurant:  We overheard three middle-aged women at the adjoining table:

“George Clooney?  He’s too young,” said the first.

“I don’t like him,” said the second.

“And I don’t like Brad Pitt,” said the first.

“I don’t even know who you’re talking about,” said the third.

My friend and I exchanged big smiles.

On a walk:  The day was baking hot, and I smiled to realize that the hot air was pine-scented from the many pine trees growing nearby and from the raked pine straw piled in the street.


“I know the people who live there,” said a friend, giving me a driving tour of McMansions in a fashionable neighborhood, “and they hired a woman who cleaned their house for ten or twelve years.  And then she, the maid, got sick, hard to stop work, went to the hospital, had to have surgery and a long rest at home, and not once did they call her or send her a card, or visit her–nothing! And when she called them to tell them she was ready to go back to work, they told her she had been replaced and wouldn’t be needed.  And I think that’s ugly.  They way the treated her was just ugly!

Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.  Mark E. Thibodeaux, Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer.  Franciscan Media, 2001.

This is a well-thought-out consideration and explanation of the practice of prayer and its effects on our lives.

Thibodeaux explains by examples four stage of prayer, which he calls talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God.  For each stage, he presents advantages and possible pitfalls of each, with suggestions on how to make transitions to deeper levels.

He uses specific examples from his life to help readers understand the ideas.  He emphasizes the need for discipline and solitude to structure and practice a prayer life.  He stresses the need for discernment of the effects of prayer, offers suggestions for dealing with distractions during meditation and for dealing with times when the prayer discipline seems futile.

He ends the book with chapters which stress the idea that prayer results in changes of the self, changes that lead to service to others.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Unexpected Benediction.  At the end of a hot, tiring, tiresome day:  the sight of dusty-rose colored flowers of a crepe myrtle tree, seen in the clear light of eight o’clock in the evening.

Written Above the Bar in an Irish Pub:  O’ the air did turn green, when the fart came from the queen.  The court sat aghast, at the royal blast, but they all stood and sang God Save the Queen!

Mortality.  I wonder what percentage of any given religion is given to the concept of eternal life of the soul, in comparison with other teachings of that group.

Restaurants.  I am planning to avoid restaurants where the waitresses call me “Sugar,” “Honey, “Sweetie,” “Dearie,” or other such terms.  I am planning to avoid restaurants that blare loud music, and those which are noisy.  I will be eating at home a great deal more.

Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.  Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast.  Bantam, 1964.

On this re-reading, I realized that this is one of my favorite books.  The subjects are among my favorites:  the writing process, Paris, and encounters with famous writers:  Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce. These twenty short sketches of Hemingway’s life in Paris are insightful and entertaining.  Now I will donate this tired Signet edition and purchase a new edition for future reading.

Notes on Reading.  Fiction.  Louise Penny, The Long Way Home.  Minotaur, 2014.

This entertaining and interesting mystery, set in Canada, presents memorable characters, gives insight into the art of painting, and involves the reader in a search for a missing person, who may or may not be alive.  There are humor and suspense and good descriptions of landscapes and villages.  The reader gains insight into the work and philosophy of artists and their inspirations and techniques.

Quotations from The Long Way Home:

“Ruth had called her latest slim volume of poetry I’M FINE.  Only people who read it realized that FINE stood for Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.”  (P. 26)

“In his late thirties and slightly over six feet tall, Gabri had passed paunchy a few mille-feuilles back.”  (P. 13)

“Fear lives in the head.  And courage lives in the heart.  The job is to get from one to the other.” (P. 277)



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Monday, July 24, 2017

Dog Days.

Mornings are heavy with dew.  The air is saturated.  Spider webs are irritating.

The day changes to humid heat, often reaching mid-to-high 90’s in the afternoon.  Car interiors become like ovens.  The steering wheel burns the hands.

Late afternoon thunderstorms are common.  They bring sharp lightning, booming thunder, high winds, and driving downpours of rain.  On a recent short, intense storm there was hail, and limbs and trees were knocked down.  On this morning’s walk I noticed piles of cut branches and wood taken to curbs.

People are tired, less patient, grumpier.  The change from air-conditioned buildings to outside exhausts the body and spirit.

I walk and work outside only between 7 and 8 am and 7 and 8 pm.

An afternoon nap is always in order.


Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.  Two books by George Howe Colt:

The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer House.  Scribner, 2003.

There are accounts of summer activities:  swimming, sailing, fishing, tennis, board games, pool tournaments, and a hide-and-seek game called Sardines.  There are interesting and sympathetic character sketches of family members of this and of other generations.  One chapter, “Old Money,” is a thoughtful consideration of the challenges of being a wealthy, upper-class New England family.  Colt does not draw back from the darker sides of experiences, and he writes with an engaging, simple, and effective prose style.

November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide.  Scribner, 2006.

At 536 pages and an additional 92 pages of notes, bibliography, and index, this book is an interesting and comprehensive exploration of the subject.  It covers teen suicides, the history of attitudes about suicides from primitive cultures to today, the range of suicidal behaviors, efforts at prevention, discussions about the right to die (including physician-assisted suicide), and effects on loved ones.  Colt involves the reader directly by detailing the lives of those in suicidal situations and thus evokes sympathy and attempts at understanding.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Toy Street.

Toy Street, in a designated city historic area, is only two long blocks.  There is a mixture of private homes and professional offices.  A handsome old brick school with large windows is being developed into condos.

A lot on one of the blocks was for a couple of years a formative place for me.  I started school, housed in a large two-story house set back from the street, with a sidewalk sheltered by huge, old oak trees, leading to the front door.

The house, no longer there, was Haynsworth Private School, which I attended in first and second grades.  There I learned to read, to print, to spell, to add and subtract and measure, and to get along with classmates and teachers.  My friend Danny and I ruled at the kiddie park on one of the corners, where we walked at recess.  Frequent field trips taught us about the community as we experienced the fire station, the police station, the zoo, the airport, and the downtown stores.  In an upstairs hallway I received a polio vaccination.

I learned the 3 R’s with the kind and patient Mrs. Nell Hewell and the beautiful and enthusiastic Miss Betty Isbell; I learned group singing, toy band, marching, and dancing the Virginia Reel, with its dos-si-dos and Grand Promande, with the elderly, temperamental, fussy Miss Blanche Deschamps, who also read to us stories from Pooh and mythology.  There were occasional talks in small groups with Mrs. Madelyn Haynsworth, the school’s founder and director.  It was a place I began to love learning.

Everything is gone, surely all who taught, and many who learned there.  Newer houses have been built closer to the street; one lot has become a vacant, paved place.  There are no old oaks.

The walk down the street was pleasant: a blooming, fragrant gardenia greeted me in the yard at the head of the street.  There were blooming hydrangeas and crepe myrtle trees, dogwood trees heavy with summer leaves, blossoming and fragrant hedges, a slight breeze at times, and the singing of a mockingbird; these enhanced the nostalgia.

The River Park.

A river runs through the city and reaches gentle falls.  The city has made a park on both sides.  There are benches and walls on which to sit.  Children wade and splash by the shore.  Singles and couples walk along the paths, some walking dogs, and many of the couples holding hands.  I walk down paths, look down at the river from a suspension bridge, find a French bistro on a terrace by the river and sip a cafe au lait as I watch people passing, enjoying the long summer late afternoon.  I approach the amphitheater and sit on a wall to watch the rehearsal of a couple of scenes of Titus Andronicus .  Just as the sun sets and the full moon begins to rise, I leave, looking forward to being there again.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017


I approached the periodicals display at the bookstore with the same anticipation I felt as a child when I went to the room Santa Claus had visited or when I now go to a window or door to see if the sound I heard was the arrival of guests.

Are they here yet?  Yes!  The quarterlies The American Scholar and Lapham’s Quarterly have arrived, the summer editions.  I buy them, assured of blessings for the mind and spirit.

A sweet, ironic moment.

I was TSA pre-approved for my flight, but after I passed through the detector I was asked to step aside for a “random electronics check.”  An official saw only my wallet, keys, cell phone (a flip phone with no texting), and bag with yellow pad, crossword puzzle book, nonfiction book, pencil, and eraser.

“No smart phone, sir?”


“No lap-top or iPad?”

“No.  I’m low tech Bill.”

“Works for me,” he said.  “Have a good flight.”

At the Driehaus Museum.

The house is the restored Samuel Nickerson House (1883), the mansion of a wealthy banker.  It is lavish in expensive detail and furnishings, typical of the houses of the wealthy of the time.  Its purpose, as indicated by guide material, is to show to the public the status and wealth of the owners, and in every sense it is made to impress the guests.  Now I understand better Emily Dickinson’s poem from 1861, “I’m Nobody!” :  “How dreary–to be–Somebody! / How public–like a Frog– / To tell’s one’s name–the livelong June / To an admiring Bog!”


Objects with which I work let me know their names:  my push mower, Trrsk; my weed eater, Wally; my hedge trimmer, Carleton; my vacuum cleaner, Velma.  When I get a garden hose, I bet it will be named Sue Henrietta.

Trrsk, Wally, Carleton, and I make an awesome yard-work team.  And Velma and I work right well together, too.


We are in the Dog Days of Summer now.  This Sunday night (July 9) will be the Full Moon of July, the Buck Moon.


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