For most of my life, I considered myself to be an anti-social loner, not a team player, prefering to avoid group situations at all possible costs. My mother made me join the Brownies, which was mostly okay. We had snacks and did arts and crafts and sang silly songs. I could deal with that, and if I immersed myself in the arts and crafts I could avoid the other girls and more importantly, the troop leader. She scared the life out of me. Then came Girl Scouts. Uh oh. I was clearly not Girl Scout material. Girl Scouts are expected to interact in the world, earning badges for awesome deeds and selling overpriced cookies to people who really don’t need or want them. And go camping. Hell no. I don’t do camping.
I pretended to go to Girl Scouts, showing up at the spot in front of the school where the car pool mom picked us up so as to be seen by the other girls. Then I’d go hide somewhere until the coast was clear, play on the school playground until it was time to go home, and then walk home, pretending when I got there that I’d had a great time. I didn’t get away with it for long. But my mother was understanding and let me leave the scouts. I was free! Free to spend my time with my books and my cats and my arts and crafts projects! Happy girl!
I grew up. I was lonely, but still convinced I was not a people person. I sat at home alone a lot, drinking too much in front of Food Network shows.
I needed a troup, a community, a network, I just didn’t know that’s what I needed. It was suggested that I needed to get out of the house and challenge myself. What?! But I tried. I signed up for cooking classes, mosaic making classes, knitting classes. But I didn’t make friends or try to fit in. It wasn’t because the women (yes, it was all women in these groups) didn’t try to befriend me. I resisted them, cultivating my misunderstood loner status.
But life has a way of kicking us in our butts when we need it. I needed it. I got my butt kicked. I got help. And I discovered that I am a nice person who thrives among friends and enjoys the company of others. Who knew?!
Call me a late bloomer if you will.
It started with volunteering at an animal shelter, where I started to make friends and find a purpose in life. The animals were my bridge to connecting to people. Then I joined a book group. And had fun! I do things I would never have done 4 years ago, and they all involve other humans.
We have names for collectives of animals. A congregation of alligators, a battery of barracudas, an obstinancy of buffalo, a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, etc.
We don’t have such creative names for groups of humans. Women in particular tend to reach out to other women for support and friendship. We need a name. I propose a wonder of women. I finally reached that point in my life where I have discovered that women who gather in groups don’t “cat fight” or backstab; okay, we might gossip a bit. But we help and support each other, offering good listening skills, advice if wanted, and understanding.
A study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor suggests that women are genetically hardwired to respond to stress by “seeking and befriending”. I most recently sought and befriended by attending the Ethelridge Road Knitting Salon, in upstate New York last week. What attracted me was the presence of one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend 2 days in her company. I can knit, but it’s been a while. I was willing to dust off my needles and relearn casting on and purling in order to meet Alice Hoffman.
I recently wrote about having read her book Faithful and how I connected to the main character Shelby. Shelby would have loved our dog mascot for the weekend, Millie.
I had an amazing experience in so many ways. First of all, it really was an adventure for me. I went so far out of my comfort zone (which is admittedly fairly small), renting a car and driving around upstate New York, staying by myself in a bed and breakfast. I felt so grown up.
Was it worth it? Undoubtedly! Everyone was warm and welcoming, helpful and interested. We talked, we knitted, we listened to Alice read, we wrote, we ate well. Our hosts, including Millie, were welcoming and made us feel at home.
It was like Brownies, only better! Arts and crafts–check. Snacks–check. Scary troop leader–no way! And no camping!
The only thing missing from my perspective–a cat.
I’m home now, surrounded by cats, with new knitting projects, new friends to keep in touch with, and charmed memories. I plan to go again next year if all goes well.
My deepest thanks to everyone involved in making the experience so special. It means more to me than words can convey. And you didn’t make me sell cookies or camp!
The artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997), known for conceptual works and performance art, did a piece called The Perfect Moment.
Not A perfect moment, but THE perfect moment. Byars seemed to like the word perfect; among his works are The Perfect Love Letter, The Perfect Kiss, The Perfect Performance is to Stand Still, The Exhibition of Perfect, The Perfect Quiet, The Perfect Death, The Perfect Thought, The Perfect Moment, Perfect is My Death Word, and The Palace of Perfect. That’s a lot of perfection! So when I thought of the idea of a perfect moment in my own life, as a former museum professional my thoughts went to Byars.
In my personal experience, I think on the smaller level of having perfect moments, plural. Every now and then, there is a moment when all seems right with world. It doesn’t have to be something big and grand or momentous. It doesn’t even have to seem special to anyone but you. It can be fleeting, or it can stick around for a while. But in that moment, however long it lasts, all feels right and good and just the way it should. It speaks to the rarity of such moments that they are memorable. They can happen in the midst of tedium or of turmoil or, of course, when everything seems perfect already and then that one more thing happens, that cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae sits perfectly and beautifully, beckoning you and making it all worthwhile.
I had such a moment recently on a long-awaited trip to Iceland. My interest in Iceland, a trendy travel spot currently, dates back from my days as a graduate student at UC Davis, back in the early 1990s. One of my textile department classmates was a beautiful young Icelandic woman, Thorbjörg, with her pixie-like features and cheerful attitude. During one of our graduate seminars, she presented some slides and facts about the Icelandic textile industry. The images of Iceland were so captivating—the color and the light and the natural beauty took my breath away. And animals—sheep, horses, marine birds like puffins—caught my attention as well.
We finally made it to Iceland all of these years later. On my wish list, amongst other things, was to see these animals. And I did. But I kept wondering, where are all of the dogs and cats in Iceland? I saw very few dogs being walked around the city, and absolutely no cats. Zero. NO CATS. How is this possible? I was told that there were lots of cats in Reykjvik. I bought a t-shirt that shows the cats of Reykjavik. In one shop, I saw a sign regarding proceeds going to help Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) efforts for the stray cats of the city. But they remained invisible to me.
On our last day in Iceland, we made a trek to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west coast.
It was a perfect day. The towns of Borgarnes and Stykkishólmur were charming and picturesque.
We had good coffee and good food. We had sunshine. I saw sheep and horses on the road driving in. We booked a boat excursion to see puffins, and saw them as well as gray seals and a white-backed dolphin. I was thinking it had been the best day ever, and I was happy. It felt like a fitting and satisfying end to a wonderful week.
And then it happened. My moment. In an empty church parking lot on the edge of a small town on the west coast of Iceland, the friendliest orange tabby cat walked right up to us, like he knew us and was expecting us. He was clearly loved and well-fed. He had a collar and a lot of self-confidence. And he wanted affection. I immediately sat down on the asphalt and gave it to him. It made me ridiculously happy. It was a perfect moment.
Looking back on such perfect moments, I find they often involve sunshine, animals, and/or books. The first that comes to mind was when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I must have had perfect moments before that, but this is the one that stands out in my memory. It was a winter day, and I was snuggled up in the den of our house in Atlanta. I can see the green nubby fabric of the upholstery on the chair and the tones of browns in the braided rug on the floor. A beam of sunlight has cut through the air and settled on me in the chair, where I am reading Hugh Lofting’s 1920 The Story ofDoctor Dolittle, an old copy that was my mother’s in her childhood and had that particular smell and feel of old paper and old books. I was warm and sleepy and enjoying my book, the room was quiet, I was alone, and there was nowhere to go or be. I was just there, a little girl doing what she loved, perfectly happy. I might have had our cat Whiskers in the chair with me, but oddly I don’t remember. It would make sense. And he was an orange tabby.
And yes, I came to find out that the author, Hugh Lofting, really was an animal lover. Forget the silly movie adaptations of Doctor Dolittle. Go to the original.
Another time, much later in my life, I was terribly jet-lagged and unable to sleep on a very hot night in Istanbul. Tossing and turning and hating life, I was cursing pretty much everything and everyone. I could hear the beginnings of the call for prayer coming from the loudspeaker at the local mosque. Great. I was about to put a pillow over my head when I listened instead to the most beautiful male voice I had ever heard, singing out the call. The gorgeous yet haunting song gave me the shivers. I can still hear the voice and feel the sense of the beauty in the moment. I am not religious, and for me this had nothing to do with anyone’s God or piety. It was about beauty in unexpected times and places, and the realization that I am just a really small part of this world, not its center. My soul was soothed, and I eventually went to sleep.
There are no expectations attached to these moments. No preconceived ideas or possible disappointment. They just are. You can’t make them happen or predict them. That’s what is so beautiful about them. I know some will disagree; I see lots of articles along the lines of “Don’t wait for the perfect moment—make it happen now!” But I think they have to sneak up on you unawares; if you are trying to make it happen, that kind of defeats the perfection of it.
I am not a performer. I don’t know if Byars felt what he performed. Classical musician Bob tells me that the feeling that he’s played just the way he wanted is more rare than I might think. But that’s his idea of a perfect moment. Dabbling in art, I am usually dissatisfied at some level with the drawings and painting I produce. Once in a very great while, I think I’ve done just what I meant to or even more. It is rare. But this is something a little different; this is about self-satisfaction—something internal and based on when we expect from ourselves. These are from the inside out.
My perfect moments have come from the outside in. A friend put it that in that moment in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, the cat found me. I was, in a sense, perfectly happy already. And then I got that one more thing, the more than I could ask for, the cherry on the hot fudge sundae—I got my perfect moment. And I felt blessed.
“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”
I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.
“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”
This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.
The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.
Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building
The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.
But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.
Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:
She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.
Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.
Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.
The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.
Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:
She’s not afraid of anything.
She has great fashion sense.
She’s a feminist.
She has staying power.
The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.
“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]
Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:
“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”
In an interview, Lee Smith said,
“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”
Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.
F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”
Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.
I am currently reading Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.
I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.
There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.
The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.
She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.
Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.
Here is another scene from the someday memoir of my summer of 1972. It’s not complete and needs some work, but I’ll never forget stopping at a diner in Winnie, Texas. We were so hot and miserable. Texas seemed to go on forever.
I call this fictionalized autobiography; it’s based on truth but the truth as I remember it from the perspective of a ten-year old girl who lived it 45 years ago. I might have the timelines and details and confused, and some of it might be as I dreamed it rather than as it was.
Many of my memories are about food. I was a chubby kid (still am!), getting my weight issues honestly through genetics and my mother. Plus a love of sweet and salty. My brother, at 14, could and did eat everything. “All you can eat” were his favorite words. My sister Ellen, hating being on the road and having to stop at gas station bathrooms and roadside diners, ate a lot of yogurt when she could get it and cottage cheese when she couldn’t. How I longed for greasy, salty, diner food! But it was made clear that I would be made miserable if I indulged.
Fries versus cottage cheese.
Years after the diner in Winnie, Texas, I read the short story “Full Count” in Elizabeth Berg’s book The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation (2008), and Janey’s story was so familiar.
I’ve lost track of what state we are in; maybe we are still in Texas. It seems to be Texas for days. My stomach growls. Even though we have an ice chest near my nest in the way back, Van has made it clear that snacking in the car pushes his buttons.
“What, are you eating again? No wonder you’re chubby.” Of course, this is directed at me. Neither Steve nor Ellen is in the least chubby. Steve is a teenage boy, a bottomless pit of appetite, tall and skinny. Ellen at sixteen, lives on yogurt and Tab diet cola. Mom and Van smoke and drink up front, but we sit quietly in the back, hoping not to rock Van’s shaky boat.
My stomach growls again. I can’t help myself. “Are we stopping for lunch soon? I’m really hungry.”
Mom looks back at me, brows furrowed. Van doesn’t turn around, but exhales cigarette smoke with a big sigh.
Texas heat, cigarette smoke and hunger are making me reckless. “I’m really hungry. Are we ever going to stop for lunch?”
“Can’t you wait until dinner?”
I stare at the back of Van’s scrawny neck and wish I was brave enough, or dumb enough, to aim a spitball at him.
I don’t know if they are really hungry or feeling sorry for me, but Ellen and Steve both chime in, “We’re hungry, too. Let’s stop.”
“It won’t take long; let’s pull over and get something,” my mother looks at Van, pleading for us. Van sighs again, outnumbered.
He doesn’t speak, but I can tell he’s starting to simmer with annoyance. There’s a roadside diner not much farther down the highway. The parking lot is full of trucks with Texas license plates. The diner sign flashes, “Last chance to eat in Winnie, Texas.” I’ll take it.
We file into the crowded but blissfully air-conditioned diner. A friendly, uniformed older waitress clears off a table for us and brings ice water. She smiles at me. I smile back, glad to see a friendly face on this endless, hot journey.
Van orders black coffee. Mom follows suit. I know she wants cream in her coffee but Van has aimed a chubby remark or two at her, too. He rarely eats, living on cigarettes and black coffee alternating with whiskey.
The motherly waitress looks to the three of us expectantly.
“I’ll have a side of cottage cheese and ice tea, please.” Ellen looks down at the damp table and disdainfully picks up a spoon, inspecting it and then wiping it with a napkin. She hates being on the road.
I’m being my usual indecisive self, fidgeting with the laminated menu, so Steve jumps in. “Cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake, please.” We are proper Southern children in our way, always putting in the please and thank you.
My mouth waters and my stomach growls painfully. Oh, do I want what he’s having! Would a tuna sandwich and chips be less likely to attract Van’s attention?
“Your turn, honey. What sounds good?”
It all sounds good; that’s the problem.
“The fruit plate, please.” I can’t look up at her.
“Are you sure? Not many little girls order that; it’s usually their mamas.”
We wait for our food. Van relaxes, or what passes for it with him, lights a cigarette. I guess I’ve passed the test.
My brother makes endless puns on the town name. “Winnie is hotter than poo” sends us into fits of laughter.
The food arrives. I look longingly at my brother’s plate, cheese oozing out from the burger, as he pours red, silky ketchup on the fries. Ellen barely touches her cottage cheese. I pretend each bite of fruit is a greasy, salty fry.
The waitress comes back, plates of cherry pie for all of us. “Couldn’t let these growing children leave without some of the best pie in town. On the house.” She looks at Mom and Van as she sets the plates around.
“You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t eat it.” She smiles at me and hands me a clean fork. I almost hope Van will call me Little Shit in front of this angel waitress as I take a bit of the best pie I have ever eaten.
Today I was going to post the scene in which my mother marries Van, but went with Winnie, Texas instead. Maybe I am craving pie!
Next time. Or maybe something else, who knows. It’ll be the day I wrote whatever I wanted. To small acts of liberation!
If you have ever met me or read my blog, you know that I am not a tall person. And I’m okay with that. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, was not a small person. I assume he was okay with that. Tall people come across with a sense of authority and power to us shorties. I am 5′ 0″. Wolfe was 6′ 6″.
I’ve always kind of known about Thomas Wolfe, mostly from the book title You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940) and the romanticized view of Southern writers that an avid reader who spent her childhood in Georgia can’t escape.
After watching the film Genius, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer A. Scott Berg book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) and writing about it, I have continued reading and researching into the life of Thomas Wolfe.
I loved the film, but after my recent sojourn to Indianapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society, I have even more questions. (And I’m buying yet more books. Running out of places to put them all!).
What was interesting to me is that so many dedicated Wolfe scholars and readers had some negative reactions to the film, which we watched together at the Indianapolis Public Library as a part of the weekend. Author Berg, on the other hand, who spoke to us to a standing ovation at our closing banquet, was pleased with the film. And I still love it.
One of the complaints from the group about the film was the casting of Jude Law as Wolfe. Law, in my opinion, did a wonderful job, but he’s not anywhere close to 6′ 6″ and 250 plus pounds. But what actor would be close to that without being some former wrestler or football player of dubious acting ability? Law is better looking than Wolfe, but it’s a movie. I can look past that!
The book had been considered for films for many years, according to Berg. At one time, Paul Newman was slated to play Max Perkins. And at another, Tim Robbins wanted to play Wolfe. That I can see, in his younger days.
One thing to keep in mind is that the film is based on a book about Max Perkins, the editor who wrangled with Wolfe and served as a father figure to him in many ways. In the book, next on my to-read list, Perkin’s relationships with 2 of his other writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are also featured. It’s not a biography of Wolfe.
In speaking about the casting of Jude Law, Berg said that in the interviews he did for the Perkins book, it was mentioned that when Wolfe first appeared in Perkins’s doorway at Scribner’s, Perkins saw, in his mind, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Berg sees Shelley in Law’s countenance. Of course, we don’t have photos of Shelley to get an accurate idea, but there are portraits.
My imagination was totally captured by the images in the film of Wolfe writing as fast he could, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, sheets of paper flying through the air as he filled them with words. I imagine the inside of his head as a swirling word soup. Mine often is like that, but my word soup tends to stay soupy and muddled, whereas Wolfe was able to put the words into such beautiful creations. If we were working in a restaurant, I would be the dishwasher and Wolfe would be the executive chef, the genius who I admire and emulate. Or maybe Wolfe would be the Chef de Cuisine, doing the work of making the delicious soup, and Perkins would be the executive chef, at the pass making sure the plates are perfect before they go out.
This leads to the burning question, can a refrigerator be used as a desk? Remember that Wolfe was 6′ 6″ tall. A typical 1920s-1930s refrigerator was probably just over 5″.
You can buy such a vintage refrigerator today if you think it will help you become a writer.
Being who I am, I had to test this out. My home refrigerator is 5′ 10″ tall. For me to use it as a desk, I have to stand on the kitchen counter next to it.
One of my favorite papers presented at the meeting was by Paula Gallant Eckard of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of the recently published Thomas Wolfe and Lost Children in Southern Literature (2016).
There is a common thread of a sense of “lostness” in much Southern literature, especially in regard to children. Eckard discussed, among other contemporary writers, Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, 1987) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011).
Other highlights: the charming performance by the Indiana University Kokomo Players of “Wolfe’s Wanderlust: Scenes and Music from His Life and Fiction”
and the amazing table centerpieces created for the banquet, each based on a theme in Wolfe’s life.
Everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I arrived a bit anxious about going into a meeting of scholars with relatively little knowledge. I needn’t have been. They are all eager to share Wolfe with the world and bring him back into the canon of American literature alongside his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He died so young; who knows what legacy he might have left behind.
Speaking of young, the first person I encountered going to register for the conference was my new friend Savannah Wade, from Asheville, North Carolina. Pay attention to that name, she has a bright future ahead of her. I was so impressed with her varied interests and thirst for knowledge. When I was 23 years old, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to get on a Greyhound bus alone and head to an unknown city to meet with anyone! I felt so grown up doing this at age 55. Savannah, now, I can picture writing a work of genius using a refrigerator as a desk. And I can see that she has ways with word soup that I can only dream of.
And now I must go and dust off the top of my refrigerator. It’s the first time I’ve seen the top of it in a while!
Yes, the title could refer to a kitten, like little Jarito (I don’t name them!), the current foster kitten in residence.
But what I was thinking of with the words “alternately purring and spitting” was Southern writer Eudora Welty and Southern women in American literature. That so aptly describes Southern women to me.
I had heard of Eudora Welty. GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) tend to look out for Southern writers.
Even though I’ve lived most of my life in California, I spent my childhood years in Atlanta, Georgia and was raised by proud Southern women. Yes, there are a myriad of social justice and human rights issues to discuss when one brings up the Southern United States, but there is also a unique and sometimes beautiful culture that I wax nostalgic over, even though I didn’t necessarily experience it.
But what led me to Eudora Welty and a fascination with her was hearing actress Stockard Channing read Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941) on Selected Shorts, one of my favorite NPR podcasts.
The story is hilarious and poignant and so very Southern. The characters have names like Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, and Stella-Rondo. The narrator is Sister. When I heard the story read aloud, I felt right at home! The story was published in her book ACurtain of Green and Other Stories. Despite its quirky, humorous overtones and absurd (or not, you decide) characters, there is an undertone of isolation and bitterness in Sister’s narration of the 4th of July holiday in small town Mississippi. The P.O. refers to the post office; Sister is the town’s postmistress.
You can read the story here or listen here, if the links work. It’s well worth the $2.99 to buy your own download if the audio link doesn’t work. I tried, but sometimes I fail!
Welty herself was born and died in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to being a writer, she was also a talented photographer, capturing the lives of the rural poor for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression of the 1930s.
Her photographic work is being shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the exhibition Looking South: Photographs by Eudora Welty, on display until September 3, 2017. Art critic John Szarkowski wrote:
“Like those of [Helen] Levitt, Welty’s photographs do not show us the only truths of her subjects’ lives; perhaps they show us only the rarest and most evanescent truths, in which case we are the more grateful for these proofs of their existence.”
Best known for her short stories, she also published 5 novels. She never married or had children, and kept her life mostly private. Her stories focus on individual lives and stories, using local color and humor to convey sometimes stifling environments and families.
Why Welty? For a lot of us who grew up in the South and liked words, Welty represented not only what we knew, capturing the characters and cadences of our region, but also the range of what was possible — telling honest stories about a place that continues to struggle and progress.
As President Jimmy Carter put it when he presented Welty the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980: “Eudora Welty’s fiction, with its strong sense of place and triumphant comic spirit, illuminates the human condition. Her photographs of the South during the Depression reveal a rare artistic sensibility. Her critical essays explore mind and heart, literary and oral tradition, language and life with unsurpassed beauty. Through photography, essays, and fiction, Eudora Welty has enriched our lives and shown us the wonder of the human experience.”
One can visit Eudora Welty’s home and amazing garden in Jackson. The garden was created by Welty’s mother, Chestina Welty, in 1925 and carefully restored by garden restoration consultant Susan Haltom.
Welty’s home is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Eudora lived there from 1925, when she was 16 years old, until her death in 2001. It is located at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson. She gifted the home to the State of Mississippi and it is a museum of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
I myself am not a gardener. I love the IDEA of gardening, but the REALITY of gardening is another story.
If you are at all intrigued by the life and work of Eudora Welty, please check out the Eudora Welty Foundation. You don’t have to be one of us GRITS to appreciate her writing or photography. Or of any of the others who I would add to the pantheon of great Southern women writers. Clockwise from upper left: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. There are many more; these are just a very few.
Hopefully you feel inspired to read, write, or take some photographs. Or dig in your garden. Or whatever makes you happy, be it painting, cooking, sewing, etc. They can all be therapeutic activities, good for your mental health and sense of well-being. Even observing creativity is good for you–reading, listening to music, or going to a museum. According to the lifestyle website Verily, such activities:
Increase and renew brain function
Help prevent Alzheimer’s
Cultivate your social life
So instead of going to the gym, I think I’ll go read a book. In the garden. With some music. Getting healthy!
I don’t really have a desire to rule a queendom. Okay, maybe I do a little bit. My inner 10-year old does still daydream of crowns and sceptres and beautiful gowns and having all of the coffee and chocolate I want. And kittens everywhere. And peace on earth. And rooms full of books. And time to read them.
But who doesn’t have those daydreams?
My beautiful sister Cathy was Homecoming Queen at Druid Hills High School. She looked so glamorous in her gown and sash, wearing the tiara, and carrying roses. Her beaming boyfriend (later husband) stood proudly at her side. My equally beautiful sister Ellen raced across the football when Cathy’s crowning was announced, as excited as anyone. I could only dream.
By the time I got to high school, it was clear the title wouldn’t pass down to me. I was a bookish, quiet wallflower. I never was asked out on a date or to the prom. I pretended I didn’t care.
A popular song in the 1970s was Seals and Crofts King of Nothing. I actually managed to use it a reference in an essay at the end of my senior year. It was something about how I saw my future. I got an A, and the teacher read it to the class. I was heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the paean to teen angst and alienation, of course.
I was trying to be all Bohemian and anti-preppy. I made dresses out of fabric remnants on sale from the bin at the local fabric store (there were such things then) and quit eating meat. I dreamed of going to Mount Holyoke with the other girls like me, and being like one of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein’s play Uncommon Women and Others (1977), which I saw as a teleplay in 1978, starring Jill Eikenberry, a young and upcoming actress named Meryl Streep, and Swoosie Kurtz. If you can find it, watch it!
What has renewed my queenly aspirations? Recently, Bob and I binge-watched the Netflix series The Crown. So good! I got to Googling Princess Margaret, and for some reason looked up how tall she was–5’2″. So of course, I had to look up Queen Elizabeth II–5’4″ (maybe shorter now that she’s 91 years old; we tend to shrink as we age).
It made me happy to realize these women were on the small side. I am 5′ 0″. My mother was 5′ 2″. There are a lot of average height and tall people in my family; we women of small stature are the anomolies. I’m fine with that. I’ve never wanted to be tall. But queen? Maybe.
Queenly and queen-size are reference to large women in the fashion industry. I am in the petites category. Sadly, a lot of petites clothing looks like it was made for little girls, not adult women. I imagine queen-size runs to the matronly, if designers and their stereotypes are at play in other size categories. Designers–get real!
Anyway, shortly after we finished The Crown, we started watching Victoria on PBS. Also excellent! There are many references early on to Victoria (1819-1901) being too small and too short (and too young) to be queenly. That piqued my interest! I Googled. Queen Victoria was–get ready for it–5′ 0″ tall! I am vindicated. I can be queen!
Victoria reigned from 1837 to her death in 1901. She inherited the throne at age 18. As depicted in the costume drama, she had to be feisty and stand up for herself to be taken seriously. Now it is with great seriousness that we picture her.
And sing of her. The song by Leonard Cohen (1972) comes to mind. I won’t pretend to understand the lyrics. But it sounds serious.
Of course, as portrayed by Jenna Coleman (5′ 2″), she is heartbreakingly lovely and delicate looking. And spunky.
Actually, it’s pretty good casting when one sees portraits of the young Victoria. Not quite as lovely, no, but there is a similarity.
Once down the rabbit hole, I had to know how tall other queens had been. Elizabeth I is estimated to have been about 5′ 4″ as well. One of my favorite queens to read about is Anne Boleyn (1501-1536), the ill-fated second wife (1533-1536) of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).
Anne Boleyn’s body was exhumed in the 19th century (I try not to think about that too much), and she was estimated by a Dr. Mouat to be between 5′ 0′ and 5′ 3″. (Insert inevitable joke about “with or without her head” here.) I first became intrigued with Anne Boleyn from the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days, with Genevieve Bujold (5′ 4″) playing the queen.
After watching the series Wolf Hall (2015), another excellent drama based on the Hilary Mantel novel of 2009, I decided to read up on Anne, who was portrayed somewhat less sympathetically than in Anne of the Thousand Days.
Conincidentally, Claire Foy (also 5′ 4″), who portrays Elizabeth II in The Crown, played Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.
After struggling a bit through the Mantel novel, I decided to go a little, shall we say, more readable, with Philippa Gregory’s book, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), told from the perspective of Anne’s sister Mary.
I know there is a movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl, but I just can’t get behind Natalie Portman (5′ 3″) as Anne and Scarlett Johansson (5′ 3″; I thought she’d be taller) as Mary. Don’t ask me why; I’m not sure.
My paternal grandfather’s Aunt Genevieve was Queen–Queen of Mardi Gras in 1888.
I have royal blood, so to speak. Do I wear the crown well? Maybe that’s why I like a good headband so much; it’s kinda like a crown. Combine a headband with cat ears, and there I am!
I’ll be a kind a benevolent queen. Genevieve-landia will be a happy place of peace and harmony. The motto will be Peace and Hugs. I tried inserting this in a Latin translator and got this:
pacem et cubantem piis foveamus amplexibus
Peace and Hugs is a lot easier. No need for Latin.
By the way, Genevieve Cottraux of 1888–her father was a coffee merchant and her uncle was a confectioner. So my royal blood includes coffee and chocolate. I’m taking applications for Royal Barista and Royal Chocolatier. These are appointments of the utmost importance.
Until my coronation, you can find me wherever there are books, kittens, coffee, and chocolate. Wait, that sounds like home.
Monday and Tuesday are my weekend. That’s when I try to do as much in two days as humanly possible. And I start to stress out. Weekends aren’t supposed to be stressful, but when I signed up for a Ph.D. program, I gave up anything that might be called leisure time. I had coffee, real coffee, Monday afternoon.
It was kind of an accident. That all important word DECAF was left off my order with the barista. I realized it before I actually drank said coffee, but I had one of those “What the hell!” moments and down went the delicious beverage.
So here I am at 4 in the morning on Tuesday, my brain on fire. Not good for my beauty rest, but I am getting things done!
The other human in the house is sound asleep. The dog here with me on the couch is snoring. Two of the cats are hiding from me so they can sleep. My only friend at this hour is a 19-year old cat who I bottlefed when she was a newborn and posibly thinks I am her mother. She loves me unconditionally.
You might ask, why am I doing this to myself? Back in the day, if I was awake on my weekend at 4 a.m. I was probably having what I thought was a good time and not remembering it later. I don’t miss those days, believe me! Being a vegan teetotaler graduate student working at an animal shelter might not sound like the good life to many of you, but it’s turned out to be the ideal life for me. As long as I stick to decaf! I suppose I could just become an early shift barista since I am awake, but I am not anywhere close to the the level of hipster required for that.
These days, I dream of book caves and animal sanctuaries, not of wine cellars.
There’s something magical about the combination of cats and books. Cats can make reading hard sometimes, but they just want to know what the book is about!
Throw in coffee (or tea, if you prefer), and you have the makings of a perfect day.
Why are cat cafes becoming so popular? Yep, you can have your cats, coffee, and a place to read all at once.
Given these ingredients–cats, coffee, books–I have the makings of a perfect day at hand! Plus it’s raining and I have nowhere I have to be, making the day even that more magical. So I am going to enjoy what’s left of my weekend in the best way possible. But first, I am going to add naps to that essentials list.
I hear there’s even a pillow to help me out with that.
If only I could get the dog to stop snoring. I could try this trick:
This may be the current popular image of a sleeping beauty:
Okay, maybe this image of Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski from the movie Gran Torino (2008) is a little extreme. But we almost all of us know the “get off my lawn guy”. Heck, sometimes these days I am the get off my lawn guy!
Maybe Homer Simpson is a better example, although I am sure there are Walt Kowalskis in the world.
When I was a kid on Dyson Drive in Atlanta, it was Colonel James G. Bogle. I am sure he was a nice man. He lived a long life (1915-2010), and I hope a happy one. Our family spent many evenings at the home of his family. His daughter, Alice, a few years older than me, had a wonderful bedroom filled with the most spectacular array of toys and games. I was allowed to play in there. According to my sisters, Alice also had all the best Barbie stuff. Col. Bogle kept up a miniature train wonderland in his basement. But I was afraid of him, and we all knew not to step on his lawn
Once, when I was in about 2nd grade, there was a hurricane warning issued, and the school decided to send us all home. It was getting really dark outside, and it was kind of exciting. My mother was at work, and couldn’t come get me. We only lived a block away from the school, but I wasn’t allowed to just walk home. So Col. Bogle came to pick me up and walk me home. I remember being frozen in place, afraid to go with him, and afraid of the coming storm. What’s a scared little girl to do? Looking back on it, it breaks my heart to think of how he must have felt seeing my fear. I wish I could apologize, or have a redo, and slip my hand in his and walk down the street happily missing an afternoon of school.
I just finished reading the book A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. I loved this book, and loved the main character Ove. The book is at times funny, at others sad. Ove can be frustrating. But it’s made me think about the stories of grumpy old men and how they came to be who they are.
I first proposed reading A Man Called Ove to my neighborhood book group after it was suggested to me by one of my animal shelter buddies (and one of my favorite volunteers). My book group declined; they had mostly all read it already and one guest (not a member, just visiting) said she didn’t like it, finding grumpy Ove tedious. Hmmm. Makes me wonder if she is the Grumpy Old Woman version of the get off my lawn guy. (Unfortunately, I’ve had to give up the book group for the time being due to schedule conflicts. But I made some great friends and received so much encouragement from my fellow bookies regarding my school and career decisions.)
The book is from Swedish author Fredrik Backman, and has since been made into a film.
You’ll notice there is a cat featured on both the book cover and the movie poster. Maybe that’s partly why I love this book and I love Ove. The cat does play a central role in showing us Ove’s lovable side. And he does have one.
I can’t wait to watch this movie!
Speaking of movies, there was the Grumpy Old Men movie (1993) and the sequel, Grumpier Old Men.
And there was Harry and Tonto back in the day (1974), another lovable grumpy old guy with a cat.
Another great grumpy old guy who has a story we learn (and I cried over) and comes to find a new life is Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Edward Asner, in the Pixar animated film Up. This time it’s a dog, named Dug, not a cat. Kids and animals are often the way to the heart of the grump.
One of my particular favorites is Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann in My Favorite Year (1982), not necessarily grump, but a handful with a back story.
The point is, everyone has a story. Ove’s story was the loss of his beloved wife Sonja, the only person who ever seemed to accept him for who he was.
The story is often one of loss and loneliness. I write a lot about kindness toward animals, but I also worry that we aren’t kind enough to each other. Bullying in any form is not okay, and often mistreatment of animals and of people go hand in hand. Whether it is your neighborhood Grumpy Old Man or Crazy Cat Lady, show some compassion. Like Ove with Parvaneh and her family, they might come to mean the world to you.
Fictional characters aren’t meant to be role models. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and if they didn’t have some sort of Achilles heel, they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. At least for me, when I read a book, if I don’t empathisize with a character, I am not as drawn in. Except for books by Gillian Flynn. Those suck me in even though almost all of the characters are despicable!
Sometimes I get lucky and really identify with a character, feeling like I know them or am them. The first time I can remember this really hitting me deeply was reading Wind in the Willows as a child and imaging myself as Mole. Not the jaunty Ratty or crazed Toad or wise Badger, but the loyal and kind-natured Mole, who shyly longed for adventures and didn’t always make the best choices but always meant well.
Then there was Harriet the Spy. Again, there were of course differences. I was no more a “tom boy” living in Manhattan with a nanny than I was a talking mole wearing a suit. But I was still her in my mind, clever (but not quite clever enough; things backfire) and misunderstood and nosy and I loved tomato sandwiches. I wouldn’t eat anything else for lunch during my Harriet phase.
I read and read Daddy Long-Legs over so many times, I could recite long bits by heart when I was a teenager. I still feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about curling up in a chair with this book and losing myself in the letters Judy writes to her unknown guardian. She’s small and perky and sometimes unsure of herself. Her adventures in college were probably what inspired me to want to go to Mount Holyoke, which I didn’t get to do, but I had images of myself being a 1980s Judy Abbott there. By the way, don’t bother with the movie version. It bears no resemblence to the book. Do read the sequel, Dear Enemy.
I heard on an NPR story once that part of the appeal in fictional characters and seeing ourselves in them is that they can do the things we can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. Like spying on people (Harriet) or having lovely romances (Judy, who I lived vicariously through during my lonely teen years) or hating everything (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye) or saying smart-ass things to others or some of the horrible things Gillian Flynn’s characters do (just read the books).
I am going through this magical experience of losing myself in a character with Shelby Richmond, the central character in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. I am a big Alice Hoffman fan. Bingeing on her books got me through a dark and cold Massachussetts winter (long story, but I hightailed it back to California after that one winter).
On the surface, Shelby and I don’t have a lot in common. She’s young and beautiful. I picture a Natalie Portman type in the lead role should it become a movie.
I’ve never shaved my head or deliberately cut myself. Shelby is very dark and moody. Not quite Gillian Flynn dark and moody, but still dark and moody. She’s brutally honest and sometimes reckless. She loves New York City, having grown up in the suburbs on Long Island. I tend to smiles and hugs and although I’ve visited New York, I feel no need to spend a lot of time there. She mostly eats Chinese takeout; not my thing.
So, why do I see myself in her? Early on in the story, she thinks about how much she prefers sad songs that dwell on lost loves and lost lives. That’s me! Okay, not enough evidence. That’s lots of people.
I never contemplated suicide, but I spent a few years not really living, hiding in my darkened den and drinking too much while watching The Food Network. Shelby spends 2 years isolating herself in her parent’s basement, smoking weed and watching American Idol. And how does she begin to rescue herself? By rescuing animals. Bingo!
She eventually volunteers at an animal shelter (see, what did I tell you?), knowing she needs to be with animals. She even applies to veterinary school, something I would be too scared to do but daydreamed about at some point (NPR may be on to something). She’s not a vegan, but I think Ms. Hoffman could’ve easily made Shelby a vegetarian, given her love for animals.
When people talk about doppelgängers, they usually mean a look-alike, an evil twin, or an almost ghostly apparition.
But doppelgänger can also refer to a person who is behaviorally like another person. When Shelby, feeling vengeful and bitter, wishes bad luck to her former boyfriend and is glad when it snows on his April wedding day to someone else, it reminds me of me wishing bad things on people who I’ve felt wronged by. Shelby loves animals and claims to hate people, but she takes soup to the homeless girl (who seems to be her doppelgänger) she often sees on the streets. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she is faithful to the ones she has. She learns to care for others and for herself. I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say how I will feel about the ending or what path Shelby takes. But I am on the path with her.