Leo

This is my baby Leo. He was a prince among cats. I lost him almost two years ago in August 2016 after a battle with kidney disease and cancer. And I was finally able to paint him. Not only is it difficult to paint a pet you have lost and loved, but he was also a tuxedo cat, and let me tell you black cats are harder to paint than tabbies or calicoes or the like. The more colors, the easier it is to give the impression of depth and substance. But I had already painted Lionel, Leo’s successor, and it was time to give Leo his own painting of honor. Here is the result. I’m pretty pleased. Do not be afraid to tackle those projects so very close to your heart. Your heart will let you know when the time is right. Listen to it.

Leo, meet the world. World, meet Leo. 20180802_131600.jpg

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The Water is Wide

Verdant green rises

On either side,

Thick and lush,

Cool and shaded,

Peaceful.

But the water is turbulent

Churning waves,

Deep and wide

From every direction

Intending to

Upset your raft.

In the distance,

You can see

A calm stretch of water,

Placid and serene,

Before the river turns

Into the unknown.

The Past Comes to Life

I have to brag a little bit today. Four years ago, after my father-in-law passed, my husband and I inherited his parents’ dressers. As my in-laws had been married well over 50 years, these dressers, while quality made, had seen their years of use (and abuse through a couple of moves and five kids). So, we decided to refinish them. And pretty quickly, I got to work sanding them. The sides and top were easy. But then, the drawers! Ugh.  I ran into a couple of snags. First, we had had a minor disagreement with our garage mates because their contractors were using a wet saw inside the garage while all our cars were there. We thought they should set up in the courtyard instead because any debris thrown by the saw could mar the cars’ exteriors. Therefore, I didn’t think I should sand my dressers in the garage either. Second, I could not get the hardware off. They were screwed in tightly; plus, I didn’t have a large enough screwdriver. I was afraid of stripping the screws, and well, leaving myself screwed.

And so they sat. And sat. And sat. In the garage.

But this spring, we decided this is the time. A friend was moving from a furnished apartment to an unfurnished one, so I told her she could have our old dressers. This gave us the impetus to actually finish the dressers. We got the hardware off and finished the sanding and got ready for the next step.

The next step, eh? My husband and I watched quite a few YouTube videos and learned that the next step is not staining, as we had thought, but pre-stain conditioner. Since these dressers are probably close to 60 years old, we thought this was a good idea. Then the stain–three coats–followed by four coats of polyurethane for protection, with a light sanding in between coats. Some nights, my husband and I would come home from work and apply the stain, then sit with a glass of wine outside our garage door “watching paint dry.” Good times. Actually, they were.

The hardest part, I think, was the hardware. I started with Brasso and scrubbing down a piece. Close to 60 years of tarnish takes a long time to remove. It was too hard. I had to find another way. Back to Google. I found a site that told me to soak the brass in a 3-1 vinegar/water mixture for 1-3 hours. I went for 3. Amazing. That took off about 70% of the tarnish. Then the Brasso polishing went much more quickly. But those first couple of pieces I had done before the Google search were already tarnishing again. I couldn’t have that! All this work could not be undone so quickly. Back to Google again! Lacquer is the answer. So after I cleaned all the hardware, I used a spray lacquer to seal them–five coats just to be sure. They should stay bright and shiny for years to come.

Tonight we finally put the hardware back on the drawers and put the drawers back in the dresser frames. Beautiful. We are so lucky.

Sometimes we exert our creativity (and muscle) by refinishing an heirloom and bringing the past back to life in our lives.

Professor Bhaer vs. Mr. Darcy

A friend of mine tagged me on Facebook in a post that linked to a blog which urges readers to “Stop Romanticizing Mr. Darcy When There are Way Better Options in Literature.” She asked what I thought, but as I started to reply, I realized this is not a FB reply; this is a blog post.

First of all, there are many wonderful options of leading men in literature. Mr. Darcy is not our only option. Clare Church, the blogger, argues for Professor Bhaer from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and also argues that Mr. Darcy, while changed by Lizzy, is a wealthy control freak. (Okay, those aren’t her words, but that’s the gist.)

Oh I think think that’s a bit ridiculous and biased. I do think Jo and Bhaer are a great couple, but comparing them to Lizzy and Darcy is apples to oranges.

Professor Bhaer is kind and comforting, like a teddy bear. (Sound out his name; that’s not a coincidence.) He is hard-working and loves children. What’s not to love about that? He supports Jo and her work fully. That’s lovable too. There is no argument that a man like Professor Bhaer would make a wonderful spouse. But as Church herself admits, he’s not “swoon-worthy.” Then again, many (most?) real-life, good men aren’t as well. We could do a lot worse than end up with a Professor Bhaer. I agree with Church that he is a worthy candidate for a significant-other model.

However, the characterization in Church’s post of both Lizzy and Darcy is too one-sided and misses the point of the novel, IMHO. Darcy changes because someone (Lizzy) finally has the gumption to tell him to his face that his manners are rude. He is forced to reconsider himself. As he begins his change, he has no hopes of gaining Lizzy’s hand; rather, he sees a disconnect between his own conception of his manners and how others view him. He aims to repair that. First, he sets the record straight with his letter, but he does not only defend himself, he also acknowledges that his assumptions about Jane must have been wrong because Lizzy knows her better than he. He later puts those assumptions to the test by visiting the Bennetts with Bingley to observe Jane’s interaction with him. He hears, acts, and learns. His attitude changes not only in respect to Lizzy, in fact at this point he does not think Lizzy will have him, but also in respect to Bingley, the Gardiners, and even Wickham. Darcy admits his faults and acts in a different manner than before in order to not repeat them.

In her post, Church quotes Chiara Atik saying “that it’s only the women in Darcy’s life ‘who are able to bring out this more personable and caring side.’” However, this is not really true. It is only the women who are their real selves around him who “‘bring out this more personable and caring side'” of him. Miss Bingley certainly does not, nor Mrs. Hurst, and they are of his circle. Elizabeth does because she does not kowtow; she speaks her mind. Georgiana does because of her innate simplicity and sweetness. Miss Bingley speaks to him as she imagines he wishes to be spoken to rather than with any real interest or understanding, and he does not respond to her artifice.

Furthermore, Church argues that Lizzy merely needs Darcy while Jo wants Bhaer. I challenge this assertion also. Yes, Darcy is the one with the money in the relationship, and Lizzy does not have her own career as Jo does, but Lizzy does want Darcy. In fact, she turns down an offer of marriage which would offer her stability, respectability, and the family home because she does not love Mr. Collins (who could?). Her need and her family’s need does not outweigh her desire to love and respect the man she marries. Lizzy lives in a time women’s dependence on men, but she manages to find a man not only wealthy, but who is worthy of her love and respect. Her father warns her not to marry a man she cannot respect, but the warning is unneeded. Had she merely been in need of a husband, Collins would do; rather, she desires a relationship which is why he does not suit.

Is Darcy intolerable at the beginning of the novel? Yes. Does he let his pride get the better of him? Yes. But we all have moments like that, don’t we? But if we learn from them and make amends when we can, are we not worthy of a second chance? Darcy hears Elizabeth and turns to introspection, concluding, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle…By you I was properly humbled…you showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” (Austen) And if truth be told, it is not the bad-boy-to-good-boy change that I find swoon-worthy, but the Darcy he becomes. I romanticize the Darcy at the end of the novel and find no need to look for someone to change into him.

Mr. Darcy

A quick post-script here about the brief references to Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in Church’s post. If Bhaer and Darcy are apples and oranges, Rochester and Heathcliff are figs and kumquats. Perhaps I will explore their just desserts in the panoply of romantic heroes in literature in future posts. Just know that they do not hold a candle to Darcy or Bhaer.

 

Thomas Merton Exhibit

Yesterday, my friend Gerri and I went to a small show of 22 photographs taken by Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk who was a poet, philosopher, author, social activist, and, apparently, a photographer. The photos are displayed in a chapel at Union Theological Seminary on 121st Street and Broadway. If you are so inclined between today and Friday, it is well worth a half hour of your time to view the photographs that at once display both the clarity of defined edges and the depth boundless meaning and focus our eyes on what we may have missed in ordinary objects. The curator paired each photo with a line or two from Merton’s writings, some hitting the mark perfectly, others less sp, but all still contemplative.

And Union Theological not only offers the photographs a meditative space in an English Gothic revivalist chapel replete with stained glass windows reminiscent early Anglican churches, but also an interior courtyard through which one passes to reach the chapel of Old English (or even Hogwartsian) beauty. And quiet. There in Manhattan, in the hustle bustle of Columbia University, there is peace.

Go if you can. Be inspired.

Some Days

Some days, you sit down to write and the words flow. Your fingers can hardly keep up. You are happy and creative and in touch with the essence of the universe.

Some days, you sit down to write and the words are stubborn. They do not want to come. You must tease them, cajole them, scold them, and force them from their places of hiding.

Some days, you sit down to write and the words have gone AWOL. They will not come. You stare at the screen, stare at the page, change writing implements, change seats, but you cannot find them.

Some days, you sit down to write and open a huge box of chocolates.

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What Happened Here?

As I made my way through Penn Station tonight, I saw what is pictured below:

And I couldn’t help thinking, “What happened here?” There was no one sitting or laying nearby to whom these shoes could belong. And the one stray pastel sock adds another level to the mystery. Does the sock belong with the shoe? Or were there two separate foot wear incidents in such close proximity? Questions arise.

How does one leave one’s shoes behind? And in such an orderly pose? And one sock? With those colours, could that be a child’s sock? A man’s, a woman’s with a sense of whimsy? It poses a quandary.

Naturally, my writer’s brain was quickened by the unusual sight, so much so in fact that I passed the shoes, noted them, but even though I kept moving, they squirreled into my brain, so when I got a short distance away, I went back upstairs to photograph then. What is their story? Don’t you want to know?

But you do of course. It’s in your head, and mine, and hers, and his, and theirs. So here is today’s challenge, a quest perhaps: choose your genre and tell us what happened here.

Mega Shadow Day Creativity Challenge

This afternoon was “Mega Shadow Day” at my school. This is a rather ominous sounding name for a day intended to convince accepted 8th graders to come to the school next year. My principal refers to it as a busman’s holiday as the 8th graders leave their schools to come take classes at ours for the afternoon. But it must work. Year after year, there are 9th graders who tell me that they remember my activity from their Mega Shadow Day the year before.

I am an English teacher with all that that comprises: reading comp, grammar, writing, literary analysis, research methods, but for Mega Shadow Day, I put all that aside and run a little creative writing workshop. I give the girls lollipops, introduce myself, have them introduce themselves, and then provide them with a story starter, telling them that from one sentence, we can create vastly different stories. Then we write for ten minutes. Finally, we share what we’ve come up with so far. It passes the time and is fun, even if some of the girls are a little shy about reading their stories at first.

I ran two sessions today with different 8th graders each time, but the same 9th grade helpers, so I gave two different story starters. See what you can do with one or both of these. Where does it lead you? The only “rule” is that you must start your story with this sentence. Everything that follows is up to you.

  1. I knew I shouldn’t have taken that short cut through the cemetery.
  2. I can’t believe I let Lindsay talk me into taking this short cut.

If you feel inspired, post your story in the comments below or give me a pingback if you post it on your own blog. Happy writing!

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Woolf Tomes

It is midterms week, and I am swimming in exams to grade. So by all rights, I should be grading essays right now. But, then I opened my laptop and the Google doodle announced that it is Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday. As a fan of her work, I must write instead of grade–at least until my battery runs out.

My first direct encounter with Woolf was reading Mrs. Dalloway. I cannot remember when exactly or what made me pick it up, but I do remember that it was not assigned reading for a course. This was something I read on my own. And, I was enthralled. Clarissa, Sally, Peter, they all seemed so real to me, I felt at once as if I were at the party and part of the preparations, and that I was eavesdropping on their private thoughts. And then there were Septimus and Lucrezia, such tragedy in their story. I wanted to help Septimus get the help he needed, tell him what his time didn’t know about PTSD, I wanted to help Lucrezia understand him. And how these two seemingly disparate stories were interwoven. Woolf was keenly aware of how people do not stay in their own lane all the time, but rather messily veer off and sideswipe unsuspecting occupants of another lane.

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses in graduate school, and I recognized in Mrs. Dalloway, the precursor to Molly’s grand, twenty-page, last sentence. I loved the way Woolf had us flow in and out of Clarissa’s mind and Septimus’s. This is what brings them so vividly to life. English major/English teacher geek that I am, I read up a little on critics’ thoughts of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. Many regard this her most accessible novel and warn of her increasing use of stream of consciousness in To the Lighthouse, some claiming Woolf had gone too far with that one, rendering the story nearly unintelligible. And I thought, “Challenge accepted” and bought a used copy.

I don’t know what those critics were thinking. To the Lighthouse blew me away. I loved it even better than Mrs. Dalloway if that’s possible. Mrs. Ramsay, her children, her husband, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay–what a tableaux they paint of the complexity and messiness of human relationships. Yes, the stream of consciousness is further developed here, but if those critics really could not follow the story, they do not deserve the position.

I have recommended Mrs. Dalloway to my students and keep a few copies on my bookshelf. I have taught at least sections of A Room of One’s Own, always urging the girls I teach to read it all. And I ask them, “Do you agree with Woolf that all a woman needs is ‘a room of her own and five hundred a year’ to be able to write?” And they answer this with varying degrees of insight.

Tonight I am sitting in the Starbuck’s in Penn Station–a loud, busy place–writing my blog, hardly a room of my own, and the woman next to me asked, “Are you writing a paper?”

“No,” I responded, “a blog post.”

“I coudn’t imagine writing here,” she said.

But hearkening back to my earlier post, we have to take those stolen moments when we can. Would I be more productive if I had ‘a room of [my] own and five hundred a year’? I would hope so. But for now, I’ll take my stolen moments and contemplate which Woolf tome to tackle next.

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