Homespun Intelligence

“Brighter! Make it brighter!” – Charles Dickens

We are all daunted by someone or something. Even Pulitzer prize winning writers like Michael Dirda. In his latest book, Browsings, a compilation of a year of columns he wrote for The American Scholar he said that he was “cowed by the prospect of succeeding William K. Zinsser” in the online column. He said that even in writing an introduction to his book, he could hear Dickens’ admonishing words: “Brighter! Make it brighter!” This only proves that writers are always trying to better themselves even if they are chosen as “one of the twenty five smartest people in the nation’s capital.” This was Washington of course, Dirda being American, but with some humbleness and I suspect a bit of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, he wore the banner well, saying “you have to consider the competition.”

Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well” died in May of this year. He was one of my heroes so I understand Dirda’s dilemma in following in the footsteps of such a distinguished man of letters (and I could not mean this more literally). But Dirda is not a shrinking violet when it comes to writing, being a regular writer for the New York Review of Book and the Washington Post, author of numerous books, and receiver of many awards. Yet he keeps it all in perspective.

Fellow writer Steven Petite (author of Concept of Home) says that Dirda’s reviews “are oftentimes personal anecdotes about his life, and he speaks in the first person at times which is not common for highbrow literary critics….” He is passionate about the written word, but uses it to convey not just intelligent thought (I feel smarter after reading him), but intelligent thought in a way that does not make the reader feel…..uh….stupid. Having read a few books that have made me feel stupid (not illuminated, not enlightened, not more informed) I really appreciate his “way with words”.

Dirda says that a writer’s greatest challenge is “tone.” He says that he likes “a piece to sound as if it were dashed off in fifteen minutes—even when hours might have been spent contriving just the right degree of airiness and nonchalance.” His wish to appear as if he just dashed off a piece of writing is my fear. Because I am not as well-established as he is, I fear that people think I dash these columns off in fifteen minutes (which I guess goes back to the writer’s ever petulant inner voice which is never kind).

My dream is to someday compile my columns into a book. There, I have said it. Aloud or as aloud as the written word will permit. Alas, I have voiced this wish before somewhat timidly and tentatively and been met with a variety of responses. Many have been encouraging, yet the one that comes back to haunt me is the person who said, “Well, don’t you have to be famous before a compilation of your columns would be published?” My response to this person was merely a raised eyebrow, although my first instinct was to punch him in his prominent belly really, really hard. A girl can have her dreams can’t she? Dashing them is ill-advised. (Now where did I put that Pulitzer prize?)

“Done is Better Than Good”

I declare this to be my new procrastination-battling mantra. They say that some procrastinators are perfectionists, and because of this trait they do not do what needs to get done. I find myself in this rut and I want to dig myself out of it, and if the pragmatic words: “done is better than good” help me achieve a win over my battle with delaying tactics, postponing the inevitable, and stalling strategies, then I am believer.

Not a believer in the true sense, in that I really would like everything I do to be “good”, but I am willing to employ “done is better than good” to some areas of my life (like dusting and vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom). I came across these wise words in Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book “Big Magic”. Her mother gave her this advice with the explanation that, “There are only so many hours in the day, after all. There are only so many days in a year. There are only so many years in a life. You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.” Gilbert’s mother felt that “mere completion is a rather honourable achievement in its own right.”

I agree. Now all I have to do, is “ just do it”. (Sorry for the steal, Nike.)

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Published in: on November 17, 2015 at 4:49 pm  Comments (3)  

No One Forgets

It is the 100th Anniversary of the poem “In Flanders Fields” composed by John McCrae. It is a poem many of us learned by heart when we were in school. If you are like me, at the time we recited this ode to those who fought and fell, it did not necessarily touch us. We did not understand the significance. It touches me now. And I deeply feel its significance.

Dr. McCrae is said to have written and abandoned the poem before he was finally convinced to submit it for publication. It was published in Punch, a London based magazine on December 8, 1915.

McCrae’s poem is recognized as providing us with the poppy that we wear proudly each November in honour of Remembrance Day. I no longer know the poem written in the form of a *rondeau off by heart. But when I reread the poem it brings to the fore the essence of Remembrance Day. I particularly find the second verse haunting and discomforting. McCrae truly “hits home” in his description of those who were once alive, now dead:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

An explanation (in of all places, Wikipedia, which I should give more respect as I use it all the time) of the poem and McCrae’s “preoccupation with death and how it stands as the transition between the struggle of life and the peace that follows” comforts me to an extent. Apparently McCrae’s poem not only “speaks of …sacrifice”, it also serves as a “command to the living to press on.”

And so I shall “press on”, having been given that gift by all those who have served and continue to serve our country. I am much encouraged that the youth of today understands the sacrifices made for our freedom that I perhaps was oblivious to when I was younger. Proving this point is as easy as going to the website http://www.legion.ca and perusing the many winners in their poster, poem, and essay contests commemorating the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.

I was made aware of one such poem by a story in the local daily. A student from Windsor earned national recognition from the Royal Canadian Legion for her poem called “The Soil at Vimy Ridge”. Timely too, as the Battle will be commemorating its 100th Anniversary next year. As McCrae’s poppies were the spectators of the crosses row on row, the soil in Ines Fielder’s poem was a participant. The poem is written from the perspective of the soil upon which the battle was fought. Here is the last verse in her poem:

I am the soil at Vimy Ridge.
A witness to the war,
Some may say they’ve seen it all
But I have seen much more.

The soil sees all, feels all, and remembers all. The following verse is the beating soul of the poem:
I’ve felt the boots of twenty thousand
March towards their slaughter,
Sacrificing everything for
Wives and sons and daughters.

Pausing for a few moments on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 a.m. is not enough. I beseech you to go to this website and read the stories and the poems and enjoy the winning posters. They will give you a new perspective and a keen sense of the way our youth is carrying on “in remembrance.” They are not forgetting.

*a rondeau is “a short poem of fixed form, consisting of 13 or 10 lines on two rhymes and having the opening words or phrase used in two place as an unrhymed refrain” {p. 1243 of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language}. I hope this clears it up for you. It is still murky as mud to me.

Published in: on November 11, 2015 at 11:26 am  Comments (2)  

Magical Habits

My newspaper column this week: had a little trouble coming up with a topic so did some book reviews.

Books I Am Reading That You May Enjoy

1. Big Magic

I believe in magic. It is not like I have proof that there is magic in the sense of the paranormal, but I do believe in mysterious things, miraculous things, enchanting things, and all things charming and charmed. And when a book has the word Magic in its title, I just have to give it a whirl. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love) has just written a book called “Big Magic”. She is convinced that “the creative process is both magical and magic.”

When she refers to magic, she means it literally even though she admits that it is “decidedly unscientific” and not an “especially modern or rational way of seeing things.” She unabashedly believes in “magical thinking” and says that when she refers to magic she means “Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly.”

She thinks that we all possess this magic and that “if you’re alive you are a creative person”. While the “guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts only belong to a chosen few” she strongly feels that “we are all the chosen few.”

Her definition of a creative person is a “maker” and that we are all descended from tens of thousands of years of “decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem solvers and embellishers”.

Why should you read this book? Because it expands on the definition of creativity to include all of us. And to me, that is magical.

2. Memoir

As a genre, I love memoir. I love to read about what people believe are things important enough in their life to share. And, I love to see just how they share them. I am also intrigued with how they deal with the TRUTH. While the truth may set you free, it can also get you in trouble. In the “Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr, she wrangles with the truth, and I think in an arm wrestle she would win.

She does not believe that Truth should be wrangled with and says that when she reads a Memoir, which she considers non-fiction (read: telling the real story), she does not want to wonder what the truth is. She says, “It niggles the hell out me never to know exactly what parts the fabricators (she does not bequeath them with the pure term memoirist if she feels they do not deserve the title) have fudged.”

She believes in the power of the Memoir (having written three herself), and says that writing a memoir “wring(s) some truth from the godawful mess of a single life.”

Why should you read this book? I will let Karr answer. She says that the act of bringing “oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely.”

3. Habits

I like Gretchen Rubin. She writes books that she hopes will help people. And she is very sincere. Author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happy at Home”, her latest tome is called “Better Than Before”. In her latest offering she wants to help us master the “habits of our everyday lives.” Habits that make our lives flow; habits that once established free us up for living.

On the surface, habits seem dull, but in reality, they make way for the less mundane. Rubin believes that “all of my work on habits and happiness (is) meant to help us construct, as much as possible….everyday life with deep, loving relationships and productive satisfying work; everyday life with energy, health, and productivity; everyday life with fun, enthusiasm, and engagement, with as little regret, guilt, or anger as possible.”

Why should you read this? Again, I will let the author answer. Rubin says: “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.”

Any books you would like to add to the list?

Published in: on November 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm  Comments (8)  

A Gift

Indian summer
Glorious sunshine captured ~
Ebb and flow of fall.

Published in: on November 1, 2015 at 1:38 pm  Comments (2)