Tree Houses, Books, and the Joys of Reflection

To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs.  I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.

No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot.

Tree-climbing was delightful, but I wanted more. I’d seen illustrations of children tucked away in leafy bowers, surrounded by limbs, reading their books as casually as I read in my bedroom. I couldn’t imagine anything more delightful than an hour spent tree-reading, while robins tried to scold me away.

In short, I wanted a tree house. I nagged. I implored. I bargained. I offered to help with the building, or give up my allowance toward its construction costs.

It never happened. Our trees weren’t able to support the open platform most people considered a tree house in those days, and the more elaborate, often free-standing tree houses of today (some of which apparently come with architechtural drawings and a mortgage) hadn’t yet been invented. If I wanted to read, I would have to content myself with front porches, bedrooms and swings.

Still, the connection between reading and trees never was severed completely. As an adult, I indulged  myself by vacationing in grove-hidden homes: a log cabin on the Frio river, a cypress-board cottage surrounded by salt cedars, a sturdy, screened-in retreat next to freely-flowing Hill Country springs. All these isolated, simple shelters had been perfectly designed to accomodate a person, a lantern, and some books. While not tree houses in any usual sense of the phrase, they nevertheless represented the adult version of a childhood dream.

Perhaps that decades-long link between tree houses and books influenced my decision when an online site called TreeHouse: An Exhibition of the Arts emailed, asking if I’d be willing to provide an interview for their site.  Intrigued by their willingness to define the arts broadly enough to include bloggers, yet slightly ambivalent, I gave it some thought, then agreed.


It was an interesting and enjoyable experience. I thought their questions were good, and especially liked one of the simplest:  Do you have any bloggers or writers that you turn to for inspiration…?”

Some time ago, purely for fun, I already had compiled a chronological list of ten books that influenced my life in the past, and continue to do so today. One entry on the list actually is a speech, and another is a genre containing several volumes, but each of the ten has been referenced or quoted here on my blog: sometimes extensively. They’re not necessarily the best books in the world; other list-makers might turn up their noses at my choices.  On the other hand, as Alain de Botton says, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.'”

Here are the ten that came into my life at “just the right time.”

Heidi ~ Johanna Spyri
Gift From the Sea ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ~ Annie Dillard
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor ~ Edited by Sally Fitzgerald
The Alexandria Quartet ~ Lawrence Durrell
The Gospel of John
The Nobel Prize Speech ~ William Faulkner
Four Quartets ~ T.S. Eliot
The White Album ~ Joan Didion
Prairy Erth ~ William Least Heat-Moon; The Control of Nature ~ John McPhee; Rising Tide – John M. Barry

If you’ve never taken the time to make such a list for yourself, I highly recommend it.  Because books come to us in particular places and at particular times, they often become imbued with particular memories. And, while they certainly open new and different worlds to us, they also are capable of  revealing us to ourselves. When that happens, it is a wonder and a joy. The tree house is lagniappe.

 

To read my entire interview with TreeHouse: An Exhibition of the Arts, please click here.

Published in: on October 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm  Comments (7)  
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A New Artistic Paradigm

Once upon a time, when journalism was journalism, gossip was gossip, and propaganda was recognized for what it is, aspiring beat writers learned to begin their news stories by answering six basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? 

The useful mnemonic device has a history stretching back to Cicero, although early rhetoricians framed the questions differently, and the form evolved over time. Perhaps most famously, Rudyard Kipling, in his well-known Just So Stories (1902), included this bit of verse in a tale he called “The Elephant’s Child.”

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew).
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest.

Questions beginning with one of these six famous words are especially useful for information gathering, since none can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  Anyone hoping to write an informative news story, provide a good interview, understand historical context, or carry on enjoyable dinner conversation with a stranger soon will appreciate the importance of the five W’s and an H”. (more…)

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm  Comments (106)  
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Real News for Real People

Finding a current issue of any magazine never was easy during my years in Liberia. In the 1970s, finding even an aging copy of The New Yorker was nearly impossible.

Living in the interior, I did my shopping  in open air markets and Lebanese stores that specialized in canned mackerel, Russian toilet paper, the occasional Heineken, and Chinese tomato paste. In those places, browsing the newsstand wasn’t an option.

Occasionally, I cadged a copy from expatriates with connections to the embassies or international agencies in Monrovia. Now and then, a Peace Corps volunteer would  have an issue to share, and there always was the possibility someone would step off PanAm 1 onto the Roberts Field tarmac with a copy tucked under one arm. (more…)

Published in: on August 2, 2014 at 7:42 pm  Comments (83)  
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Six Years on the Road

Even with a photograph in hand, I can’t tell you much about this car I helped to wash so many times. I never knew the make or model, and todayI’m not even certain of the color.

On the other hand, I remember the back seat perfectly well.  My world-on-wheels came furnished with a red plaid wool stadium blanket, a plastic solitaire game with red and blue pegs, and a doll suitcase filled with crayolas and colored tablets, paper dolls, and a pile of Golden Books.  Whether it was a jaunt over to the A&W for root beer floats, an evening at the drive-in movies, or a trip to my grandparents’ house, the back seat was mine.  It was my castle, my refuge, my tiny bit of homestead to do with as I pleased.

On longer trips, tiring of books and paper dolls, I’d stretch out on the seat and pretend to sleep, while the low murmurings of my mother and father tucked a conversational blanket around me. Sometimes I drifted into sleep, secure against my pillows, enjoying the sense of movement and the soft hum of tires on concrete.
(more…)

Published in: on April 13, 2014 at 9:03 am  Comments (139)  
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How the Grinch Stole Graphics

Most people in Blogville liked graphics a lot.
But the Grinch, south of Blogville,
would give them no thought.
The Grinch hated graphics! For every danged season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knew the reason.
It could be her head wasn’t screwed on quite right.
It could be, perhaps, that her shoes were too tight.
(I think that the reason most likely of all
may have been that her heart was two sizes too small.)
But whatever the reason, her heart or her shoes,
she stood there all Advent, still puzzled, confused.
She stared from her cave with a sour, Grinchy frown
at the warm, lighted windows below in their town.
She knew every blogger in Blogville beneath
was busily hanging a MySpace-type wreath. (more…)
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