Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Calculating a Limerick

1896 Bichet schoolhouse ~ Marion County, Kansas

Just for fun, I recently asked several people if they knew the meaning of the phrase, “the three Rs.” Most gave me blank looks. A few remembered that it refers to “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic,'” and one sang the old song about school days perfectly. I couldn’t have sung the verses, but the chorus has stayed with me for decades, evoking not only my own early classrooms, but also the wonderful one-room schoolhouses still standing across the country:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful barefoot beau,
And you wrote on my slate,
‘I love you, Joe,’
When we were a couple of kids.

Given that the song was written in 1907, the words of the second stanza seem remarkably modern:

‘Member the hill, Nellie Darling,
And the oak tree that grew on its brow?
They’ve built forty stories
Upon that old hill,
And the oak tree’s an old chestnut now.
‘Member the meadows so green, dear,
So fragrant with clover and maize,
Into new city lots
And apartment block plots,
They’ve torn them all up since those days.

Unfortunately, skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic have degraded over the years as surely as that old oak. School buildings may be fancier now, but I’d willingly bet that graduates of the Bichet schoolhouse shown above could hold their own against many of today’s students, particularly when it comes to the basics.

I will admit that, during my own primary school years, I loved reading and ‘riting, but ‘rithmetic was the bane of my existence. Eventually I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but by that time I was old enough to be faced with accursed, anxiety-producing word problems. For example:

Devon is going to make 3 shelves for her father. He has a piece of lumber 12 feet long. She wants the top shelf to be half a foot shorter than the middle shelf, and the bottom shelf to be half a foot shorter than twice the length of the top shelf. How long will each shelf be if she uses the entire 12 feet of wood?

Faced with something like that, I’d wonder why Devon didn’t just go to the store and buy some shelves, saving herself the aggravation of all that calculating.

In truth, I wasn’t being practical. I was exhibiting behavior typical of what’s come to be called a math-phobic: stymied as much by my conviction that I couldn’t ‘do math’ as I was by the equations themselves.

There always have been  teachers able to recognize and cope with the condition, even though I wasn’t lucky enough to have one during my school years. When I read about Michael Gallin, a high school math teacher in the Bronx, I envied his students, and wondered how differently my relationship to math might have evolved had I been in his classroom.

In an especially interesting article about his approach published in the Washington Post he say of his students, “They are afraid of being wrong, and that fear of being wrong cripples them.”

I might have used ‘paralyzes’ rather than ‘cripples,’ but the dynamic he describes is familiar. Eventually, it was sailing that overcame my paralysis. Forced by my sailing instructor to learn navigation as well as knot-tying and engine-bleeding, the revelations came swiftly. That speed-time-distance formula? Algebra. Triangulation as a means of determining position? Geometry. It all was so useful, and best of all, it was understandable.

In time, thanks to math-savvy friends who actually enjoy playing with numbers, I began to understand that math not only could be useful, it could be fun. When one of them passed on a little gem of a puzzle to me recently, my first amazement was that I could do the mathematical calculations and arrive at the answer.

The twist, of course, was that the formula also could be expressed in the form of a limerick. For once, figuring out the words was harder than doing the math. Once I was given a clue — read the first three numbers not as numerals, but as descriptions of ‘things’ — it got easier, and the limerick began to emerge.

If you’re inclined to give it a try, I’ll give you a couple of clues. The limerick begins with “A dozen” and ends with the phrase “and not a bit more.” Once you click on the solution, it’s unbelievably obvious, even though it takes some creativity to get there. Have fun!

 

 

Click here for the solution

 

Comments always are welcome.

Ashe-Choo!

The scourge of the Texas Hill Country ~ Ashe juniper releasing pollen

Overwhelmed in kindergarten, we wouldn’t have dared to jeer at anyone. In first grade, we began forging alliances, sending our boldest competitors into the fray and encouraging them from the sidelines. By second grade, we were ready to join in the fun, taunting even fifth and sixth-graders with our generations-old insults:

So’s your old man!
Your mother wears combat boots!
Liar, liar, pants on fire!

In time, developing vocabularies and an increasing appreciation for word play moved us toward more complex insults:

When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes, and said, “I don’t need one!”

As our ability to lob or fend off good verbal assaults developed, we became unknowing participants in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond: a tradition maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time.

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” (Oscar Wilde)
“He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” (Sam Houston)
“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” (Mae West)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)

When Lady Astor remarked to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” Churchill famously replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Churchill spared no one, as George Bernard Shaw learned after telegraphing Churchill to say, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Completely unfazed, Churchill sent a message of his own. “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second – if there is one.”

Despite being attributed to Dorothy Parker, one of most trenchant and oft-quoted bits of snark in recent history actually was embroidered on a sitting room pillow belonging to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

No group sat next to Longworth more willingly than many of our best-known novelists and poets. T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, “[He] has a mind – a sensibility -so fine that no mere idea could ever penetrate it.” Robert Browning endured Gerard Manley Hopkins’s assertion that, “[Browning’s] verse is the beads without the string,” while Austenites no doubt recall Mark Twain’s observation that “Jane Austen’s books…are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Even William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway felt it necessary to trade insults. Faulker once observed that Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

Chafed by the criticism, Hemingway responded, “I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which, if you arrange then in the proper combination, you make it stick.”

Given today’s general loss of vocabulary, the promotion of crude and vulgar language by celebrities, and the tendency of social media postings to resemble grade-school level banter, artful insults are hard to find. Nature, on the other hand, continues to perfect the form. Each spring she offers up wordless taunts in a form difficult to counter: the impertinence called pollen.

In Texas, spring pollen season begins early. By December or January, the tree variously called mountain cedar, post cedar, or, more properly, Ashe juniper begins to develop tiny, amber-colored male cones. When conditions are right, pollen-covered cones blanket the trees, drooping the limbs with their weight and making the hills glow an unearthly orange.

Ashe juniper cones ~ photo by Bob Harms, University of Texas

As the wind rises, great clouds of pollen are released to drift across a broad swath of Texas, as far south as the Rio Grande and as far east as Beaumont. If conditions are right, you can hear the sound of the trees releasing their burden into the wind.

Newcomers to Texas can be forgiven their assumption that references to cedars “popping” are hyperbole, or perhaps a folksy figure of speech. In fact, the ‘pop’ of the cones can be audible, and the ‘cedar smoke’ that results — clouds of a particularly nasty pollen — are nothing to sneeze at, even though multitudes do sneeze because of the ghastly allergy called ‘cedar fever.’ Most don’t develop a true fever at all, but that’s small comfort given the severity of other symptoms: itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and wheezing, and major sinus infections.

Rusty Hierholzer, Kerr County sheriff, captured a release of the trouble-making pollen on video.

Mountain cedar, aka Ashe juniper ( Juniperus ashei) releasing pollen

In a passionate and humorous Texas Monthly harangue on all things cedar, Joe Patoski pondered the phenomenon:

I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.

As do we all. Some barricade themselves in their homes. Others buy stock in antihistamine manufacturers. The writer J.Frank Dobie famously left Austin every year when the pollen began to fly. As his biographer, Steven L. Davis, recalls:

Dobie suffered terribly from Cedar Fever, the winter allergy outbreak that afflicts many Austinites. For years he had made himself scarce during pollen’s peak months [and] had long arranged his university schedule so he could teach his “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course in the spring, after the pollen had died down.

Given its ability to annoy humans, as well as its disputed reputation for hogging water, it might seem tempting to pursue on a state-wide basis the course taken by some individual landowners: eradication.

But Ashe juniper is native, and an important part of the regional ecosystem. The tree provides shelter for a variety of wildlife, and nesting materials for  the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Deer, raccoons, gray foxes, coyotes, and jackrabbits consume the berry-like cones, particularly when other forages are limited or of poor quality.

Ashe juniper berries

American robins and cedar waxwings, common winter residents in central Texas, feed on the berries as well, and the trees help to limit soil erosion on steep canyon slopes and in areas where vegetation is sparse. 

Host to the Juniper hairstreak, a green-winged butterfly that feasts on its leaves and nectars on native agarita, ‘mountain cedar’ also provides a rich environment for the native plants that thrive in its mulch.

Texas juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus castalis) nectaring on milkweed

As February gives way to March, the amount of cedar pollen decreases, even as oak and pine pollen increase. Elm, ash, and willow already have begun to add to the mix and soon, as spring unfolds across the country, the sneezing and grumpiness will commence in locations as widely separated as South Carolina and Oregon. But if the thin, greenish-yellow veils covering patio tables, mailboxes, sidewalks, and cars are as insulting as they are inevitable, they bring a certain beauty as well: the aesthetic appeal of pollen swirls on water, and the equally pleasing swirl of a new season into our lives.

Oak pollen abstraction

 

Comments always are welcome.
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

The Poets’ Birds: The Mockingbird (and a Donkey)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

 

José Rosas Moreno (1838-1883), a native of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico, served in various governmental positions during his lifetime, but was equally well-regarded as an author. One of his best-known works centered on the life of  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695), a nun sometimes known as the Tenth Muse because of her work as a poet, dramatist, and scholar. 

Sor Juana, as she is known, emerged as an outstanding writer during the Latin American colonial period, although it was not until Octavio Paz’s 1982 biographical and literary study of her writings, Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith that José Rosas Moreno himself became known to a wider audience outside of Mexico. Moreno also devoted himself to poetry, drama, and children’s literature; a series of Aesop-like fables he authored has remained popular in Mexico.

In 1872, American poet William Cullen Bryant was invited to become an honorary member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics).  In order to accept the honor in person, Bryant sailed to Veracruz, then took a stagecoach to Mexico City. There, he met Moreno and translated nine of the Mexican’s Fábulas, or Fables. Writing in The Spanish Background of American Literature, Stanley Williams notes that Bryant may have been “the first major American poet to recognize the achievements of his Mexican brothers” and to allow, for the first time, “a poet of Mexico [receiving] in the United States the most substantial of recognitions: namely, adequate translation into the English language.”

After returning to the United States, Bryant wrote the following letter dated October 2, 1876, to one Miss Bates from his residence on Long Island, New York:

Dear Miss Bates.
It seems to me almost certain that I answered your inquiry concerning the author of the little poem which I translated from the Spanish. His name is Rosas — José Rosas — a Mexican, whose little volume entitled “Fabulas” is adopted as a leading book in the schools of the Mexican capital. From the preface by his friend Ignacio Altamirano, a literary gentleman of note — and of the pure aboriginal race — I learn that he was known as a poet before the “Fabulas” were published in 1872.

The Libro de Fábulas consists of five volumes. Each contains twenty original verse fables (although only nineteen are included in Book IV), plus an appendix of thirteen verse fables. Some, like a well-known fable involving a camel, have been included in public memorials. While I haven’t been able to locate all fables translated by Bryant, I was charmed by the humor in the mockingbird’s poem, and appreciated the introduction to a new Mexican poet.

A mock-bird in a village
Had somehow gained the skill
To imitate the voices
Of animals at will.
And singing in his prison
Once, at the closing of the day,
He gave, with great precision,
The donkey’s heavy bray.
Well pleased, the mock-bird’s master
Sent to the neighbors ’round,
And bade them come together
To hear that curious sound.
They came, and all were talking
In praise of what they heard,
And one delighted lady
Would fain have bought the bird.
The donkey listened sadly,
And said: “Confess I must
That these are shallow people,
And terribly unjust.
“I’m bigger than that mock-bird,
And better bray than he,
Yet not a soul has uttered
A word in praise of me.”
                              The Mockingbird and the Donkey  ~  José Rosas Moreno 
 

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Word-Winnower

Winnower in the Pontine Marshes ~  Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905)

 

Wind 
winnowed, 
winter-tossed, 
slighter stanzas 
surge aloft: a shed 
and swirling chaff sentenced 
now to fly ~ sibilant bits  
mixing with metaphor; rising
in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm;
seeking the joy of allitérant skies.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on this Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
For additional information about Rudolf Lehmann and other examples of his work, click here.

Hiawatha’s Camera

Unidentified field camera, c.1890s
(Click image for more information)

As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell —  Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.

Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog.  But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.

Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:

The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’

Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.

This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem. 

Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.

Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear.  A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.”  The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:

In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.

In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here.  Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.

The Hamm’s is optional.

Comments always are welcome.

Still Grandma’s Girl

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations: a thirty-five mile trip to a modest frame house in one of south-central Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

Loving but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren, and I joined him as often as I could.

Along one edge of his work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work.

A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted tins, while close by the unlocked door, a small cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as packs of cigarettes and matches.

In those days of penny candy, the contents of the cigar box represented a fortune to a child. When I asked — very casually and with studied disinterest — if the money was his, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke.

Decades later, I realized the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, or perhaps even a cigarette; men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.

Grandpa, my dad, and the workshop ~ ready for company

While the men busied themselves in the back yard, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking.

While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread, or wandered off to indulge myself in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, Grandma’s pantry was a marvel.

On the right, jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples, and luscious bread-and-butter pickles shimmered in the dim light.

To the left, Saltines and gingersnaps snuggled up against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums — pie plates, pitchers, and baking dishes — shared shelf space with store-bought cookies and homemade pies. A footed cake plate with an aluminum cover sat next to my favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that belonged to any child patient enough to whip the cream.There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, and bags of salt for preserving cod or making ice cream.

The rule for the house was the rule for the pantry. Children were to look, but not touch; we rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never picked up a figurine in the living room, or rearranged the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.

But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stare into a pantry was a child with time to help out — especially with cleaning.

Dish-washing, dusting, and sweeping were part of our daily routine and didn’t qualify as cleaning. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. Grandma could clean with the best of them when she put her mind to it, but she often had other, more interesting things on her mind. Still, when the spirit moved and she declared, “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.

Spring and autumn were dedicated to window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering, and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to air the house, neighbors could track her progress by the scents: fresh lavender for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for linoleum; lemon oil for furniture, and vinegar for glass.

In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and the first days of the New Year, Grandma set aside dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.

While Grandpa fled the house and neighbors gave her a wide berth, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house, seeking the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.

Karin Larsson at the Linen Cupboard - Carl Larsson

She was by nature a saver, frugal and self-sufficient, but she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it, or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d forgotten the existence of a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused items could become newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.

Of course her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic: akin to William Morris’s dictum that there should be nothing in our homes that we “do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens, and fabric scraps were saved and transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.

But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.

In the end, very little was thrown away and very little more was given away, but Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.

Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when Grandma began her battle with clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.

We spent hours working together: shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. No matter how tedious the labor, no matter how frustrating the hours I spent working rather than playing, when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.

And that, I suppose, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible.

As each new year begins, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface.

For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of closets and drawers – looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might suddenly step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.

This year, with so much sorting and digging and dispersing already behind me because of my move, household clutter isn’t an issue. But freed from the need to sort through possessions, I find myself pondering a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?

Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities.

Some tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and those small grudges that litter our lives like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once we began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, it would take almost no effort to wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.

Standing at the end of one year and looking toward the start of another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.

Comments always are welcome.