Tongued With Fire ~ A Solstice Remembrance

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in our more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her smartphone in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. While my own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years, occasionally I find myself thinking, I could stand some peace and quiet.

The season often reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Mariah Carey or Brenda Lee blaring through the produce aisle can be more annoying than festive, and the the irony of Silent Night drowning out restaurant conversation speaks for itself.

Even the shores of sleep are washed by ebbing and flowing internal questions: What have I forgotten? Will someone be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   By Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Who needs twelve days of Christmas when only one day of Christmas culminates in exhaustion, disappointment, or boredom?

Seasonal excess aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that human celebrations of every sort take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

The hidden world surprised me years ago, during a holiday in England. After a brief stop in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn with an available room; before long, I’d met a few other guests and joined in their conversation. Soon, the innkeeper and his wife appeared; cheerful sorts, as bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns ought to be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to trek to Stonehenge — ‘that pile of rocks in a pasture,’ as another guest put it. Aghast, they insisted. “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might better be visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that in retrospect seemed to be saying, “Can you believe this poor, benighted American?”

After acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations were better publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of cold weather visits. With only a hint of a smile, the wife said, “For one thing, in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” In those years, that certainly was true.

Enticed by promises of unclogged roads and pleasant conversation, I agreed to make the trip and, as promised, my hosts unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore as we traveled.

While I already knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, that time when the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin solstitium:  a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one charming legend, more than the sun ‘stops’ at the time of solstice. In a silent place, anyone with a quiet mind and stilled heart may hear the earth herself take pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn, and move, and begin again his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old ‘pile of rocks in a pasture.’ When we arrived, any crowds that had gathered to celebrate the day were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds;  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle of stones a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. I found no human presence; the rocks, the sky, and the hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain were my only companions.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering; the pause will come, and the solstice will arrive. Those who are wise will find a bit of space, a portion of emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of an over-filled life to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing over our world’s cold-singed plains will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Reclaiming the Gift of Wonder

My visit from Santa ~ 1952

Looking down from the second-story window of our spare bedroom, the family collection of shovels, sleds, salt bags, and skates filled the front porch: limned at night by the faint glow of the corner streetlight. Protected from wind and blowing snow by heavy plastic sheeting, even the metal-framed glider remained on the porch, ready to accept a full complement of boots, mittens, and scarves.

Still too young to have begun sneaking books and flashlights into my closet, I was old enough to have experienced Santa in person, and each Christmas Eve, shivering with expectation and excitement, I’d watch from that second story window for the arrival of the Great Gift-Giver.

After one of his first visits to our house, only clever parenting saved me from a slide into disbelief. Peering into the recesses of the porch from my second-story perch, I noticed something unusual tucked into a corner of the glider. The light may have been dim, but a yellow body and orange bill clearly suggested a duck: although what a duck might be doing on our front porch, I couldn’t say.

Before I could solve the riddle, the sound of bells, a heavy knock at the door, and a parental call from below meant Santa had arrived for his yearly visit. Flying down the stairs, I found St. Nick waiting for me, holding a yellow rubber duck with an orange bill. It was, in fact, the porch duck: a floating soap holder for the bath.

After Santa left, I had questions: particularly, why had he brought me a present I’d already spotted on our porch? I didn’t yet know the word ‘chicanery,’ but I suspected it was afoot.

My father had the answer. With so many children to visit, Santa needed help; his elves made sure each child’s Christmas Eve gift was in place so Santa’s bag wasn’t so heavy. Other elves stayed at the North Pole, filling bags with toys for Santa’s big around-the-world nighttime journey.  After finding more gifts from Santa under the tree on Christmas morning, I decided the explanation made sense, and never again questioned Santa’s Christmas Eve visits.

The ritual never varied. At the sound of sleigh bells and heavy boots, my father would look up from his newspaper and say, “Better see who’s at the door,” Always, the door opened to hearty laughter; shiny black boots; a beard as white as a falling snow, and a present from the hand of Santa himself.

Eventually, I understood that my parents almost certainly knew Santa’s true identity, but they swore ignorance, and Santa kept arriving. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, the rubber duck soap dish had gone by the wayside and Santa was bringing Chanel N°5.

 Then, with college looming on the horizon, my parents finally confessed. ‘Santa’ had been one of my father’s co-workers, and one of his best friends. While yearly visits to children of colleagues had been great fun, the already retired engineer decided it was time to retire his role as Santa, and those of us who’d enjoyed his visits finally learned the truth.

Since my parents regularly played bridge with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Claus,’  I saw them often, and we had more than a few laughs about those yearly visits.  During my first return from college for the Christmas holiday, we shared a short visit on Christmas Eve, talking again about our long-standing tradition.

Then, we heard sleigh bells. And heavy stomping. And a pounding on the door. “What in the world?” said my mother. “What the heck’s that?” said the former Santa. My father said, “You might want to answer the door.”

Mystified, I went to the front door and opened it to find Santa himself standing on the front stoop. A little chubbier, more bearded, and a good bit heartier in his laugh than my childhood Santa, he said not a word. Bowing, he handed me a package before turning and disappearing into the night.

Back in the living room, I confronted the adults, who swore ignorance. Finally, my mother had the good sense to say, “Well, open the package.” 

Limned by candlelight, the silver and pearl necklace shimmered.

I still have the gift, although I never learned the identity of the giver. Whenever I wear it, I always think of Virginia O’Hanlon and her own concerns about Santa’s existence. Young Virginia sent her question to the New York Sun in 1897, and Francis Pharcellus Church, asked to respond to her letter, produced what has become  history’s most reprinted editorial.

Virginia O’Hanlon
DEAR EDITOR:
I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in THE SUN  it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET
Francis Pharcellus Church
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.
Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God!  he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Although not writing in response to a particular child, and despite not being specifically concerned with Santa Claus, the poet T.S. Eliot clearly shared journalist Church’s convictions about the importance of wonder. In this excerpt from “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” Eliot writes:

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (pubs open ’til midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement

Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree
May not be forgotten in later experience —
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert —
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children.

Both Church and Eliot clearly respected children, and both understood that the spirit of season is a spirit of wonder. In the eyes of a child like Virginia Hanlon — or any other child, of any age — the line between wonder and miracle can be exceedingly thin.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Waiting for Christmas, Waiting for Life

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is obvious with its jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, contains a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious: compelling but forbidden. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility. There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Eventually, every child is tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a certain bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly and resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. No matter how firm or light the step, it creaked beneath human weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, I found the twenty-eighth board the culprit. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the sounds of raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties; they come with the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious and slightly nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

When our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home, I sensed opportunity. Muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects, I stayed home. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from the single overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not yet heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.


Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, my dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during these strange days of expectation and disappointment on every hand, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation: to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in until our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But as patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Advent is a wonderful season, and this Advent post is one of my favorites. In this frenetic time, it seemed worth reposting.

 

A Life Both Reasonable and Proper

U.S. 34 ~ South Central Iowa

Many decades ago, when relatives from Kansas City traveled north to our small Iowa town for family visits, at least half of their trip involved driving on Iowa highways. The experience invariably turned my usually sanguine uncle into a grump. “What’s with your roads?” he’d say. “You ever going to get something besides those concrete cow paths?” A Minnesota friend’s father asked similar questions when her family drove south into Iowa for business or shopping. “What’s with these Iowa farmers? Can’t they build a road?”

Everyone knew there was a problem. Ted Landphair, reminiscing about the highway that bisected my home town, wrote:

[I remember] winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs? Not just in town, but even out in the county?
Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.

Few who drove on those roads failed to cuss at them occasionally. My father surprised us with a few choice words of his own after an encounter with a curb on US 34, a highway paved between 1928 and 1930, provided a memorable lesson in tire alignment and my father’s only known brush with the law.

We were heading home from a farm sale when something — a moment of inattention or simple bad luck — bounced us into and away from the highway curb. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been noteworthy, but a strangely sibilant sound claimed our attention: clickety shhhhh clickety shhhhh clicketyclickty clunk.

After stopping to check the tires, Dad said, “We’ll stop at the next town and figure out what the problem is.” So on we went, easing along at 40 miles an hour or a little more: slow enough to notice if something decided to fall off the car.

Within minutes, we’d been pulled over by law enforcement. Whether it was a sheriff, the highway patrol, or local police, I can’t say, but I certainly remember Dad rolling down the window as the officer ambled up and said, “Going a little slow there, aren’t you?” 

“I am,” Dad said, “but I hit the curb back there, and the car sounds like I did some damage. I thought I’d stop at a garage in Chariton so they can check it out.” Putting his pen away, the officer grinned. “Makes sense to me,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.” Then he was gone. We were back on the road, somehow the problem was solved, and eventually we made it home.

Whenever I think back on that experience — my dad’s explanation, and the officer’s easy acceptance of it — I remember the road signs that made the exchange possible. Given our circumstances, it was perfectly reasonable that we should be making way slowly, and the law was on our side.

Yes, this was a real speed limit sign

The fact that the state assigned to motorists both the right and the responsiblity to decide the best speed for travel seems more than improbable today. The journey from Reasonable-and-Proper to You’ll-Take-Our-Regulations-and-Like-Them is a long one, and the curbs being put in place are increasingly high.

In those early decades of my life, ‘reasonable-and-proper’ applied to far more than life on the highway. People generally assumed it was reasonable to trust others, and proper to help them as we could.

If I needed a dress for a special occasion, I’d often stop by my favorite  shop on the courthouse square and ask the owner if he had something new I might like. He’d show me a few things, then put whatever appealed to me into a bag for me to carry home ‘on approval.’  After trying them on at home, consulting with my parents, and deciding what I wanted to keep, I took the other dresses back to the shop and paid for what I’d kept. Only then was a receipt written up.

Taking things out ‘on approval’ wasn’t a special consideration for my family, or a quirk of life in a very small town.  It was the way business was done. When the owner of the shop became mayor of our town, the same qualities that made him a successful business owner marked his service to the community at large


Occasionally, I’d don one of those special dresses for a shopping trip to Des Moines. The highlight of those trips always was a stop at the downtown Younkers: central Iowa’s version of Macy’s or Saks. Established in 1899, the store became almost mythical before closing in 2005. After its closure, renovations were undertaken, but in March of 2014, the old building nearly was destroyed by fire.

As word of the fire spread, nostalgic Iowans the world over breathed a sigh of relief that the Tea Room had escaped the worst of it. The basement lunch counter, popular with bobby-soxers and people pressed for time, served many of the same foods as the Tea Room, but the fifth-floor Tea Room was an institution.

The Younkers Tea Room Lounge in the 1930s

Even ascending to the Tea Room was an experience. Stepping into the elevator, store customers were greeted by an attendant wearing a cap and white gloves. Resting on a fold-out seat, the attendant pushing the elevator buttons announced each floor in turn. “Second floor. Millinery and ladies wear.” “Fourth floor. Gentlemen’s attire.”

Then, just when patrons thought they couldn’t endure another minute of creeping and stopping, the longed-for announcement came. “Fifth floor. Tea Room. Enjoy your lunch.”

Over time, the baroque decorations of the Tea Room’s earlier decades gave way to fresh interpretations of elegance, but at the time of my first rite-of-passage luncheon there, all the important pieces remained in place: the crystal chandelier; the white linen tablecloths and napkins; the scent of fresh flowers; and the glow of polished wood.

The service was as elegant as the setting. Not long after the 2014 fire Gail Froyen, a long-time Iowa resident, recorded memories of her time as a Tea Room waitress.

My first employment in the restaurant world was at the elegant Tea Room. The ladies lunching there were decked out in beautiful dresses, hats and gloves; gentlemen wore suits, white shirts and ties. White cloths and linen napkins graced the tables. Goblets sparkled, reflecting light from the hanging crystal chandeliers. A pianist played soft music and diners were delighted when seated at tables near the large, gracefully festooned windows.
Clad in my grey starched uniform, little white apron and pin-on hat, I reported to work 30 minutes early on my first day to be trained by a more experienced waitress. Her job was to teach me to serve “The Younkers Way.” She was excellent at her job, and intended that I should reflect that excellence.
After explaining the menu so I could ably inform the patrons how each dish was prepared, she taught me how to properly space the china and silver. I followed her for the rest of the shift, learning how to take an order, to serve from the left and remove from the right, pour water, coffee and tea. Patiently, she insisted on the correct way to be a Tea Room waitress.
What she really taught me was how to be gracious with even the most persnickety patron.

To put it another way, Gail Froyen was being taught how to respond properly to even the most unreasonable patron.

Dina Bechman, who worked as a manager at Younkers in the late 1980s and who supported restoration of the site as a way to preserve at least a portion of a building filled with so many memories, said after the fire:

To see it gone was just devastating. Try as we might to preserve history, sometimes that choice is taken away from us.

And so it is. In time, piece after piece falls away. Younkers is gone, closed because of changing times and then destroyed by fire. My favorite small town dress shop is gone as well, its kind and trusting owner laid now to rest. Even old U.S. 34 nearly has disappeared into the brush: its slabs of concrete meaningless except to those who followed its curves up and around the hills of a much-beloved land.

U.S. Highway 34 ~ going, but not forgotten

Yet if much is gone, much remains of the people who inhabited these buildings and traveled these roads: their trust, their graciousness, and their deep sense of gratitude for the fullness of their lives.

Willing to curb their baser impulses for the sake of safer passage, they brought stability to their communities, and a sense of foundations well-laid. Perhaps it isn’t reasonable to expect such trust, such graciousness, such gratitude, and such stability to prevail, but hoping — and working — to ensure their continuance always is proper.

Comments always are welcome.

Serendipity Strikes Again

When I discovered that a recent photo had captured a fading sunflower petal taking to the air, the image seemed too delightful and too improbable not to share — so I included it on Lagniappe in a post titled “Summer’s Flight.”

Reader Derrick Knight‘s reference to the ‘serendipitous’ nature of the image brought a smile, especially since his use of the word was exactly right. ‘Serendipity,’ a word coined by one of Derrick’s countrymen in the 1700s, refers to something quite different from coincidence or luck, and its history is as interesting as the experiences it seeks to define: experiences which include the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the odd as odd can be.

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined serendipity,  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes Walpole as an exemplar of a particular British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness, and just plain madness.”

Beyond question, Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When not busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters.  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau — presumably written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France — was a fake.

Purported to have been written by King Frederick of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick promised, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Apparently never suspecting Walpole’s authorship, Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume had sent it; in time, the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, which he deemed a “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted others to admire his treasures, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Strawberry Hill

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china, and carpets.”  Some postulate that Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a visual analogue to his writing. As Walpole himself once said:

­Visions always have been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, once suggested that Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

In his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,  John Barthes makes the point that,”You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s ‘serendipity’ was far more than lost bearings or accidental discovery. Sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous, or irrelevant facts — was equally important. Seeing what others have missed is one thing. Realizing what we’ve seen is quite another; it may require time, and patient thought.

This much is certain. A willingness to lose our bearings now and then, and an ability to incorporate accidental or unexpected encounters of any sort into the narrative of our lives, adds vibracy and interest to our days. Two and a half centuries later, Walpole’s most important legacy for our constricted and fearful time may be his conviction that the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the remarkably odd are to be celebrated rather than feared.

 

Comments always are welcome.