The Book of Life, and Then Some

I am on my summer vacation, in France, England, and upstate New York amongst other places. No, I haven’t left my house! I am immersed in Deborah Harkness World.

Her latest, The Book of Life, was released on July 15th (my birthday! Thanks!! This used to happen with the Harry Potter books and films too. Magical!). I grabbed it and started reading it immediately, eating, breathing, sleeping Diana, Matthew, and the rest of the witches, vampires, and daemons I have come to know and love (or hate!) in this series. I loved the book. It was wonderful, heartrending, enriching, funny — I didn’t want it to end. Luckily, there was a way to make it not end: I could read the entire, glorious, each book almost 600 pages trilogy again, one after the other.

I’m almost done  my re-reading of the first book, A Discovery of Witches, and all I will say is Best. Vacation. Ever. It feels like such an indulgence to do this (especially when my partner in reading is a glass of wine!), but I am enjoying every minute of it.

I’ll write more about these books after I’m back from vacation ;)

The Earth Laughs in Flowers

Emerson

I was perusing Pinterest and came across this cross stitch design. It’s awfully pretty. The design makes you think the Earth is putting out flowers in joy, metaphorically, like humans laugh. But I can’t help but think that the designer didn’t read the Emerson poem that contains these words because the meaning of the poem is anything but. I’ll share the poem it its entirety below, but here is part of the poem that contains the quote:

Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.

Perhaps if the design also included some memento mori-esque skulls, a burning candle, and/or an hour glass along with the flowers, it would evoke the poem’s message. It’s about how humans think we own the earth, but we don’t — we die. As the Earth song sings — How am I theirs/If they cannot hold me/But I hold them?

I do not want to single out this maker – do a google images search on this quote and your head will spin when you see field of happy flowers after field of happy flowers illustrating this quote.

As I implored with my Hamlet, To Thine Own Self Be True post, read. Please read. If you see a quote that interests you, look it up. Read the poem, play, essay, speech, or other source it comes from. Then, and only then decide if you want to paint it on your wall, embroider it on a sampler, or, dear me, tattoo it on your body. Honor its meaning, and not what you might think the five word excerpt means out of context.

Speaking of context, here is Emerson’s Hamatreya. It’s amazing and moving and so, so much more than a photograph of a field of flowers with a tired script font overlay.

Hamatreya

BY RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
Possessed the land which rendered to their toil
Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood.
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,
Saying, “’Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.
How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!
How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!
I fancy these pure waters and the flags
Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize;
And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.”

Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.
They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,
And sighed for all that bounded their domain;
“This suits me for a pasture; that’s my park;
We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,
And misty lowland, where to go for peat.
The land is well,—lies fairly to the south.
’Tis good, when you have crossed the sea and back,
To find the sitfast acres where you left them.”

Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.
Hear what the Earth say:—

EARTH-SONG

“Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide—
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.

“The lawyer’s deed
Ran sure,
In tail,
To them and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
Without fail,
Forevermore.

“Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
But the heritors?—
Fled like the flood’s foam.
The lawyer and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

“They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?”

When I heard the Earth-song
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.

A Musing: Choosing Civility

One of my little pet subjects is etiquette. Miss Manners is one of my idols (and not only because she is Excruciatingly Correct. I think she’s funny, wise, and a heck of a good writer). Observing basic mannerly behavior makes going outside into the chaotic world so much easier and more pleasant for all of us. Really, it has nothing to do with what fork you use at dinner  — I think of stuff like that as social mores.

Anyway! When I was in Indianapolis at the Conference for College Composition and Communication I saw P.M. Forni’s Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct at one of the publisher’s tables, and was intrigued. I promised myself I would read it as soon as I got a moment — and the moment is now! My local library had a copy and I scooped it up.

The Rules are worth listing here. I think they make  for a rather nice way to be in the world:

Pay attention

Acknowledge others

Think the best

Listen

Be inclusive

Speak kindly

Don’t speak ill

Accept and give praise

Respect even a subtle “no”

Respect others’ opinions

Mind your body

Be agreeable

Keep it down (and rediscover silence)

Respect other people’s time

Respect other people’s space

Apologize earnestly

Assert yourself

Avoid personal questions

Care for your guests

Be a considerate guest

Think twice before asking for favors

Refrain from idle complaints

Accept and give constructive criticism

Respect the environment and be gentle to animals

Don’t shift responsibility and blame

Forni’s musings and explanations are very much worth reading, though, for the deep understanding he brings. Once of the things I loved most about the book was that he went into the etymology of many of the words we use to think about this subject (civility, courtesy, politeness, manners)  and wove quotes and ideas from authors and philosophers on civility in with his own, modern thoughts. This is very much a thinking, reading person’s etiquette book!

My absolute favorite quote from the book? My heart flipped when I saw he included Forester’s words from Two Cheers from Democracy:

I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.

Tears! The entire thing is so worth reading. But I digress. The Big Question — how does one measure up? I can say that I’m not half bad at living the concepts in the list but for one: I’m a complainer, and I know it! I rarely complain at home or to my friends, but I am such a complainer at work. I have to improve this! This is not about voicing your concern and trying to bring about change (that’s good! That’s being assertive), but rather the “rarr rarr rarr this is unfair! I can’t believe rarr rarr rarr!” things. I agree — it brings others down and is exactly what Forni calls it: “a futile exercise in negativism.” How can I improve? Forni suggests making a list of all the things you regularly complain about over and over again like a broken record without ever making a solution for change. Choose one per month to “expunge from your repertoire.” When you are tempted to go on one of your rants, stop. Instead, “refocus on problem solving. What can you do about it? What are the reasons for the problem?”

Wow. This is actually pretty incredible. Instead of me ranting negatively about how the students don’t care, and making everyone around me spiral into a complaint-fest, I can think of a few strategies to try and engage the students so they do care. I can also realize that there are so many reasons for this that are completely out of my control, and I could just let it go. I do believe I feel 50 pounds lighter! I need to write in really huge letters on my desk WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT? WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR THIS PROBLEM? so I can be reminded to problem solve and refocus instead of making my tiny violin screech “wah wah wah!”  THANK YOU DR. FORNI!

So yes! I think this is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it if you, too, have a little pet interest in etiquette (and perhaps especially if you don’t!). This book will make you think about your own behavior in productive ways, and truly has the ability to make the world a better place.

A Musing: William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary

Watts painting of William Morris

E. P. Thompson has written not so much a biography of Morris (I still don’t know what he ate for breakfast, anything much about his relationship with Jane Burden, or the details I crave about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood) but rather a study of his political life. He argues that Morris’s love of the Romantic movement (Truth, Beauty) laid the groundwork to his future Socialism.  His work in the decorative arts and the creation of Morris and Co. only added fuel to the Socialist fire, so to speak.

Once I realized that I wasn’t in for the traditional biography I thought I signed up for, I went along for the ride. Did you know Morris worked with Engels?! Did you know he was a member in multiple Socialist leagues, writing for their papers, standing on street corners and makeshift stages all across England speaking for the cause? When I read tiny blurbs about Morris, I always see “decorative artist” as his defining contribution to society, but I couldn’t disagree more. Sure, I swoon over the Strawberry Thief and his Acanthus leaves like anyone else in love with Morris’s aesthetic, but I feel that his real gift to us was his insights into the relationship between art and labor.

The last section of the book, Part IV Necessity and Desire, is the finest summary of Morris’s beliefs I’ve come across. It made slogging through the minutia of each socialist meeting worth it :) Thompson weaves Morris’s writings from essays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles, and other sources into a coherent and compelling manifesto. I found myself clutching my heart and thinking, “Yes, this is exactly what I think!” over and over. Are these not words to live by?

Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour. Nothing should be made by man’s labor which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.

An art which is made by the people and for the people as a happiness to the maker and the user.

Any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork . . . does not understand what art means.

…the best artist was a workman still, the humblest workman was an artist. This is not the case now –“

This section also offered the most personal glimpse into Morris — here I see the growling, furious lion-man who loses it over a bad, unfaithful renovation to a church. The sadness of a person who never found the love he craved and the change in the world he hoped to see. The guy who scoffs at teetotalers and back to nature-ites. I’ll admit it — I do want more of this. I will certainly be reading another biography to understand the person, but I am grateful to have met the thinker.

image: I love all of the paintings Watts did of Morris. Ah!

A Musing: A Cast-Off Coven

The second book in Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mystery series was just as enjoyable as the first. In a turn of events, I enjoyed this mystery even more than the characters this time around! I also loved the witchy elements — they were done well and carefully.

Maybe this will get the academics AND the pagans in a tizzy, but I’m finding much overlap in the New Materialist philosophies (especially the vitalist strain) that I study, and the Pagan worldview as exemplified in this book. The descriptions of the energy in vintage clothing is not far from the comments of the makers, collectors, and scholars of the Arts & Crafts objects I’ve been researching, too. As Mark Samuels Lasner, Morris scholar and collector extraordinaire commented,

I believe that objects are practically human, or animate anyway, and they have three tales to tell: the story of their creation, the story of what they mean in their own time, and then the story of what’s happened to them since.

See? :)

By the way, the entire Lasner interview is amazing. I want to be him when I grow up!

I sincerely hope that the other Witchcraft Mysteries find their way into my possession very soon! At the end of this book was a teaser for the third book, and I’m already hooked.

A Musing: Secondhand Spirits

51OcwtyB4oL

This book was so much fun! Witches! Vintage Clothing! San Francisco! AND a Pot Bellied Pig/Goblin! Blackwell gets all the details right: witchcraft is treated intelligently and respectfully, she knows her vintage clothing, and all of the quirks that let you know that you are in SF, a place like no other, are there — even down to the food. Even down to the coffee shops! The quote before the book begins is Keats <3

I heard some good things about this book, but got pretty worried when I saw the cover. It looks like vapid chick lit, huh? Well, it’s not. Lily, the main character, is smart, interesting, vulnerable, and imperfect. The author’s insight into human nature is complex and moving. I completely agree with the author’s musings about clothing, magic, cooking, and selfhood. I really like Bronwyn and am so, so, so curious about Adian.

I’m not a big mystery reader, and guessing whodunit is not one of my things. The mystery was probably the aspect I liked least about the book, but I still thought it well done (and totally didn’t guess who it was).

I have the next book in the series, and can’t wait to start it. It centers around the San Francisco Art Institute! That’s like where I work, only in SF! I put the others on my paperback swap wish list — we’ll see what happens. I may have to spring for these because they are that pleasurable, and it’s summer, and I want to get to know these characters better.

Did you read the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter books (before they got super smutty) and totally loved them? Then I think you would like these.

(and see. I’m not a total book snob. Just maybe an 89% book snob. He hee.)

Wild Beasts

Just a quick note to recommend to my bookish friends the band Wild Beasts (that is, if you already don’t listen to them obsessively as I do!). They are amazing for a million reasons, but the one I want to tell you about is their perceptive, intelligent, emotional, and literary approach to songwriting.

 

*swoon*

You can read more about the band’s influences here:

http://www.mindfood.com/article/tom-flemming-on-books-writting-book-club/

They are playing a free show in NYC in July, and I’m trying to decide if I’m too introverted to go :)