CELEBRATE ALL FOUR SEASONS with memoir, poetry, and short stories
In the vein of Thoreau and Walden Pond, William Paul Winchester recounts his life on twenty acres in rural Oklahoma as simple and poetic. Nothing is diminutive. Embrace each blade of grass, the cow Isabel, the harvester ant, the sycamore, and the relics of the Dutchman's property.
As he labored to build a house on a century-old foundation and strove to live off of the land, Winchester fully details the intricacy of each season with simplicity. Consider a summer scene—“Lightning bugs and glow worms, their bioluminescence dependent on phosphorus, were drawn to my twenty acres in such numbers that walking out on a still summer evening is like passing through the center of a meteor shower.”
Winchester's memoir is just as much a commentary on contentment as it is a call to perspective. He writes, “To live in the country in a house I built for myself, with meaningful work and a margin of leisure, free to create a little universe of my own making—this was my idea of happiness.”
You don’t have to be a Transcendentalist to enjoy Emerson’s delightful observations of “Earth-song.” Choose a season, and Emerson will regale you. From the “burling, dozing humble-bee” to his odes on Nature, his rambles and travels through the seasons are equally detailed in appreciation:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
I leave you with the words of our final author, Washington Irving, and his commentary on the passing of seasons in “Christmas” from his Sketchbook--
We derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we ‘live abroad and everywhere.’ The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight...But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn our gratifications to moral sources.”
originally published November 18, 2018
MAN IS THE REAL ALIEN.
I reread a few classic short stories this week, one by an American and one by a Frenchman. In each story, man was this dissatisfied creature who couldn't find himself whether on Earth or Mars or Minerva. He tainted everything he touched.
Through science fiction as a genre, this avenue of thought is prevalent. It's the best of social criticism, albeit a veiled philosophy--
CAUTION! MAN IS CAPABLE OF MASS DESTRUCTION.
It's a disturbing but simple pattern. Humans introduce music or a virus or a bomb and a civilization is forever changed. Consider Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, a seminal apocalyptic work from 1959. Yes, it deals with the effects of a nuclear war on the small town of Fort Repose, Florida, but it began with an inciting accident in Syria. Post-war life shows the natural and realistic breakdown of society amid its plucky and frequently criminal citizens.
The genre is a simple yet provoking tool. The stories may explore new places and settings but really they depict man's true nature and often the consequence of choice. I have many favorites including Orson Scott Card's series and Isaac Asimov's short stories, but I most frequently recommend the list below:
Share your favorite short or long science fiction reads in the comments section, especially why you love a particular story!
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind of autumn is no longer accused of bringing a permanent death. Winter is not an evil. Yes, the seeds that the wind blows will die and be buried for but a season because the warm spring wind will certainly return to bring life.
As much as I thrill to the autumn Keats describes in “To Autumn,” I find a deeper, more intense awareness in Shelley’s poem. Both poems are personal, yet Shelley’s feels like a prayer by the fifth and final stanza.
With great earnestness, he asks the wind to play upon him, that he would be the harp just like the trees of the forest are strings for the wind to play upon. Shelley’s plea extends to his heart. Would that the wind could drive his dead thoughts away like nature’s seeds and bring those dead words to life. He commands the wind to do so, to scatter his words across the earth. I know, I know. Shelley may have been prompted by thoughts of glory and fame, but what if the spiritual parallel goes further?
What if Shelley knew of David’s words in Psalm 49:4-5?
My mouth is about to speak wisdom; my heart’s deepest thoughts will give understanding. I will listen with care to God’s parable. I will set his riddle to the music of the lyre."
How unique that Shelley’s earnest determination parallels David’s. A similar passion drives them as both desire to make a mystery known through lyric.
Their expressions continue to resonate with me, and my hope remains—that I too can echo Shelley’s words in prayer, “Make me thy lyre.”
I read so much this summer that it was hard to choose what to include this year. And I almost added a new category titled BOOKS I HATED but thought that might be too much! Hint: They are excoriated (ahem! listed) on my Goodreads account.
I have many, many more books to read (and a few to write), but do share your own favorite summer reads in the comments below. I'd love to hear what brought you delight or simply got you thinking!
Dictionary and thesaurus apps.
Etymology and word roots.
Language study and Interlinear Bibles.
Writing tools in this century are at our fingertips. Yet as I work on my first novel, the most unusual resource has resurfaced—a 1929 Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder. I call it my fat word builder.
I admit it’s been abandoned for a while on our bookshelves, possibly for ten years, but now—now it’s a rarefied gem in my eyes. Yes, it’s a single book. It has only been recently digitized, and there are many newer editions.
Its genius resides in the collection of associated meanings, not just straight synonyms.
Let me give you an example from my summer editing work. In my novel's first draft, I have definitely overused certain words like come, wind, were, and a most heinous repetitive phrase--began to. Apparently my heroine Carina likes to begin things. She began to sit or stand. She began to crouch. She began to laugh. Goodness. I promise she finishes things. Really.
Now for the edits with Hartrampf's help. I look up the word "begin" in the back index. I'm delighted to find an entire page devoted to its use. The top of this page says to see other possible connections for "start" or "commencement." A handy list with additional pages is right there: birthplace, excite—rouse, change, opening—foreword, musical beginnings, time preceding, or cause. Which kind of "begin" do I want? I could flip to any of those or look below at the parts of speech:
And this is just one-eighth of the page. The word wonder continues with many family and neighbor words for "begin." For my character, though, I found that many times she was not truly beginning something. Instead of "With knife in hand, Carina began to crouch..." I realized she wasn't beginning anything. "With knife in hand, Carina crouched..." was more accurate and less wordy. Of course, I could have said, "She prepared herself." In reality "crouched" became the best fat word. Yes, fat. These words contain action and image and power.
As a writer, I can say in all sincerity that I have finally found a happy and pleasant use for the word fat.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me. Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
photo by Margarida C Silva on Unsplash
HAVING GROWN UP IN MISSISSIPPI, I have a weakness for Southern fiction. My curiosity was especially piqued by a friend’s gift and this Southern claim. I do confess to admiring many of John Grisham’s novels, particularly Sycamore Row, but I I rarely read a bestseller unless a better-read friend attempts it first. I shun New York Times’ bestseller lists simply because they are popular. Forget the press and the hubbub.
Case in point. I made the mistake of reading Gone Girl a few years ago and have always regretted the hours I lost. I found I intensely dislike amoral stories without one character to savor or cheer for. Thankfully Delia Owens’s Kya Clark is not that character, though she appears a pitiful orphan in every way. How forlorn to hear young Kya’s thoughts—“What she wondered was why no one took her with them.” Yet this read is more than character-driven.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens steeps her readers in a thoroughly engaging marshland setting. In fact, I would go so far as to compare her land to a living character much like Willa Cather does in her immigrant novels.
The land is ripe with paradox—safe yet dangerous, shining yet muddy, life amid decay.
Like Cather, Owens’s language fills us with every sensation and plants us firmly in Kya’s world of loss and hope. The land indeed nurtures her into and through her adult life with a “yearning to reach out yonder.” In her younger years, nature is a place of solace, a companion. But once her heart is awakened to human love and to the real relationship of years, creation cannot fill the void in the human heart—--
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”
And there is a void. More than a century before, Cather writes of this too. Within O Pioneers!, the land is characterized more by its strength than by its vastness. Like a human personality, it can be overbearing or supportive. Alexandra Bergson understood this. She too was intimidated at first as “the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar kind of savage beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness,” but as decades passed, the land appears an empathic friend as it “responds in kind.” More than personified, the land becomes a rounded character in full relationship with man.
Like Alexandra Bergson, Kya possesses a faith in the land that others lack. The land is wholly human to her in relationship. And, if she has a faith, then it is no wonder that creation responds to her and reveals its treasures. It is there that she finds friendship with the marsh’s creatures, safety from prying eyes, relationship with her first love Tate, inspiration for the work of preserving nature in art.
More than eco-fiction, this novel doesn't preach of preserving the marshland, at least not overwhelmingly like a smarmy salesman. The story is one of relationship. Where the land could have been seen as a trap that limits, it is ultimately a place of rescue for Kya.
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash
AGES AGO I took a college course titled “History of the English Language.” In the textbook, Pyle and Algeo argue that language development makes us human. They begin with what we know—speech comes first then writing. Simply put, we can talk before we can write. There are spoken languages in fact with no written form. In spoken language, inflection and stress provide intended meaning. Writing itself distinguishes meaning through its process, but it is useless without words.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle.
But before it entered an English dictionary, the word word was known by the Greeks as logos. In pre-Socratic philosophy it was the principle governing the cosmos because it encapsulated human reasoning. The Sophists later saw it as the topic of rational argument or the arguments themselves. The Stoics viewed logos as nous—the active, material, rational principle of the cosmos that was identified with God. It was both the source of all activity and generation and the power of reason residing in the human soul. In Judaism, logos becomes the living, active word of God. It is creative power, and it is God’s medium of communication with mankind. In Christianity, logos becomes the creative word of God which is itself God incarnate in Jesus in John 1.
As I write this summer, I am ever conscious of how words are used, and not just mine. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 might describe it this way—words are used to inspire fear, to bring wisdom, to bring joy, to show emotion, to display passions, to attack or defend, to bring comfort, to encourage, to belittle or tear down, to cause pain, to bring healing, to mend. Whether I write fiction or nonfiction, blogs or essays, speeches or stories, the inherent caution is there. My words, our words, have life as we give them. As writers, readers, and speakers, we share a responsibility to use them well.
What a worthy translation by David Jack.
The second in his translation series, this latest 2018 edition of Castle Warlock provides the complete original Scots text side by side with English. In his introduction Jack writes, “Many people know MacDonald chiefly as a writer of fantasies, and indeed within the story of Castle Warlock are elements of the supernatural worthily handled by the master.” And I agree.
George MacDonald’s novels aren’t bound to plot as other fiction works of the 19th century are. Rather, MacDonald is bound to the poetic truth he must tell through his characters and the places they live. Treasure this as a slow read with beautiful waysides, not as a plot-driven romp.
MacDonald narrates, “I think we shall come at length to feel all places, as all times and all spaces, venerable, because they are the outcome of the eternal nature and the eternal thought.
When we have God, all is holy, and we are at home.
The sense of belonging and the theme of fatherhood are constants. But they are things that must be found or realized. This search is evident in young Cosmo Warlock as he matures under a wise and humble father through the length of the book.
No honest heart indeed could be near Cosmo long and not love him—for the one reason that humanity was in him so largely developed.
The lives and stories of Joan, Aggie, and Grizzie join Cosmo’s as we slowly and certainly come to love them all. They are the stories of friends as MacDonald consistently teaches us of God’s faithfulness. Though I struggled with Cosmo’s lack of discernment when the doctor entreats him about Joan, I chalk it up to the struggle of youth and experience as MacDonald may have intended. And finally, I do admit to crying upon reading MacDonald’s poem postlude. Such beauty in the meaning of shadow and light, and how much more in God’s light revealed through MacDonald’s characters.
For information on David Jack's brave work of translating all twelve of MacDonald's Scots novels, read more at The Works of George MacDonald and enjoy a listen here.
IT'S TRUE I came to Leif Enger’s novel late, almost two decades after it was published, but it resonated with me in its prose, its simplicity, its relationships. Like Reuben who always struggled with asthma, I caught my breath as I read. Life came after a moment of suspense. Hope returned. This struggling motherless family in 1963 North Dakota shared a beautiful, imperfect life.
Through the young eyes of Reuben, however, life is different and his father, his tellings, his relationship with God throughout the story, are essential to the reality Reuben believes. His father Jeremiah Land is the everyday hero who loves well. Reuben witnessed and heard his father pray and speak to God in realness, and it tainted, yes tainted, everything the boy saw and experienced from the miracle of life when his lungs refused to breathe at birth to his father walking on water or to protecting a son, the miracle is there. It is a living, breathing thing.
And I still can’t entirely grasp how Enger did it. It had to have been something he lived to inhabit the story so. Perhaps it was the element of sacrifice, that permanent expression, that made love real.
We see it in each relationship—Reuben and his older brother Davy, Reuben and his sister Swede and the stories she creates, and especially Reuben with his father.
Through his physical suffering that long winter, Reuben wonders, “Shouldn’t that be the last thing you release: the hope that the Lord God, touched in His heart by your particular impasse among all others, will reach down and do that work none else can accomplish—straighten the twist, clear the oozing sore, open the lungs? Who knew better than I that such holy stuff occurs?” But the miracle didn’t happen in that moment of need. It waited for the greatest need.
By their nature, miracles are undefinable. If they were concrete things, solid words and such, then the word would lose its potency. Not just anything can be a miracle. Reuben’s life is real, not contrived, and life is indeed a struggle except for those miracle moments that breathe more life into us.