Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sunrise, Sunset

It's a sunny winter afternoon. When I walked my dog this morning, it was dark. It's the dark time of year in Washington. That we have such dark winters--a combination of short days and lots of cloud cover--is the down side of our longitude (or do I mean latitude? I mean our proximity to the arctic circle). Our long summer days are the up side.

Winter soltice this year, December 21, 2008, the sun will rise at 8:00 a.m. and set at 4:14 p.m. here in Lynden (sunrise/sunset times). That's a short day. But next summer solstice, June 20, 2007, the sun will rise at 5:05 a.m. and set at 9:17 p.m. That'll be great.

It hasn't happened yet this winter, but sooner or later it always does: that I'll think to myself during the evening, I'm so tired. It must be 11:00 or even later. Then I'll look at the clock, and it will be about 7:00.

Maybe that won't happen until after the holidays. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This afternoon, my dad and I are going shopping for groceries for the feast.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wind, Frost, heath, and downs

It continues wild and windy this morning. When I was walking my dog, I thought of the final lines of a Robert Frost poem. Now I see that it's a spring poem, while my wind is an autumn one. Still, our wind today is fairly warm, and it surely dishevels people and places.

To the Thawing Wind
Robert Frost

Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snow-bank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate’er you do to-night,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ices go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.

Then there's the doomy, gloomy wind poetry.

King Lear, Act III, Scene ii
William Shakespeare

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

And then here's a fateful encounter on a windy day in Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility:

They [Marianne and Margaret Dashwood] gaily ascended the downs, rejoicing in their own penetration at every glimpse of blue sky: and when they caught in their faces the animating gales of an high south-westerly wind, they pitied the fears which had prevented their mother and Elinor from sharing such delightful sensations.

"Is there a felicity in the world," said Marianne, "superior to this? Margaret, we will walk here at least two hours."

Margaret agreed, and they pursued their way against the wind, resisting it with laughing delight for about twenty minutes longer, when suddenly the clouds united over their heads, and a driving rain set full in their face. Chagrined and surprised, they were obliged, though unwillingly, to turn back, for no shelter was nearer than their own house. One consolation however remained for them, to which the exigence of the moment gave more than usual propriety; it was that of running with all possible speed down the steep side of the hill which led immediately to their garden gate.

They set off. Marianne had at first the advantage, but a false step brought her suddenly to the ground, and Margaret, unable to stop herself to assist her, was involuntarily hurried along, and reached the bottom in safety.

A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round him, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened. He put down his gun and ran to her assistance. She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without farther delay, and carried her down the hill. Then passing through the garden, the gate of which had been left open by Margaret, he bore her directly into the house, whither Margaret was just arrived, and quitted not his hold till he had seated her in a chair in the parlour.

Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and while the eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration which equally sprung from his appearance, he apologized for his intrusion by relating its cause, in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.

Is there a felicity in the world superior to Jane Austen's prose?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Poetic allusions

Speaking of Barbara Pym, she scatters lines of poetry throughout her novels. One that stuck in my mind enough to make me look up the whole poem was in Less Than Angels. When Catherine, one of the main characters, has seen off her ex-lover Tom on his flight to Africa (where he is an anthropologist), she gets on a bus and rides randomly through London. She has thoughts on several levels, and on one level the lines keep repeating in her mind:

What was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?

I wonder if those were lines that went through Pym's own mind on occasions? The character Catherine is a fiction writer, as Pym was a novelist. The poem is "A Musical Instrument," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If you follow the link and read the poem, you'll see it describes Pan treading around in the river water, muddying it and destroying the water lilies, in order to rip a reed out of the river and make a pan pipe out of it. After cutting and hollowing the reed, he blows through it (inspiration--god-breathed), making sweet music, and he says that is the only way to do it, but:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain—
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds of the river.

Just prior to those closing lines, the poem reveals the metaphor, that Pan has been "making a poet out of a man," and thus is about how suffering produces art and poetry. I wonder if Pym felt that was her story. She wrote exquisite novels based on often painful experiences in her own life. At times, maybe she wished she was just a reed with the reeds by the river. Yet it seems that she knowingly chose her way, almost perversely seeking unhappy outcomes, in love, anyway. (Like her character Prudence, in Jane and Prudence, she preferred unhappy love affairs to happy ones.) In other areas of life, Barbara Pym seems to have been happy enough, enjoying companionship with her sister and close friend, Hilary Pym, gardening, knitting, sewing, reading. Another theme of her novels is the consolation provided by doing small, seemingly unimportant, but useful tasks.

I have two pages about Barbara Pym at my personal website, one about her and her books and the other with some favorite passages from her books.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Our greater English poets

Related to remembering my brother's death a year ago, I called to mind some lines by Tennyson, anthologized in Bartlett's Poems for Occasions. This book has poems arranged by theme, and one theme is "Grief and Mourning." Here is the poem:

Break, break, break
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

These lines speak to me partly because I have that sense of wishing I could see my brother and talk to him, but he's just not there, and also because this poem references the brother-sister relationship in, "O well for the fisherman's boy, / That he shouts with his sister at play!"

Why does it help to find poems that express some part of what you feel? I don't know. Just the fact that I wanted to find and read that poem reminded me of a line from a Barbara Pym novel, Some Tame Gazelle, "In the future Belinda would continue to find such consolation as she needed in our greater English poets, when she was not gardening or making vests for the poor in Pimlico."

Here's one more, by Emily Dickinson, almost unbearably apt:

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

Warm Ears

I walk my dog twice a day, and in the cold months I wear a headband to keep my ears warm. My ears are particularly sensitive to the cold. A few years ago, I bought the perfect headband from Lands End catalog. It was stretchy enough to fit (due to my excessive brain power I have, shall we say, a large hat size), it didn't itch, and it truly kept my ears warm. For the last couple days I couldn't find it. This morning I wore a headband that was not quite large enough, that itched, and that did not keep my ears as warm. But at one of the many bushes my dog stops to investigate (an article I once read called it "reading p-mails" from other dogs), in the top branches, there was my headband. As it was damp, I simply carried it with me, but I'm glad to have it back. Either I dropped it there, or the homeowner found it and put it there to be claimed. I could have dropped it on one of the days when it was warmer than I expected so I took the headband off and stuck it in my coat pocket (which is too small to hold it).

It reminded me of a story I once read about C.S. Lewis, that while walking with a friend in the damp gardens of Oxford, they saw a strange object in a tree. Lewis exclaimed, "That looks like my hat." Picking it up, he shouted exultantly, "It is my hat!" and put the sopping wet, shapeless object on his head immediately.

I'm a less amusing person than Lewis, so I'll simply wear my headband after it's dry.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Time Change

Yet another sunny, mild fall day. This weekend we put our clocks back. It is no hardship to me to sleep for an extra hour in the morning, but my dog did not figure it out. When I opened my eyes this morning, his face was very close to my own. He was staring at me, waiting for me to wake up. As soon as I did, he began to prance in happy antics on the bed, anticipating breakfast. I closed my eyes to get more sleep, so then he paced around a bit before flopping down beside me with a sad sigh, to wait until I really would get up.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


A rather long day today. It is the one-year anniversary of my brother's death. He was 52 when he died of ALS (amytrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease). Last year, November 4 was a Saturday. I was in my store working, or possibly not working. I knew it could be that day that my brother would die; we had been expecting it for days. It was about half past noon when my dad called to tell me it had happened. He asked me to call my sister and other brother to tell them, which I did. Then I closed my store. I did not put a sign in the window to explain why. I didn't have the heart to say why.

Today is Sunday. I went to church. On the way, I was trying and trying to remember if I went to church the day after my brother's death. I couldn't remember. It seemed like I wouldn't have; I had no remembrance of being at church the day after the death--it seems like I would remember people talking to me about it--but I also couldn't remember being at home knowing I was missing church. Finally, I remembered that I spent that Saturday night at my brother and sister-in-law's house. My sister-in-law and I both slept on couches in her living room to keep each other company. We woke up early, and for some reason I felt I should make conversation, so we got up soon, too. I did not go to church but spent the morning with her. That's why I couldn't remember being at home during church time.

Today, the members of my family and my sister-in-law's family, plus my brother's best friend with his wife and some of their children, all got together at my sister-in-law's house for a soup lunch. We mostly just had a pleasant visit, but we did talk just a little bit about my brother. My grief was not so present then.

The moment when I felt the most grief for my brother was between church and my sister-in-law's. I stopped at Safeway and bought a little potted, purple pansy and brought it to my brother's grave. Standing there, I was filled with a sense of how much I miss him and what a difference his absence makes. That's when tears came.

Tonight I mostly just feel tired and down. Not just grief for my brother, but anxieties about church, school, and money come into my mind and just seem inexpressibly dreary. I feel a dread that the holidays will be unjoyful and disappointing. It probably is weariness that is showing me my world and life in dark, colorless tones. I probably should go to bed soon.

Still, it was a nice visit, and outdoors it was a beautiful day.

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him."
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
(Lamentations 3:19-26)

Weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.
(Psalm 30:5b)

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
(Matthew 5:4)

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(I Corinthians 15:51-57)