To Borrow a Phrase: Is it stealing a word?

In an interview about writing  Bel Canto, Ann Patchett mentions “stealing”a sentence.  The interviewer says, “that’s what writing is all about,” and Patchett responds, “yes” and laughs.  She had used a statement overheard after an opera, Rusalka, that was subtly witty in context. Since the statement was in casual conversation, not recorded, Patchett had no duty to acknowledge any source.   So It was especially honest and gracious of Patchett to credit the “owner” of the phrase.  She didn’t know him personally but without providing his name, she still gave him his due.  She could simply have been noting a particularly interesting source.  The choice of “stealing,” though, opens a delicate matter.  It implies an ownership.  Since the interviewer defined the word and the response was laughter, there’s no certainty in how either the interviewer or Patchett actually interpreted the word.  It was softened in the acceptable acquiring of subjects and skills and tools from one’s environment.  This wasn’t really stealing. I agree. So what was it? A form of using another’s creation that’s acceptable.  How do we know when it’s acceptable? How careful should we be to leave another’s words alone? When, if ever, should we ask permission? Doubtless, writers aren’t going it agree about this, but thinking about word ownership can’t do any harm and might lead to some easier decisions by some of us, based on personal ethics at least.   

A nice, borderline distinction about word ownership occurs in the movie  Nim’s Island.   Jodie Foster’s character Alexander (Alex) is a successful (but agoraphobic) writer.  She appreciates a remark a pilot states, and says “That’s a very good line. You know, I might steal that. I’m a writer.” He refuses, saying he’s a writer, too, and he’s going to use the line.  Her response credits the fellow’s right:   “Well. Okay. That’s fine.  It’s all yours.”  She acknowledges a common understanding about ownership of language with that “It’s all yours.”  Here, though the phrase is oral, the speaker plans to use it.  He claims it.  But it’s still not recorded. Will he write it? Isn’t it a little precious to hang onto one line?  Yes, maybe.  How different would the scene be if he answers “Sure.  I’m a writer, too, but there’s more where that came from.”  The whole situation changes. The dynamics between them change.  If he’s a writer, too, the words are part of his work, his image, his tool kit.  If he hoards them, he’s rather comic; if he grants them, he’s generous, confident.  The deciding factor here is Alex asked.  If she had remained silent, the pilot couldn’t have refused, and Alex might have written it first.  Granted, the movie is not a heavy one, the scene has a comic element, but the point is clear nonetheless.  Lightness often accompanies touchy subjects.

While writers are constantly drawing from all their senses for material and techniques, including what they hear—dialect, inflection, jargon, tone, etc.–even oral language can sometimes be the creation of someone and that person may want recognition.   How important can a few words be in a person’s career? That depends on the person.  To Alex or any seasoned writer, probably very little, but to a new writer, still unsure of talent and potential, possibly very much.

The advice to “steal what you can” is pretty common among writers—I’ve heard it a number of times in workshops and casual settings, and even in a presentation by a visiting writer.  Though they’re suggesting that writers should read good prose—learn up, which is definitely true—commonsense dictates the advisors don’t intend that anyone should lift written words and phrases without credit.  They mean we can become better writers by immersing ourselves in good writing, by absorbing language and techniques as far as our own abilities will allow.  Even deliberate copying to internalize structure and sound is a good and ancient practice.  Claiming the copy as your own, though, is a practice of a different sort—stealing.  Most of us know the common word for that kind of stealing: plagiarism.  That’s not the subject here.                

When someone else’s words impress me enough that I remember them, I shy away from writing anything remotely similar.  During my graduate work at the University of Arizona, I was very moved by a description in a classmate’s story. It went something like this: “The shape of her head was engrained in the palms of my hands.”  The sentence captured the gentle nature and tender love of the protagonist.  It has come to mind many times through the years. Recently I phoned the person I believed wrote the story, Marvin Diogenes.  He recalled that I had praised that particular line, and corrected my memory—the wording had changed slightly.  Another phrase that often tempts me is “sculpted from lard” to describe a very pale person.  Where did it come from?   I feel it must have been in Carson McCuller’s work, or Faulkner’s. Suffice it to know that it isn’t mine.  The description was perfect wherever it was.   I carry a figurative sack in which to keep others’ words that I love, can’t forget, but also can’t use. So many!

Humans love words and like to acknowledge talent, wit, sarcasm, succinct observations.  Communities tend to have their own metaphors, similies, a whole jargon, and to give credit within their own circles. (Edd Smith, a Tucson fiddler, was a walking non-urban dictionary.  Recently, Adam Lambert was credited in the Urban Dictionary with coining “flubbing.”) When a phrase passes into the larger community, sometimes the source is forgotten (maybe claimed much later).  People are careful not to use famous words without crediting, unless the source is considered common knowledge to the particular audience, such as “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,”  “my guitar gently weeps,” “Frankly I don’t give a damn.”* “Houston, we have had a problem.”* “It’s a far, far better thing that I do. . . .”  I’ve read a few “screw my courage” without the completing words “to the sticking place.” They never seem to fit well in the new spot.

 Among writers, painful memories are often shared about seeing their spoken or written words under someone else’s name—a colleague, a teacher, a friend. Not an entire piece, not plagiarism, just the use of words and short phrases.  It’s a common, unfortunate side of writing, but not a hard blow. Easily overcome by persevering.  Many writers have been asked and will be asked again “May I borrow” or told “That’s great, I’m going to use that.” It’s an opportunity to be generous, to be confident.  You have a store of words, a wealth.  No one can use them as you will. Your thoughts and heart dictate the context and tone. Bless the user and the language. Be fair-minded when you’re the finder. How free is the word or phrase really? Should you ask?

*”Frankly” was added by scriptwriters.

*As actually spoken

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Merry Christmas!

Here’s a short Christmas story for you. The setting is The Retreasure Shoppe, a secondhand store, late afternoon on Christmas Eve. A woman named Dora seeks to find quickly some decent gifts for little money. She finds a special one.

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We’re All in the Race: Ann Patchett’s Run

Any book that leads me to recognize my biases and expectations is valuable to me, and Ann Patchett’ s Run  is one of those. A rare book, too, given the topics she deals with. She constructs a small mixed family whose members’ status and interactions raise questions on complex issues, particularly race, heritage, legacy, duty, honor, and love.  She does so while engaging the reader in a family’s plight over an injured person and her child.  It’s a book of many small mysteries and connections that create a very contemporary, important story, and could lead to a personal revelation as well. It’s a bold, beautifully crafted book.

Patchett prepares the reader for the work’s complexity by underlaying the present circumstances with a family legend.  A statue of Bernadette, an early ancestor, has for four generations been passed to the female descendant who bears the closest resemblance—fair, redheaded, rather ethereal, in pose and expression like the virgin Mary.  The legend contains the truth—a lie about who the statue represented and its origin. The dominant legacy, though, is that the similarity of surface features entitles one descendant to the statue and all it represents.  The family now in possession of the statue includes no mother—she died years ago—no daughter, but three sons, one white and two black, both adopted.  Who most closely represents the statue and thus will inherit it? The story that follows eradicates wonderfully the surface identity of characters and brings the reader into each character’s nature, never predictable by skin color. Actually, not predictable at all.  And there lies the beauty and the power of this book.  Some readers may be surprised at the difference between what they expect and what they find.  

Though the beginning of present time is a bit slow, an unexpected event occurs that snaps the story into action and focuses sharply on family and divisions within it.  While walking to a party to meet with Jesse Jackson, one of the brothers is saved from a wayward vehicle by a black woman who thrusts him out of danger and is herself injured.  She is accompanied by a young girl.  Why would she save him? Are they related? The ensuing hours will reveal who she is, why she and her daughter were nearby. And, increasingly important, how injured she is. Will she live? Priorities change as they must and should. The more long-term conflicts and estrangements become clear, too. 

There’s so much inviting speculation that artifice seems heavier than story, but that’s only for a very brief while and possibly just my own take.  Prominent politicians are mentioned, squarly placing the family on the Democratic side. The sons seem to represent religion, politics, and science.  Names are clues.  The young girl is Kenya and her mother is Tennessee.  These and many more engaging hooks are not adequate to what the characters truly represent and how individual they become. They work wonderfully as little mysteries that, being followed, provide more important details. Who is the mother? Which child belongs to whom? Who was the father? Does it matter which child was adopted first?  What was the original name? Are the characters who love Shubert related? Patchett can turn a view around, which encourages looking at the other side, and then questioning that, too. Sullivan quotes to Teddy part of a Martin Luther King’s speech but then remarks that “the white brother part doesn’t work exactly.  It should be our black brothers. ‘We have sometimes given our black brothers the feeling that we like the way we were being treated.’”  But Teddy, who is the artist at remembering speeches, thinks that if the next paragraph had been remembered his own “entire enterprise would have been sunk.” The passage has personal and positive meaning between the two men, and our immediate understanding is not the final one.  Some of the signs are misleading, and our speculation about them is telling. This small community is our larger one, the view made palatable, not strongly emotional or even dramatic. Rather low and gentle. 

Central is that the people love each other. They try to work together for one common goal. Sullivan and his father, Doyle, try to find one thing they can agree upon, because they are divided in many ways.  They agree on Kenya, the young girl, on helping her.  Of course. They agree on a person, not a cause.  The cause is the unity and the unity is helping.  How wonderful.  The whole work suggests this. A similar suggestion is to be courteous and kind by pretending to feel if you can’t feel.  That brings to mind the old adage (I forget the source, which may be Shakespeare, Aristotle, or some other wise person) to pretend a virtue if you have it not.  In pretending, you may develop the virtue. Maybe you just need the opportunity.  The pretense can always be dropped.  One son does this, adopts a career as a duty, and relinquishes it when he feels the duty has been met.  There’s no rule about such responsibility in Patchett’s work.  It’s one of the possibilities for an individual. One of life’s vicissitudes.   

Patchett expands the concept of mothering and disallows harsh judgment against women who give up their children. A woman can relinquish a child because of great love for the child or for another person.  Most of the biological mothers here are missing, which of course matters to the child, as we learn through Tip’s later thoughts. But the absence in Patchett’s view is never abandonment, neither emotional nor physical. Love is the cause. And mothering is a genderless activity, a choice, an experience.  It is nurturing and caring.  As is fathering.  Many characters here are mothering, including the twelve-year old Kenya, who wishes only briefly not to have the role.  Perhaps the greatest is Sullivan.  He is named after a priest and family member. He furthers the cause of protecting, evident as a dominant admirable trait of any person, male or female. Sullivan has the physical traits of his mother and, though his father thinks Sullivan doesn’t have any of his mother Bernadette’s traits, he definitely does.  Sullivan loves children and knows how to love them, to comfort them.  That’s his calling.

No character is left knowable only through surface details.  In Patchett’s graceful, precise prose their thoughts and feeling reveal each more fully, different from outsider’s perception.  This occurs with every character, but more strikingly, and possibly the most difficult for Patchett to achieve, with the two characters named Tennessee.  The injured woman, Tennessee, hallucinates with (or truly talks with) her deceased friend. Thoughts and feelings are clearly separate, except when, briefly, they’re not.  It’s an extreme example of the fluidity among characters and issues that makes the book profound and beautiful. While the shifting point of view in this passage answers questions that might otherwise go unanswered, it doesn’t seem an artifice as much as it does the realistic mental and emotional journey of the injured mother in remembering her friend.  Only she could share this. The depth of individual emotion warms the passage and raises it above artifice.

Without giving away any details, let me say the ending is a positive and comforting view.

What rich and intricate messages this story contains. A mixture we are.  Yes. And all of us heirs to a human nature and human rights, despite surface details. The original question, about who gets the statue, is answered.  It’s a mild reward compared to all the answers Patchett has presented about the true nature of family, which includes all of us as individuals, flawed, but deeply concerned about life and desires and deeply loving someone, and paying some cost to serve others. All valuable.

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Our Cat Who Loved a Tree

We lost one of our cats last year, Twitch, a slow, easy-loving, fellow.  We miss him, especially now, as Christmas approaches.  Twitch loved our old Christmas tree.  We tried a smaller one, but he didn’t accept it, just stared at it. I’m posting these pictures to show how he loved the one tree, even bit by bit as it came down. I know people over-sentimentalize pets (and maybe all animals).  Guilty.  But the creatures bring that about if you pay attention to them.  Not all, of course. Some of them prefer no attention.

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About Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road

Here’s a book to warm the heart.  Every character is flawed but within likeable parameters and Tyler’s acceptance and fondness embraces large variations of personalities.  The best is Micah Mortimer, the lead character. Following him is like accompanying a dear fellow and bolstering him, rooting for him to open his eyes. It is so refreshing to have problems presented that aren’t dark, dead end, don’t require superhuman fortitude, but just honesty, perseverance, self-examination, gradually at least, an open mind and heart. And yet, the conflicts are serious, as timely now as in the past—the need for a family, the desire to know who your parents were, to find your own path, to be different and accepted, to love and be loved.

Central is that Micah Mortimer loses lovers and doesn’t know why. He wonders what’s his flaw, and is in search of the answer. One wonders why, too.  He seems to be the kindest, sweetest guy, deserving of better working positions than computer troubleshooter and apartment manager. Then, as it occurs in real life, we come to know him and realize, Ah, yes.  Micah is a perfectionist, obsessive compulsive, whose sweet nature is combined with micro-management.  He has a definite, wonderful urge to be kind, to help others, but that loving trait is accompanied by a too sharp eye for small faults, and a too rigid schedule for comfort. 

Tyler’s explanation for Micah’s nature is really a careful, believable blend of nature and nurture. We see him interact with customers, with neighbors, with former lovers, and with his family.  Contrasting Micah’s nature is his boisterous, chaotic, creative family who reveal his uniqueness.  He loves them dearly just as they are but wants and needs order and quiet.  They accept him, too, and his need for control. This need may have been innate, but made more solid perhaps by the environment—his family.  So, Micah comes across as a normal person, somewhere on the spectrum of human, who needs to pare down his control a bit. 

A personality quirk that weakens the romantic element is Micah’s apparent capability of loving any decent woman, moving from one to the next with a similar level of hope and emotion.  Perhaps that makes the work even more realistic.  We can, after all, love many people and not all grand passions are healthy ones. Tyler’s ways of showing love in the perception of another is very touching.  I’m tempted to say it’s also the feminine approach.  Micah notes the tiny details of a person that please him, just the sight or sound.  It’s the way we all react surely to something we love, the grace of it, the feeling it brings to us.  Tyler captures that beautifully.

One slightly strange plot line is that a young man appears who believes Micah is his father from a limited liaison with his mother.   Micah knows it isn’t true—and the reader knows—but Micah doesn’t  totally disillusion the needy young man. Instead, he assumes a helping role, rather fatherly.  That’s an act many kind people do, sometimes for a community of children.

In the world of this novel, we don’t lose people. Lives intersect and intersect later in a new way.  Things change but not drastically and horribly. Tyler’s work suggests we may have a chance to understand, to explain, to regain relationships and broaden our sense of self.

Each time I read a Tyler book, I recall how much I enjoy her novels, her characters, her respect for them and people in general.  I’m always fortified by her view on life. (Mary Oliver’s poetry does that for me, too.  Sees the beauty in the small and the whole.) I want to write books like this.  A wonderful group of normal people, all important and lovable, and nothing false or overwrought, nothing dire and dark, subtle, gentle, and moderate in today’s world.  We write what we know and write toward what we wish to know and believe.

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From a Good Heart and a Great Pen: Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant

Even though Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been out for four years and reviewed many times (I’ve read none of them), it’s new to me, and I want to sing its praises.  The few flaws are minor in contrast with the virtues, especially considering that this is the author’s first book.  There’s a dark element—something horrendous has happened—that will thread throughout and be clearly exposed and explained.  While that thriller aspect may draw some readers, it’s not the most engaging part of the novel. Quirky characters, good people, fresh language, and timely warm messages make this novel entertaining, enjoyable, and a very positive read.   Eleanor is a survivor.  She’s oddly innocent.  She gives us takes on our modern culture, especially beauty, that are humorous and telling. We know people like her and, at times, we are like her. Through the very welcome character of Eleanor, Honeyman fosters our understanding of how different we are in our interpretation of what’s normal, standard, and even what’s happening at a given moment.  She also reminds us that being open and interacting with others is the road to discovering who we are and what changes we might want to effect.     

Eleanor Oliphant (not her real name) is Scottish, works as an accountant in the back office of a company.  She has four immediate coworkers, but others interact occasionally.  Eleanor is disfigured with a scarred face, and the cause of the disfigurement haunts her in brief memories.  Her upbringing has prepared her for a certain kind of “normal” and a certain place in the world.  From her point of view what she does is the proper way, but to those around her, she is perhaps “right nutty.”  She has lived in the same apartment for about 10 years, with no visitors, no social life. She has frequent conversations with her verbally vicious mother, and weekend visits with a bottle of vodka. Though isolated, she knows of popular culture and trends, though only generally, beauty shops, bikini waxes. Recently, she has set her heart on musician Johnnie Lomond, whom she hasn’t met, as the man who will be her life partner—her savior.  While she’s trying to reinvent herself to capture his interest, she’s being courted by a kind of oversized nice guy coworker, Raymond, from IT. 

Eleanor is a very quirky character, and very winning. Articulate, intelligent, judgmental, occasionally biting, she can switch dialects and verbal domains (talk high society or low, British or Scots), and seems familiar with philosophy, literature, French—enough for light social discourse.  One wonders how she came by this training.  And one learns.  Her innocent anticipation about such matters as bikini waxes, hair styling, and especially about food are humorous and possibly match many of our own awkward introductions into a culture, sub or main.

At times realism is stretched.  At the beginning, Eleanor’s physical disfigurement appears to be a major disfigurement, not so later on, manageable with makeup.  Some of Eleanor’s insight and consequent changes occur too swiftly.  They outstep development, especially for a person as rigorously locked in a pattern as she seems to be. The quickness, though, keeps the story lively, and unpredictable.  And there’s the possibility that she changes quickly because her core nature, under training and experience, is ready to burst out with the first opportunity and sense of safe landing.

The mystery of what happened to Eleanor—and her role in it–unwinds a little at a time and is never the real draw, just one part. That’s refreshing, letting the reader know or at least suspect that this isn’t going to be a graphic horror.  Horror, yes, in the sense of what happens to people in life, but not scene to scene depicted.  In fact, it’s a kind of gentle mystery, not a cozy, but like a British mystery where the crime is vile, but the people are the reward of the book, quirky, but basically good. The mystery is honestly answered.  There’s no surprise, and a reader accustomed to mysteries will likely identify the clues—not be able to project totally, but to feel on a good track, and at the end say Aha!

The language is particularly appealing.  Some passages are so perfect to that character and her world, and yet, one may want to adopt them.   Eleanor explains that when she wants to know something, she relies on the animal world, and might ask herself “What would a salamander do?” If we consider that a bit deeply, she’s saying she has to rely on what she knows.  Which is what she does. Perhaps we all do. Here are a few examples from many that are immediately touching. Describing herself: “I am matte dull and scuffed.”  Upon seeing a crying baby finally being comforted: “My heart soared for him.” And at a certain moment: “Silence sat between us, shivering with misery.” Such lines at the right time are so valuable to readers, at least this one.  I like to feel the story as well as to read and know it.

This was Gail Honeyman’s first book.  I look forward to any writing from her good heart and great pen.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: a Novel

Penquin 2017, 2018

Available on Amazon and everywhere else

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Raccoon and I: Two Poor Decisions

What I assumed was a wool feather duster had a strange appearance.  Instead of lying horizontally on the laundry room shelf, half of it hung down, very soiled.   The dirty areas were layered, ringed, actually, and that clued me to look closer.  Behind the soapnuts bag, the softening sheets, and mopping pads was a scrunched down raccoon.  I thought he had to be a baby, because he could hide in such limited space.  I spoke to him a few times and he raised up to study me.  I said a few more words, softly, since he wasn’t erratic or threatening or even cowering.  Then I worried that his calmness might not be natural.  He might be rabid.  So, what now?

It was too early for an Animal Control officer to be on duty, and I wasn’t certain we even had such an officer in our town.  During the pandemic, the animal shelter was taken over by volunteers and funded privately. Now a tax supports it. A call to the police department might result in the animal being put down.  I wasn’t ready to be responsible for that.  The raccoon had seemed friendly, perhaps a little accustomed to humans. I found two live-catch cages in our backyard shed, but couldn’t reach the biggest one, so settled for the smallest—large enough for a cat and thus suitable for a little raccoon.  I set the trap with a bit of peanut butter in the rear, and put it in the floor of the laundry room.  That’s a narrow space, with washer and dryer—and shelf above—on one side, and a long closet on the other.  The raccoon would have the option of going out the cat window by which he entered, or onto the floor and into the cage. Or  he could stay on the shelf for a long period since three bowls of food were on the dryer below him.  A bathroom on one end offered water, especially for a crafty raccoon.  Leaving the door to the laundry room open wasn’t an option, since we have two dogs and two cats.  Mayhem at least, and death at worst, might result.

I taped the cat-door flap up, so a window to the outside was clearly visible and the scents of outside could waft in.  I called to the raccoon from the outside window and waved with my hand.  Here’s the way, fellow.  Baby.  He didn’t budge.  He looked like he might sleep there.

After 8:00 a.m. I called the Police Department’s non-emergency number.  They were unable to send an officer since they offered on-hands assistance only for domesticated animal problems.  But they connected me with Samuel Whisler at the Missouri Department of Conservation.  A gentle-voiced man, he was on the side of the raccoon (as was I).  He advised me that raccoons are very seldom rabid and that I just needed make a clear path to outside and to make the raccoon’s inside position uncomfortable.  I needed something long to prod him with from a distance, something like a shovel.  No way could I lift and maneuver a shovel without hurting something, mostly myself.  Mr. Whisler stayed on the phone for my first try—a timid push with a long-handled brush stuck into a Swiffer box.  I wielded it with one hand, phone in the other. The raccoon looked perplexed, not afraid or nervous. Questioning. I hung up the phone.  I felt guilty.

Talking constantly, I used a kitchen broom to push the box toward the raccoon. Now he was being dislodged, and he went into a slow-motion action.  He was really a laid-back raccoon.  He somberly nudged or pushed everything off the shelf, including the iron.  He turned his back to me and tried to climb the cupboards or to pull them from the wall as if opening a door that way. He repeatedly looked back at me. He wet suddenly, so much that liquid ran the length of the shelf, dripping over the sides and over the end.  I didn’t blame him. But.  I withdrew, closed the kitchen door, and hoped his panic would guide him out the window or into the trap.

From the kitchen, I heard a thump on metal.  He was down from the shelf, onto the washer or dryer.  I ran out the kitchen door to the deck in time to see him going over the side, behind the tree and on up to his escape.

Even then, I knew I was enjoying the encounter, because he was never a threat. Some raccoons might be, particularly if ill, as might be any cornered animal.  This one was doing the best he could. He may have hissed at me once, but if he did, I forgive him.  I reported the result to Samuel Whisler, with my thanks.  He advised me that the real danger here was to the raccoon–leaving cat food out could lead to the raccoon’s death.  Cats carry distemper, though they don’t get the disease, don’t suffer from it.  They do transmit it. And raccoons die from distemper.  It’s a real problem, he said.

Cleaning the laundry was a hassle. The handprints are still on the wall. I can’t get a good photo of them, but I remember how his hands looked as he patted and gripped.  I didn’t know jumping from the shelf to the dryer was so difficult.  He wanted to climb or hang down, not jump. He eventually made a bold move. 

Now, I take up the cats’ food at night.  They’ll learn to wait for breakfast and to hurry for a late night snack before it disappears.  I would very much like to leave something outside for the raccoon, but I know that would be more meeting a need of mine that of meeting his.  I wish I had been less concerned with allowing him to escape and more with allowing him to live a good life.  If I had held out longer, he would have gone into the cage.  I could have taken him to Cave Hollow Park or Knob Noster Park where food would be abundant, and he wouldn’t have to eat cat food, or go inside houses, or find trash cans.  My impatience was stronger than my foresight.

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Short Response to Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer

An inspiring and uplifting book for anyone facing—or loving someone who faces—a life-changing and life-threatening crisis. The first part of this memoir is a very personal account of the onset of a devastating, life-changing health condition. The narrator is a strong, hopeful person who gradually accepts the new reality of her life.    The prose style is lovely—authentic, clear, emotional, passionate, and yet objective enough to avoid too much sympathy.  That objectivity prepares the reader for a shift into the second part of the memoir, research about the treatment for the condition, and into all aspects of that treatment.  The boldness of the author in meeting her challenges reveals a strength of character that is totally believable, supported by the depth of details and research, and very admirable. She loves life and has values she doesn’t relinquish. Her story heartens the spirit.  I recommend it highly.   

Little, Brown, Spark 2020

Available through Amazon

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Patricia Lawson’s Short Fiction

Patricia Lawson’s Odd Ducks is a very charming book, gentle despite some dark edges.  The nine stories are set in Kansas City suburban communities from the sixties through the eighties and focused on common conflicts among neighbors and families. The characters are familiar and non-threatening, librarians, teachers, salesmen, children, artists; they are Catholic, Jewish, agnostic, gay—a mixed group as today in most cities. There’s no graphic violence, and very little sexuality and crudity, just enough that the stories are for adults, not children.  Children are, though, a highlight of this work—the wonder of their imagination, especially. Creativity is itself a major focus.  One teacher tells her students a project is a “homage to creativity” and this small book seems to be that also. 

                Humor is a big draw throughout, though the stories aren’t actually funny. The situations invite humor and the characters’ thoughts and dialog are often colorful and surprising. This is particularly true when children are central actors.  A teacher’s advice to “Think like an artist,” brings a chuckle, but a fourth grader’s artistic creation Butterfly Man eventually brings a chill.  The opening piece prepares readers for these unexpected shifts.  In” Dead Ducks” (the title is a clue), a fellow who likes to work hefty crossword puzzles shaves his neighbor’s dog (does a bad job), is befriended by the neighbor, a beer-guzzling, rough-talking womanizer, and has to go duck hunting with him. The anticipated hunt is off-text. The nice guy returns with a duck mangled like a cartoon rubber duck and with his own expression and bearing skewed by the ugly experience he actually had–and that earlier details foretold. 

Lawson explores serious topics but in a fresh and multi-view manner: fidelity, animal hoarding, community rules, teaching children, proper literature, media influence, cartoon violence, outcasts, bigotry.  One of the funniest and thematically strong stories is “Her Religious Advisors” in which college student Carol must write an argumentative essay on her religious beliefs.  The sources she recalls in preparation are disparate, creative and dramatic.  One teacher had enacted Bible stories and added vivid details.  Another made fictional and historical characters part of her daily life, and of Carol’s lessons.  Later, Carol, willing to please but honest to the bone, can’t write the argument because all the stories inside her are part of her truth.  She reasons if non-Bible stories are not equal to Bible stories, they are at least “right next door.” In Lawson’s world, most people are creative in answering life’s questions.  They draw on whatever source is available and interpret with their own experiences.  That experience includes what they’ve read, been told, seen, or felt.

People seem unable really to change. They can change direction and place, and aspire to a better personality or nature, and they can acquire graces, but the cold ones remain cold, the sympathetic and loving, still so.  It’s a fair take of people, suggesting they would do better if they could.  Perhaps they have had hard lessons.

That dark vein in the collection is powerful, though.  It’s heightened by a strange laugh at a moment of insight and isolation.  The laugh occurs overtly and dramatically in at least three stories, “My Religious Advisors,” “Adventures in Learning,” and “Miss Mauve and Miss Green.” In the first, a “husky laugh” seems to be coming from outside the room where a friend lies dying and Carol rushes to the corridor only to find it empty. In the second, Elise, 11, hears a “sort of chuckling sound” that seems to come from downstream. She hears it just as she’s privy to the compassion and pain of a girl near Elise’s age, a girl she wants to comfort but can’t. In the third, Miss Green wonders what the young artists are doing in the bathroom and “it seemed she could hear a long, low chuckle escaping from within.” This occurs just after she discovers a secret addition to the young men’s artwork.  In each case, loneliness and powerlessness fill the present moment. Is this what awaits everyone?  Learning that something is missing that others know? Is it the laughter of something bigger than the characters? Is it the raw, unknown part of life, and whoever controls that unknown is what laughs? Maybe humor always has that dark side to someone. Here it isn’t pleasant, in any case.

Odd Ducks is a particularly good read now when differences among us have become so indicative of a greater divide that we risk losing touch of our commonalities.  These stories deal with bias and false judgment and questionable values but through a kind, understanding view.  People are a long time forming and when adult, they bring with them realities that differ.  This collection offers some insight into the making of us, into individuality, and the intensity of human longing to be true to self and to be accepted by and part of the community.

Odd Ducks. BkMk Press 2020, 202 pages.

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Elderberry, Beetles, Reading and Writing

This is a blooming elderberry bush, also known as elder plant, and is similar in size and blossoms to the parent of the three small elderberry bushes in my yard.  Mine bloomed only this year, the lovely floating blossoms creating that “pagoda-like” image in My Antonia.  I had planned to make “elderberry” punch, using just blossoms, water, and sugar.  Elderberry wine, “elder blow wine” would also be possible, though I’m not that ambitious.  Having the plants, seeing the blossoms, and drinking the punch were just a small goal rising from my fondness for Willa Cather’s work (and values) and for some community customs. 

But.  Japanese beetles have struck.  Last year, they decimated the rose bush and they filigreed every leaf on the plum tree.   The rose bush looks like a curse blackened it.  The plum tree is gone, but not because of the beetles. They don’t kill plants, they only mate on the blossoms and consume them. The plum tree died from age and too many ice storms and broken limbs.  Its last year, though, was not pretty.  I don’t have photos of that.  I didn’t know beetles would devour the leaves.  I had eyes on the rose.

A few blossoms remain on my elderberries, but inroads have been made and I seriously doubt that any will survive.  Even if they do, I won’t want to make punch from them.  Maybe when the beetles finish their own natural seasonal rush, more blossoms will appear and I can have a late summer purer elderberry punch.

The problem with fighting the beetles is much like other battles on a grander scale.  Complicated. The sure way of decimating the beetle population (an ugly thought in itself) poses danger to other life.  The one supposed “safe” insecticide will harm bees.  We hadn’t seen bees on our property for two years and this year they appeared, probably because of the elderberry blossoms.  I spotted only three.  I think letting them coexist with the beetles as long as the blossoms last is better than killing one bee. It’s not really a tough decision.

It’s possible to fight the beetles by personally drowning them.  Even a gentle swipe will dislodge a group of them into a waiting pail of soapy water.  That method seems in the right spirit given my inspiration and my goal.   That or conceding.

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