Thanks to Susie Deane for showing me this, and thanks to friends who loan me books, to librarians, and to independent booksellers everywhere.
So many years ago that this is almost a story that could start with "once upon a time", my family lived in a very big house, a legacy of the days of grand families and grand architects. The realtor called it a mansion. My family still calls it The Big House.
The first floor was indeed very grand. There was a parlor for company, and a library with built-in shelves. A dining room that overlooked a formal rose garden. A ballroom. The second floor had the good bedrooms, big as New York City studio apartments, with much nicer baths than I have ever had since.
My spirit's home, though, was up one more flight, in the small third floor servants' quarters. There, in a little monk's cell of a room with one window, I had a desk, a chair, a box of onion skin paper, my Sheaffer fountain pen, and a box of ink cartridges. And my companion, Jo March. I wanted to be just like Jo March, and to that end I scribbled page after page of – what? stories, probably, and perhaps some poems. I don't remember, and as my family moved a lot, nothing remains of all that ink except the memory of the texture of the paper, and the sound the pen nib made as I wrote line after line after blotted line. Oh, I wanted to be a writer.
Singing turned out to be easier, and my dear Lord is aware that I rather enjoy the spotlight. But this "words thing" never went away. I care about lyrics, I read aloud to people whenever I can, I do inspirational speaking, Shakespeare's King Lear leaves me sobbing on the floor, for Jo's spell has never worn off. And particularly at this time of year, the connection I feel to this fictitious character and to the extraordinary woman who created – or released – her is especially strong. It has long been my Christmas season practice to read Little Women again. Every year, somehow, it seems a better book.
My pretty little red leather-bound copy is currently in storage with the rest of my things, so I went to the local library. Their copy is for in-library use only – can you imagine? I'd have to wear shoes! But I found another treasure that I could take home: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante (2012). As far as I know LaPlante is the first author to explore the relationship between Lou and her mother, Abigail. Ever since her death in 1888, conventional wisdom has held that Louisa was her daddy's girl through and through, educated by him, inheritor of his gifts, beneficiary of his attention. That never set quite right with me. If the Alcott family was the model for the March family, why was the father absent for most of the book? Well, as it turns out, Bronson Alcott was also much absent in real life, and he never made a living. His mind on higher things, he seems to have been content to let his wife and daughters do all the work for the lowlier purposes of rent and food. Unlike his wife, Alcott did not particularly believe in the equality of women, and he came late to the abolitionist's cause. It was Abigail (Marmee) who encouraged her daughters to live full, good lives and to work to utilize their gifts, Marmee who wrote volumes of journals. And it was Marmee who worked until her health was ruined, as did Louisa, whose writing supported the family until she died at 56 (her royalties did so thereafter). The relationship between mother and daughter was deep, and necessary for both women. LaPlante's is a beautiful and calmly fierce book, well-researched and well-written, sad in many ways, but ultimately inspiring. Abigail was left out of history; Eve has fixed that.
You can buy the book through LaPlante's website, to which I have inserted a link above. Amazon has it, of course, but if you possibly can, please get it from an independent bookseller.
By sundown this evening, I will have finished packing (as you can see above, some things pack themselves). The U-Haul truck is reserved for Wednesday, and if all goes well, Mrs. Peel and I should be elsewhere and ready to relax by teatime. I have moved a lot of times, packing, unpacking. The first task is collecting boxes. The last time I moved, I got rid of the used ones, because I wouldn't need them again. How endearingly optimistic! Then, all I have to do is fill them, number each box, and keep a list of what is in it. I was well into the high double digits a few days ago when I dissolved in tears over how much stuff was left to pack. Not, mind you, because I was tired of packing, but because I am not exactly travelin' light.
Shortly after I came back to the city in 2006, a friend asked me for moving tips. I had one: get rid of stuff. I told her that my only regret was that I had brought so much with me that I could have sold or given away before the move. And yet, I do not take my own advice.
Not that I never cull my possessions. I do, often. Something shifts in my mind, and I can sort and discard quickly and efficiently. But if that mental shift doesn't happen, every decision takes a long time. Of course, sometimes I wish later that I had kept something, usually a book. It has been shocking to learn that there are books I used to own that even the much-vaunted New York Public Library apparently doesn't.
When Hurricane Irene was spiralling toward New York City, threatening (according to local media) to roar over the boroughs and destroy us, New Yorkers were encouraged to gather their most important items into "go bags", so as to be ready to evacuate if necessary. I came up with three bags full, to be used depending on whether I was on foot, on public transportation, or in my car.
1. Walking list: Mrs. Peel (cat) in her carrier.
2. Public transportation list: Cat in carrier hanging from one shoulder. Bible, Riverside Shakespeare, current journal in a bag on the other. My little-girl charm bracelet on wrist.
3. Beat-up Toyota list: All of the preceding, plus all my diaries and dream journals, and Greenie, the rescued corn plant.
I actually live on a big hill, so I did not need that bag, but the thought process was interesting. What mattered to me? Mrs. Peel, plus stories. Nothing else.
Even though there has been no yard sale, and I only have time to pack and move, and must sort things out later, it's still basically Mrs. Peel, plus stories. The stories of all my books and bookshelves. The lineage of my piano. The mystery of the painting that has been hanging above it. My wicker chair has a great little tale to tell. Greenie has a ballad. Everything speaks. Once I have settled into a new place this fall, I will be glad to have these familiar things around me in a new setting. As a priest I knew used to say, "Period. Paragraph. Turn the page."
Recently I noticed that the blogs I read most faithfully are the work of writers. Book writers, I mean, not (for the most part) Facebook posters. I don't know how I initially found some of these blogs. I'll start chatting with Mr. Google about something I want to know, and end up learning something utterly else. Perhaps I have been picking up some feline traits from Mrs. Peel. No sooner have I spotted and pounced on a falling leaf, than, hey! there's another one, further away. Pounce! But wait! Something's rustling over there! Pounce!
I'm like that in the library, too. Yes, yes, of course I go in with something specific in mind, some single book. But when I emerge an hour or two later, dazed and blinky-eyed, my arms are full of books, most of which are not at all related to the one I came in to capture. You know. The one I have forgotten about.
When I come back to the apartment, I greet Mrs. Peel, put on the kettle, and start to look at my literary plunder, hoping, hoping. If I am lucky, if I have chosen well, one of the books will be as good a portal as the book in this video. and that will be very, very good indeed.
Because this is what a real book can do.
(For those whose French is rusty, the subtitles say more or less this:
At the beginning:
Adult: So kids, again with that book?
Child, reading book: You who read these lines will discover the mystery of Georgian legends…
At the end:
Adult: Let's go, kids. Finish playing with the book. Time to eat).
I don’t have internet in my apartment at the moment. Nor do I have any magazine-in-the-mailbox subscriptions. These two conditions are related, and there are a couple of reasons for them. The first, the “presenting complaint”, in med-speak, is the expense. When I first came back to NY and arranged for Verizon to be my provider, the lovely introductory rate was $17.99 each month. Sign me up! When that rate expired, the new rate was $10 more per month, and now it's $44.99 per month before taxes. Just for internet.
Magazines are the same. A sweet bargain for the first year or two, to catch you, and then a much higher rate when your subscription renews automatically, as a “convenience” to you. More important, magazines, even the best ones, are either repetitive (sorry, Oprah), or relentless (New Yorker, I’m talking to you). Or both. Who has the time to read them all? And who, in this apartment, has the time to read them all when there is a cat to admire, Shakespeare on the shelf, music in my head, and friends to talk to? Real life, compassionate, aware, loving, curious friends?
Which brings me to another concern: The Vortex. Our minds are wired to look at the newest information. This can keep us both alive – Look out! There’s a snake! Move fast! A tree is falling! – and breeding – wow! now THERE”S a man!. This also makes us the perfect targets for Facebook and Twitter addiction, because the feeds keep updating. I find I am reading about someone I barely know doing something I don’t care about (so glad you’re having coffee for your hangover, my fb friend). It’s the latest, so it’s the loudest. Though it is easy to decide to stay away, actually doing that requires overriding millions of years of evolutionary development. But just as I am trying to do that, here comes another update, and it sucks me back in, on the off-chance that I need to know this new bit of information.
The Vortex substitutes the watching of life for living of life. It affected me years ago, through television, and so I got rid of my TV. Since then I have been encouraged (often!) to re-engage the box, and I haven’t yet done so. Perhaps when a cable company allows me to choose and pay for only the stations I want (I want my BBC, period). The result of this mode of living is that I am an alien. Those who watch a lot of telly probably don’t realize that they talk more about that than about anything else. They talk more about the characters on shows than about the people they actually know. I notice it because, when I have to ask who they are talking about, they are astounded by my ignorance.
But I watched a lot of TV in my past. Many friends have been made to endure my recall of theme songs and jingles from the 60s. In 1978, when I had the car accident that forced me out of the music business for a couple of years, I had extremely good medical care from Dr. Alvin Mulne, and all the superb staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, CA. I also had Jamie Sommers, The Bionic Woman, on daily reruns, and that show played an important part in my healing, too. I had been surprised to find that, thanks to bad management, I was rather spectacularly underinsured, and the daily “meditation” and visualization of her speed and strength and acute hearing was almost the only post-op therapy I had. We really do have the technnology, built-in, in mind and spirit.
Today I am living in a cable-free, magazine-free, internet-free apartment. Some of this may may well change. It's inconvenient. To publish this post, I have to walk down the hill to the library with my laptop on my back, and then walk back up. It's raining. But once I am home again, the mental silence – because I can't check Facebook – is deep and fruitful. The payoff's been really big. Clearer ideas. Sharper awareness when I am out, quieter thoughts when I stay in. Intuition's more insistent. Prolific dreaming. Prayer. I feel more present to Presence.
So far, so good.
On the last page of every issue of her magazine, Oprah writes a feature called "What I Know for Sure". It is usually a distillation of – or perhaps the inspiration for – the theme of that edition. This month's theme was intuition, the feeling of just knowing that some course of action is right or wrong for you.
"The intuitive mind," said Albert Einstein, "is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." We all are intuitive, but we don't listen to our gut feeling. We learn not to, in fact. I often have to defend myself against myself, as logic and common sense and the "right" way to do things conspire to blow out the spark of insight and drown the fire in the head. Even when I do listen, I don't follow what I hear all the time. Bad marriages, bad business decisions – how many such griefs could be avoided by just paying attention to the little voice, the synchronicity, the dream?
In April 2002, I dreamed I was singing in a club with my band when, partway through the first song, the piano player started to collapse and couldn't continue. I wrote the dream down, and then forgot about it. Several months later, in August, 2002, I was playing the Rosendale Cafe with my band when, partway through the first tune, my piano player, Vinnie, started to collapse, and couldn't continue. A friend took him home. Eventually, he was diagnosed with severe Lyme's disease, and received treatment. I still didn't remember the dream. I only found it earlier this week, as I was tracking a different intuitive dream guidance that has been insistant, but that I, to my regret, have brushed aside for years.
Often I find I have to defend myself against myself, as logic and common sense and the "right" way to do things try to blow out the spark of insight and drown my fire.
Coincidences, or "life rhymes", are another of intuition's angles of appproach. Years ago, when I was nursing my dogs through cancer, I found Maukie.
Maukie is a little Flash cat that purrs when you "tickled" with the cursor. She – or he – is black, with white paws and white whiskers, and big green eyes. It cheered me sometimes, when I was feeling very dark, to hear that purring sound even though I knew it was ones and zeros, pixels and beeps.
Several years after that, when I moved back into the city, I discovered Diane Duane's feline wizards series, and The Book of Night with Moon, which I loved. Rhiow, the lead character, is described as a small black cat. On the book's cover, she is depicted as black with white at her neck, white whiskers, and green eyes.
This past May, Mrs. Peel stormed my Castle of Common Sense (impractical to have a pet in the city, I do too much traveling, vet bills, etc.). What did she look like, do you suppose?
One could say I was primed to choose the black kitten, but there was no other kitten there. She had been pre-chosen for me. It was a Divine set-up, and all my logic was worthless in the light of those green eyes.
Oprah's intuitions, she says, have led her to wealth, influence and success. Mine have not been so spectacular, perhaps because I have resisted them more often. I have gained confidence in fit and starts (much more slowly than I gained the appearance of confidence). Conventional wisdom and advice have not served me particularly well over the years, less well recently. I am renewing my membership in the Dream Library. Rhiow says, "A claw goes further into the ear than a thousand explanations." I intend to be paying keener attention to the wisps and the whispers, so as to not require the big fat can't-miss-'em signs, the claw in the ear, and the cosmic kick in the keister quite so often.
A rose is a rose, even when it's a McCartney rose. It was many years ago today (or some other day) that not-yet-Sir Paul McCartney pulled a perfect rose from a table centerpiece and tossed it into my hands as I was singing Heart's Desire with my Manhattan Transfer colleagues at the Brit Awards. At least, I think the event was the Brits. I was completely focused on Sir P. I confess that I was singing right to (or perhaps even at) him, and he… well, the story is going into my memoir, which I had hoped to write this morning, but it's too darn hot.
On Sir's birthday, June 18th, I am going to be singing a few of his tunes in Beacon, NY. Not too many, though. I don't want to hurt Johnny Mercer or Willie Nelson's feelings. Cole Porter can be pretty touchy, too. With me will be Tex Arnold on the piano, and because we had such a good time in Washington CT last month, my sister Babette will again be joining me in a few songs, along with guitarist (and nephew) Alex Brown.
The Howland Cultural Center is a very interesting venue. Built in the "Norwegian" style in 1872 as a library, and placed on the National Historic Register one hundred years later, it is now a performance space and art gallery. It's geothermally cooled (which cannot be said of my apartment, alas). I hope to see some of you there. If you are planning on coming, please do make your reservation right away, so as to be sure to have a seat.
By the way, the McCartney Rose, shown above, is a hybrid tea rose, introduced in 1995. It is described as a hardy repeating bloomer (like me and my career!) with a strong and intoxicating fragrance. This pleases me. Though a rose by any other name would smell as sweet in Shakespeare's time, most of the cut roses one can buy these days have no perfume at all. One sniffs a bouquet, and there's nothing.
Heavy the heart that, via the nose, encounters the unscented rose.
I can't remember what tracks I followed through the "interwebs" to arrive at this video. That's so often the way, isn't it? One turns to the computer with a perfectly straightforward question, something one needs to know, and then an hour later looks up to realize one has been seduced by Mr. Google. Again. I was looking for a way to renew my car registration online, that much I remember. Or perhaps I heard a faint little tweet.
Somehow I landed at Rob Bell's website, and this video. His name was familiar. Pastor of a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he sparked controversy recently with his newest book, Love Wins. There has been a buzzing of hornet talk in the evangelical community. The book in question is not yet available; the release date is March 29th. This suggests that more folks might be upset by it than have actually read it.
The video and the "disturbance in the Force" have caught my interest. I'll be reading…