Saturday, December 14, 2013

G3 - Growing

GROWING: A crone keeps growing emotionally and intellectually. Right now I am spending a lot of time thinking and reading about relationships, both those with people around us and those on the other side of the curtain. I want to understand what makes relationships work. I am also interested in learning about meditation.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's home at Cross Creek

Marjorie and Me: A Relationship

     In April of 1938, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was published, and the next April it won the Pulitzer Prize. During the fall of 1964, The Yearling saved my life. I was twenty-two going on fifteen and had just begun to teach English in a high school said to be the roughest in a city with several. The kids were only a few years younger than I, and many were far more experienced in worldly matters.    

    Armed with the love of literature and well-founded in English grammar, I marched into that classroom with confidence. Instructional periods were seventy minutes, and the kids were grouped according to ability. The longer time was great for the better students, but I had one bunch with severe disabilities, barely able to read or write. Totally unprepared for such a group, I panicked. What was I supposed to do with these kids for so long? Just the year before I had fallen in love with The Yearling, and I began to read it aloud. I remember how Joe, almost my age, twice my size, and dressed always in filth, would ask each day as he came in, “You going to read about the bear, Miss Hoover?” I assured him I would read if he worked hard. For twenty minutes I attempted to teach the rudiments of the English language. Then guilt-ridden, I reached for the story. Other novels followed. Mostly I stood at the back of the classroom as I read, my gaze going often to the door. What would happen if someone important came in and discovered I was wasting time?

      Finally, in January, I attended a teachers’ meeting where an expert teacher of English said from a high stage, “Be sure to read aloud to your students, even those in high school. They need to hear the beauty of language.” I could hardly keep from shouting!

       My admiration for Rawlings changed into what I have somehow come to think of a relationship last December when I visited Cross Creek, her home in rural Florida. My two daughters, their children, and I were driving to Disneyworld. The girls watched the little ones play on swings on the grounds while Paul, who was nine at the time and who wants to be a writer, and I went inside. We were both enthralled.

Cross Creek

       If you don’t know how Marjorie came to own Cross Creek and how living there led to The Yearling, you should read her autobiographical account with the same name as her home or at least watch the movie, not totally true to the story, but close. Hoping the citrus grove would support her writing habit,  Rawlings bought the place, including a house that had been assembled by connecting three tiny buildings  with porches. Built from cypress and pine, the dwelling is plain, simple, and open for cross ventilation. There is a great article about Cross Creek in the Florida section of American Author Houses, Museums, Memorials, and Libraries, by my sister, Shirley Hoover Biggers, published by McFarland.  With money from one of her early short story sales, the new owner had the first indoor bathroom added. She celebrated by putting ice and soda in the tub, a tray of glasses on the sink, roses in the stool, and inviting the neighbors in for a “gala social event.” She also screened in the front porch where she wrote, her typewriter resting on a roughly made table.

Orange Trees at Cross Creek

      After the trip, I read a book of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s letters and a biography. She loved company, just as I do. So far none of my writer friends have achieved the fame of those who slept at one time or another in the narrow handmade bed found in her guest room. Still, I don’t think she could have enjoyed Margaret Mitchell, Robert Frost, or even Thornton Wilder more than I enjoy my friends, writers and others. Maybe I should reconsider that statement because Gregory Peck, who starred in the movie version of The Yearling, also visited.

        Paul and I were thrilled by our tour of Cross Creek, him clutching a newly released edition of the author’s beautiful picture book, The Secret River, one even the tour guide hadn’t yet seen. I came away with some brochures and a ticket that I later had laminated. It is green and has an ink drawing of the house. When I hold that piece of paper in my hand, I can experience the house and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings again. I just discovered that she died exactly 60 years ago today, December 14, 1953. It interests me that I couldn’t seem to get this blog entry written yesterday, but that it came quickly on this memorable date.  As I mentioned in an earlier entry, my friend Beverly was right when she told me relationships don’t end with death.

With my grandson, Paul, at Cross Creek.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

G3 - Growing

The Human Spirit

GROWING: A crone keeps growing emotionally and intellectually. Right now I am spending a lot of time thinking and reading about relationships, both those with people around us and those on the other side of the curtain. I want to understand what makes relationships work. I am also interested in learning about meditation.

Pondering the human spirit makes me grow. Because I just finished reading The Book Thief, my thoughts were full of that miraculous spirit when I went to church this morning at the beautiful, old Presbyterian church I can see from my writing room window. I love attending services in a structure built in 1894 and used as a hospital and morgue after Chandler’s cyclone of 1897. I cherish experiencing that timeworn building as I hear Joyce Newby’s piano preludes, medleys that enrich my soul in a special way. Today Joyce, who sings like an angel, added even more to my experience, but I digress.

I am writing about the Human Spirit, and I’ve decided to capitalize the words. Reverend Newby began his message this morning by reading an anonymous piece that he said was left on his desk. Among other things the selection contained this quote, “I asked God to make my sick friend whole. He said, ‘Her spirit was already whole when she came into the world. Her body has always been temporary.’”

I began to think about how a spirit comes into the world whole, but how it is required to grow. Some spirits, like the spirit belonging to Liesel, who steals books, grow quickly. Others take longer. My spirit is slow to grow, but I am glad to say it has not stopped yet.

My slow spirit went through a real growth spurt when I read The Book Thief recommended to me by my friend, Helen Newton, who said, “It’s for those who love words and the human spirit.” Helen recommended it last summer, but I only recently had the priceless experience of listening to the audio version. I am ever so glad I got to hear the story, because like all poetry it is better aloud, but I am also glad I have a print copy, because I plan to mark countless passages. 

Death narrates this tale about a young German girl during World War II. Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? However, the word that best describes the book is triumphant. In fact, I am leaning toward deciding that it is the most triumphant book I’ve ever read.

The conquering spirit is a familiar theme in literature. Of course, Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl comes to mind as does my longtime favorite, The Yearling, a novel that helped me survive my first year of teaching. I’ll tell you more about that lifesaving experience later. Right now I want to talk about something Penny Baxter tells his son in that book, “You've seed how things goes in the world o' men. You've knowed men to be low-down and mean. You've seed ol' Death at his tricks...Ever' man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. 'Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but 'tain't easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin.”

Sometimes I don’t even wait for life to knock me down. I fall of my own accord, collapsing in a heap of my own ridiculous making. I’ve mentioned before how much I love Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In that play the Stage Manager says, “Whenever you come near the human race there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”

Reading The Book Thief pulled me out of a period of nonsense. Someone told me the book was too sad to read. I am sorry for anyone with that attitude. Death tells the reader what is going to happen before it happens. I had already decided, even before the narrator admitted it, that Death’s telling us in advance, served the purpose of helping the reader bear what had to happen during the ravages of war. However, I would have read the novel anyway even without the softening of the blow because of the beauty of the words. To tell the truth, at first I thought that Death’s voice was a bit overdone, but Death quickly won me to his side. 

Last week during a school visit, a child asked me, “Do you like death?” I knew she was really inquiring why many of my books have a death either in the story or alluded to in the story. I talked to the group about how all of us die and about how I think Western society is wrong to try to separate life and death because they are so totally intertwined. I told the girl that I am not afraid of death or of talking and writing about the experience that can make those of us who witness it grow more than almost anything else.

In The Book Thief, Death says of Liesel’s papa, “He was tall in the bed. I could see the silver through his eyelids.  His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do—the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, ‘I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.’ Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”

I won’t reveal the last line of The Book Thief, but I will tell you it proves that the Human Spirit  is stronger than death. I will also say I hope my soul is sitting up when death comes for me.