Where Character Comes From

Brassy.”

It’s Friday, so I like to start Happy Hour early. Here’s a bit of Ogden Nash-esque whimsy for you:

Your brassy hues, my dear

Give us cause to wonder

Are you as bold as your hair suggests

Or did your stylist blunder?

A poem born from painful memory of my first salon experience…but as the accompanying picture suggests, brassy, coppery hues and a certain scorched, peeling appearance from desiccated matter can be quite lovely in nature. Just not on me.

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I have known some fabulous, capable hairdressers since that early experience, but I must admit something of the trauma stayed with me and thus my character Mary Ringwell was born. I did grow to like Mary a great deal as I wrote about her, and in the end, she was made to be very happy. 🙂 Here’s an excerpt from the story, which was set in the early 1920’s. I had to research a lot of the hair-styling gizmos from that period to make sure I had Mary well established.

‘The next installment of Encyclopedia Britannica had arrived, volumes E through H, and Allegra was heavily involved in the life of Victor Hugo when an excited whisper broke into her concentration.

“I’ve got something to tell you that will get your nose out of that book for a while.”

It was the arbiter of taste, Mary Ringwell, a small and lively blonde with an unlimited supply of optimism. Being the only hairdresser in town, having set up shop with the newest and latest in hair technology, Mary was also the self-styled expert in matters related to glamour, fashion, and romance. Ever since Allegra had been singled out as the most appropriate target for her expertise, a strange sort of friendship had existed between them. For Mary, it had overtones of a religious crusade, to bring some fun and excitement into ‘the poor girl’s drab existence’. For Allegra, it was more attention than anyone had ever showered her with, and for that reason she found the relationship oddly fascinating in spite of herself.’ [from A Garden for Allegra]

Enjoy the weekend!

Odysseus Was Just Here (plus a haiku)

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That one perfect drop
Shimmers with just a sweet trace
Of yesterday’s sun

Last night I strolled through the garden, enjoying the air freshened from the rain, the golden light of pre-dusk, and the intense scattering of water droplets.

In a fanciful mood, and with a glass of scotch in hand, one might call to mind history’s greatest criers, in fact and fiction. You could imagine, for example, that the mighty Odysseus had just wandered, (brooding) through the garden previous to my own visit, shedding his epic tears; lamenting his lost friends.

‘His eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away with tears…’ [Odyssey, Book V]

Or that Dorothy Parker had just wafted past, weeping while exuding brilliantly tragic commentary, (she, crying, while everyone else is laughing delightedly at her wit) trailing long, drifty caftan sleeves and drinking gin. The largest, most lustrous rain droplets would surely have been her tears.

In truth, yesterday’s rainstorm left ‘tears’ of the happiest kind. Here are a few pictures I took in the early evening.

Starting From Anywhere

‘If you came this way,
taking any route, starting from anywhere
at any time or any season
It would always be the same
you would have to put off
sense and notion’ — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

Oh, to have traveled with Helen Bevington to Little Gidding.

Likely you have heard of T.S. Eliot. And perhaps, from there, you might have heard of Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar. It is less likely, though, that you have heard of Helen Bevington. If not, I hope (if that is, you enjoy witty, articulate literary essays) you will track down her book and discover this delightful author.

The book Beautiful, Lofty People is now a treasure in my personal library but I found it, quite by accident, while browsing through an old bookstore. I had no idea who the author was, if she could write or had any credentials that frankly don’t matter… but from the first few lines I read I was charmed. And, as it turned out, she did have credentials. A host of them. Professor Emeritus in English at Duke University. Respected poet and author. Published in journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. That should be sufficient to establish credentials, but really can’t begin to explain the light-hearted subtlety, or her evident love for people ‘warts and all’ that I enjoy in her essays. That quality of style only comes from outlook and integrity, not education.

As a premise for this particular book, she takes her cue from Yeats in his poem “Beautiful Lofty Things”, and writes of her own search:

‘The idea of the men and women one loves for their own sake caught in a lofty moment, intense with life.’ — Helen Bevington

She became known, in the words of one critic, for taking “artful notices of life’s comedies.”

As mentioned, Bevington was a poet, as well, although she did not take her own poetry seriously. In this book, she often follows up her essay with a poem that wittily sums up the essence of her notions on the subject.

‘I had a perfect confidence, still unshaken, in books. If you read enough you would reach the point of no return. You would cross over and arrive on the safe side. There you would drink the strong waters and become addicted, perhaps demented – but a Reader.’ — Helen Bevington

With Jane Austen-like deftness and wit, Bevington can find a treasure of mirth in the subtlest of themes. From her affectionate irritation with Cassandra Austen—that unrepentant burner of letters— to the whimsical notion of comparing Fanny Burney’s shoes with those of Dorothy Wordsworth, to Lord Byron’s battle with pudginess, to Aunt Mary Emerson’s delightful life preparing for death, her honesty at being ‘caught out’ by E.E. Cummings at a party in New York; these essays are a fascinating compendium and represent a very different angle on literary life.

From the Little Gidding UK website

Reading her essay ‘The Way to Little Gidding’ transported me to another time. Who wouldn’t want to have joined her on this amusing quest to find a gem of geography immortalized in T.S. Eliot’s poem?

‘We rode on in the rain into Huntingdonshire, passing again through the little village of Godmanchester I had visited on this same bus only last week. I didn’t yet know how to pronounce Godmanchester whether the accent was on man or God. But I reflected I had now traveled in England to Chester, to Manchester, and to Godmanchester, which should bring me to the end of the prefixes unless there was a Goodgodmanchester somewhere as well.’

And on she goes, with her quietly humorous and humane commentary sprinkled throughout. On this journey to Little Gidding, she is amused to find that no one in this rural community seems to have heard of it, or has a notion of how to get her there. It is delightfully strung out, this journey, full of wrong turns and rutted roads, and when we finally arrive, we are ready for that pint she is longing for in a pub spotted a few miles back.

‘The man from Sawtry, relieved as I was to find the place and complete the quest, stepped inside and couldn’t believe his eyes. Dumbfounded he swore he would bring the wife next time to have a look. I returned to Cambridge that afternoon by Bus No. 151.’

The Way to Little Gidding’ is a metaphor for something much more profound and it is testimony to Bevington’s mastery of prose that this depth of tone is not lost in the witty travel journal style of the essay. Her desire is more than to pursue a trophy for her memory book. She ends the essay with a touching postscript that suggests the emotional journey–the underpinnings–of her need to visit this little spot is to feel for herself what might inspire a great poem, and to walk in the footsteps of worthy people. Clearly, she was there to kneel–for it is she who inserts this telling quote from Eliot’s poem:

‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.’



 

Additional notes:

For the full poem of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, here.

Helen Bevington’s work was valued in her lifetime. As another sort of legacy she has left behind, her eldest son David Bevington is among the preeminent Shakespeare scholars in the world.

Helen Bevington: more bio here and yes, even wiki.

A Dweller in Possibility

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“I dwell in possibility.”  — Emily Dickinson

Oh Emily, what would you have said to today’s possibilities? What lifestyle choices would you have made? Your poetic turn of phrase, so ripe with optimism, might have been phrased differently. Perhaps… “I dwell in a multiplicity of distractions…?”

No one dwells more in possibility than a gardener. They say that is what keeps gardeners young–they are always looking to the future with excitement. (it must be said, however, that if a gardener’s heart is young, his/her hands look old!)

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Today’s–and yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s, distractions and lifestyle choices have, for me, to do with a garden. Flowers… tending… cultivation… tree care. Lovely preoccupations. The cherry trees are blooming, the lilac bush is awash with color and fragrance, the old-fashioned peony is just about to expand into a giant billow of bloom…I not only dwell in possibility, I am giddy with potential. Forgive me for posting pictures of flowers for the moment. It is spring, after all!

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‘I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –’
Emily Dickinson
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