Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Deep Christmas Thoughts

December 30, 2008

I once heard a lady say, "I hate Christmas! It’s so much work, and it’s all over in one day!" Obviously, she wasn’t thinking of lofty spiritual matters. She was thinking about cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping, decorating, etc. I can sympathize. If you think of Christmas Day as the end of Christmas, it really is a lot of work for a one day blow-out followed by an inevitable let-down.

I’m glad my mother believed in the twelve days of Christmas. For her, Christmas Day was not an ending, it was a beginning - the first day of Christmas, followed by eleven relaxing, stress-free days after all the work of preparation was done. Some of my best childhood memories are of the days after Christmas Day. We sewed doll clothes, read books, and baked cookies.

Every year I usually purchase a new book of Advent readings in an effort to observe the real meaning of Christmas. This year my purchase was A Family Advent (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2008). I learned something new about that most annoying of Christmas songs, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

I think everybody knows that at various times in history Protestants have persecuted Catholics and Catholics have persecuted Protestants. Roman Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion in England from 1558 to 1829. Being a practicing Catholic was a crime. The Twelve Days of Christmas was a little ditty originally designed to help Catholics learn certain things about the Bible. There was an underground symbolism.

1. The partridge in a pear tree stood for Our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Two turtle doves represented the Old and New Testaments.
3. Three French hens were faith, hope, and charity.
4. Four calling birds were the four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
5. Five golden rings stood for the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
6. Six geese a-laying were the six days of creation.
7. Seven swans a swimming were the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick.
8. Eight maids a-milking represented the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5)
9. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
10. Ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
11. Eleven pipers piping represented the eleven faithful disciples.
12. Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of faith in the Apostles’ Creed.

Go ahead and admit it. You thought this was a silly, nonsense song. So did I. Next Christmas when you find your nerves in a frazzled state due to an overdose of The Twelve Days of Christmas, be comforted in the knowledge that this song served a higher purpose. And, if you’ll put your little gray cells to work and memorize the symbolism, it can still serve a higher purpose.

So - if you’re in a blue mood because you think Christmas is over and all you got was a lot of work and a headache, think again. This is only the sixth day of Christmas, and somewhere there are six geese a-laying. So cheer up! There’s still plenty of time to bask in the joyful meaning of the season. Have a glass of eggnog, a cup of cocoa, or something a wee bit stronger. Now, what are seven swans a-swimming?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Contemporary Fiction

I often have dismal experiences with contemporary fiction. My weakness for always judging a book by its cover doesn't help.
The most notable dismal experience recently was a novel from a bargain table at Barnes & Noble. I have happily forgotten the title. Its cover was a work of art - a pastoral scene viewed through an open window with curtains fluttering in the breeze. I bought it and looked forward to a relaxing evening with a good book. By the third chapter the main character, an English single mother, was making love - on the kitchen table - to a Muslim fellow she had just met . I'll never know how that book ended.

The book I'm reading now is only semi-dismal - A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. It's a murder mystery with a gorgeous cover - old-fashioned bottles on a shelf. The setting is Victorian England. The victim is poisoned with an exotic poison called "bella indigo" - or "beautiful blue." It's not a bad story, but the writing is a little amateurish, I think. I wonder how some people get published?

Ever the optimist, I bought another contemporary novel yesterday at the new Borders book store in Baton Rouge. It's entitled The Tale of Hill Top Farm - the first in a series of books called "The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter" by Susan Wittig Albert. Here's the description on the back of the book:

In this first of the Cottage Tales, animal lover and all-around Good Samaritan Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit, is ready to help solve local mysteries. And with her entourage of animal friends, she sets out to win over the human hearts of Sawrey . . .
I do believe this is my kind of book. The English village is masterfully described. The characters are quirky and the animals talk to each other. I'll keep you posted . . .

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lumpy Salt & Other Inconveniences

Hurricane Gustav has come and gone, and I am changed somehow. I knew in the midst of the storm that I would be changed. I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew I would be different.

The morning of September 1, 2008, Jerry fed the horses and let them out in the pasture as usual. By noon we could tell the wind was really picking up so he put them in their stalls in the barn.

It was a wild ride from noon until about 5:00 p.m. Jerry, Suzanne, and I watched as five of the pine trees along the road snapped and fell across the road. More trees along the bayou bank and on the fence line east of the house came crashing down, too. Fortunately, none of the trees fell on the house or barn.

I thought the house shuddered during some of the strongest wind gusts. Did it really shudder or was it just the moaning sound of the wind? I don’t know. Jerry didn’t notice any shuddering. Maybe it was just that I was shuddering and imagined the house was, too.

When the worst was over, we went out to check on the horses and found them surprisingly calm. I was so proud of them! I guess they are growing up and not so easily rattled as they used to be.

If experiencing the storm changed me, being without electricity for ten days added to the change. With the generator we were able to run the refrigerator, freezer, television, a few fans, and minimal lights at night. And we were able to keep our cell phones charged - an important ability since the home phone was out.

A generator is a wonderful thing, but it has a voracious appetite for gasoline. Jerry had filled numerous gas cans before the storm and it’s a good thing because there were no gas stations open in town the first two days after the storm. When they re-opened, there were long gas lines. Jerry did gas line duty once or twice and then delegated it to me and Suzanne so he could keep cutting up fallen trees at home.

Waiting in gas lines was the best job I ever had. It’s not hard work. You just sit there in the vehicle and converse or read while the blessed air-conditioning that is no longer available at home keeps you cool. Wonder how much gas we all burned waiting in lines to get gas?

The ten day stint with no electricity brought back memories of my 1950s childhood. I think it was Day 2 when I noticed that the salt shakers would no longer shake. Without air-conditioning, the high humidity makes the salt damp and lumpy. I remembered the old remedy of putting rice in the salt shaker, but that doesn’t work any better now than it did in 1950. I finally gave up on the shakers and salted my food by putting a little salt in the palm of my left hand and sprinkling it over my food with thumb and forefinger of my right hand.

I hadn’t thought of Mexican Heat Powder in years. That’s what it was called when I was a kid. Now it’s labeled Mexana Medicated Powder. I had to have some. Wal-Mart opened on Day 3 or 4 and Mexana was on my list. When just the act of breathing in and out produces sweat, Mexana gives some relief. That stuff is dry! Gold Bond can’t compete. If you had enough Mexana, you might be able to dry up a flood.

I remembered my childhood method of falling asleep on a hot night. Position the fan as near to your head as possible. Then push your hair up off your neck and lay down on your back with no pillow. A pillow will restrict the air flow and accelerate sweating. Without a pillow, the air will flow under and around your neck. However, there will be no air flow between your backside and the bed - unless you’ve learned to levitate, and I haven’t.

When your backside starts to sweat, grab your pillow and turn on your side with your back to the fan. Sleeping on your side without a pillow will cause a crick in your neck. Just trust me on this; or, if you’re hard-headed, do your own test and get a crick.

When the lack of air flow between your side and the bed causes you to sweat, turn on your other side. When that side gets sweaty, you can try sleeping on your stomach, but I could never get comfortable on my stomach. The only sequence that works for me is - back/no pillow, right side/pillow, left side/pillow. Then I start the whole sequence over again. By flipping yourself around like a piece of meat in a frying pan, you can get a tolerable night’s sleep. By the way, it helps to flip the pillow over every time you flip your body. The side of the pillow that has been against the bed is always several degrees cooler than the side that has been in contact with your head.

All things considered, we can’t complain. We endured lots of inconvenience; but people, horses, and cats are OK. Now that it’s all over, I think ten days of inconvenience is probably a good character-building exercise. Some of the things that were very important before the storm don’t seem so significant now. All is well.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I have a tendency to brood - my Scottish blood, no doubt. And I have been brooding about Hurricane Gustav. It doesn't help that the news media feel a necessity to hype things up. I know why. There are a fair number of people who simply do not know how to take care of themselves - or are too lazy to take care of themselves. This was a factor in making Katrina the worst disaster the country ever saw. I wonder if it was really the worst disaster, but that's what they say. Since Katrina, the news people must direct all their announcements to this category of people in a desperate attempt to make them take the approaching storm seriously. In the process, they drive those of us who are responsible into a panic - especially if you're responsible and broody, too.

I've filled my van with gas, got prescriptions refilled, and ascertained that we have a good supply of candles and matches. Jerry has checked all the flashlights, battery operated radios, etc. and is presently out buying extra batteries. He has given the generators a test run and filled gas containers and his truck. He has picked up or secured things in the yard that could turn into flying missiles.

This morning I did the typical storm shopping. I bought jugs of drinking water and plenty of canned goods which would stave off hunger for several days without cooking. We've always been able to cook on our gas range even in a storm, but I'm thinking extreme scenarios. If the house was destroyed but we weren't, maybe we could huddle in the debris and eat beans out of a can.

I saw one of my former piano students at the store. She is now grown with a family of her own. I asked if she's getting ready for the storm. She laughed and said, "I'm doing the things that can be done, but I'm not worried about it. If it comes, it comes and if it doesn't, it doesn't. There's not a thing I can do about it." Bless her heart. She cheered me up. That's what I love about Cajuns. They don't brood!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Feeling Like Alice

Just like Alice in Wonderland fell down a rabbit hole, I seem to have fallen into World War II without trying. It's a long story. Last week end I arranged to meet Suzanne at the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble so we could walk to the nearby theater and see "Mamma Mia." I had a talk with myself before I went in Barnes & Noble. My reasonable self said,

"Your only reason for going in this store is to meet Suzanne. Look neither to the right nor to the left as you walk to the coffee shop. You do NOT need to buy a book."

My "bookish" self reluctantly agreed. I don't know what happened after that. When I "came to," I had a book in my hand that had the curious title, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The cover design featured an envelope that had obviously been addressed with a fountain pen, and the envelope was complete with postage stamps and post mark.

As I flipped through the book, I saw that the entire novel is a collection of letters written by the characters. Well, that did it. Being a lover of fountain pens and all things postal, how could I resist? Then too, how would I survive without ever knowing what in the world The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was? Needless to say, I bought the book and it accompanied me and Suzanne to the theater.

I was vaguely aware that Guernsey was English, but I didn't know that it was an island in the English Channel and that it was occupied by Germany during World War II. I made good grades in history, but somehow we never got around to this. I'm getting acquainted with the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and what life was like during the occupation. There is sadness to this story. You can't be occupied for five years by an enemy army and not have sadness, but the courage and good humor outweigh the sadness.

My second encounter with World War II started six weeks ago, but I didn't know it. That's when I ordered the movie, 84 Charing Cross Road, from Netflix. I subscribe to the basic no-frills Netflix program. They send me one movie at a time. When I send it back, they send me another one. Since I'm more addicted to reading and writing than watching movies, this is all I can handle. And sometimes it's more than I can handle.

84 Charing Cross Road resided on my desk for weeks. I couldn't seem to find time to watch it. Why had I ordered it? Because it was about a New York writer who corresponded for years with an English seller of used books. Let's face it. I have a fettish for books and all elements of letter writing. In spite of this, the constant presence of 84 Charing Cross Road on my desk began to annoy me. I felt like a kid with homework.

Last night I decided to watch the darn movie and get it over with. Helene Hanff (Ann Bancroft), in New York, started her correspondence with Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), in London, in 1949 and continued it for twenty years. She was obsessed with books, out-of-print ones in particular. Frank Doel answered all her inquiries for obscure books and dedicated himself to locating them for her. Through these letters Helene learns about the deprivation that still existed in post-war England. Again, there is sadness, but the movie is full of funny incidents as the outspoken, humorous Helen relates to the staid and proper Frank Doel.

I was born in 1946 and grew up hearing about World War II. I don't usually seek out books or literature about the war, but I've been highjacked twice in the last six weeks and I think I am all the better for it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Unconventional Stamp Collecting

I love postage stamps. They're little works of art. Since I use my fountain pens to correspond with people all over the world, I often find interesting stamps on the envelopes that land in my mail box.

I get frustrated with the usual albums made specifically for stamp collecting. There are lots of pictures of stamps where you're supposed to mount the real stamps that match the pictures. But I seldom have the stamps that are pictured so I have to mount my stamps in the blank spaces. I've decided to be unconventional and make use of a blank journal that I bought a few years ago.

This journal is perfect! The paper is acid-free and fountain pen friendly. The cover is a lovely collage of postage stamps and fountain pens. My plan is to soak the stamps off the envelope paper and mount them with stamp hinges on the journal pages. Beside each stamp I can make a notation, giving the date and telling whose letter the stamp came on. If there is something of unusual interest in the letter, maybe I'll make a note of that, too.

I've started with some stamps that I found in a box of my mother's papers. My mother was a prolific writer, and although she passed away almost nine years ago, I'm just now going through the boxes of letters, creative writing, and journals that she left.

So this journal that I'm starting will be a combination scrapbook and stamp album. And, since I'm using the approved stamp-collecting hinges, it will be easy to remove a stamp to sell if I ever find out one of them is worth ka-zillion dollars. I like to cover all the bases.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Looking Back

I'm taking a Bible study course with a small group of ladies. We're studying the Book of Daniel. There's quite a bit of homework so I'm glad we're meeting every three weeks instead of weekly. Since civil leaders play a role in shaping culture today just as they did in Babylon in Daniel's time, the workbook suggests that we list the presidents who have served during our lifetime and write a brief statement describing how culture has changed in our lifetime. The workbook allows three lines for this statement.

You know you're getting old when you have to put a lot of thought into listing all the presidents you remember. I listed most of them without help. But there were two or three gaps that I couldn't fill and had to resort to Google for help. Here's the list:

Harry Truman (1945-53) Since I was born in 1946, I don't remember much about Mr. Truman, but I do remember my parents discussing him from time to time. When you're an only child, you hang around the adults a lot.

Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) We got our first television when I was seven years old. I remember that we watched the convention where Eisenhower was nominated for president. The big thing I remember is that mother said when he was nominated that she was as afraid of Eisenhower in the White House as she would have been of Truman on the battlefield. She didn't change her mind when Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to force the local citizens to integrate their schools. There were racial injustices that needed to be corrected, but sending federal troops to oppose citizens of a sovereign state was a shocking thing.

John F. Kennedy (1961-63) I was sitting in Latin class in high school when the principal came on the intercom and announced that Kennedy had been assassinated. Two or three students cheered and got a lecture from the teacher which they richly deserved. Our household didn't support Kennedy, but it was frightening to think that our president had been murdered.

Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) He changed the course of our nation with his "Great Society." I wish presidents weren't so worried about their legacies. Sometimes I think they get up in the morning thinking, "I must come up with an idea that will be my legacy - even if it's a bad idea."

Richard Nixon (1969-74) In spite of Nixon's many shortcomings, I remember feeling compassion for him when he gave his farewell speech, ending his presidency in disgrace.

Gerald Ford (1974-77) I'll swear I don't remember much about Gerald Ford's presidency. Wonder why? I was busy raising kids, that's why!

Jimmy Carter (1977-81) He should have been a preacher, not a president.

Ronald Reagan (1981-89) I can't say enough good about Ronald Reagan. He entertained me in great movies when I was a kid, and he made me proud to be an American when he was president. It seemed like we barely survived Carter's lackluster presidency, and when Reagan took office, I had the feeling that we had a captain at the helm. And I wasn't disappointed. I was folding clothes when Reagan walked out on Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. I was putting shellac on the laundry room door when he was shot. Some things you just don't forget.

George H. W. Bush (1989-93) George H. W. made me nervous with his talk about "a new world order."

William J. Clinton (1993-2001) If nothing else, his was a titillating presidency. When he questioned the meaning of the word "is" during his impeachment hearings, I thought the world had gone mad. And I'm not sure I was wrong. To think that the most powerful leader on the face of the planet would question the meaning of "is"!

George W. Bush (2001 - ) The jury is still out on G.W. God knows he's not perfect, but I think history may be kinder to him than a lot of people think.

Well, that's the list. As for a brief statement about how culture has changed in my lifetime - that will take a lot more than three lines!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday Morning

There's something special about Mondays, even when you're retired. A new week is like a blank slate. Monday is a good day to do something you've never done before - like start a blog. Blogging is a phenomenon I don't quite understand. What makes us want to babble on about our lives to people we don't know? Maybe I'll discover the answer as I blog. Maybe understanding only comes in the act of doing.

I just started a new novel - The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I've never read any of Henry James' writings before, but I've read about him. Somewhere I read that his novels are slow-moving. I can see why. A great deal of time is spent inside the heads of the characters. But I like that. I like to know what people are thinking.

The party barge project is coming along. Proud Mary, as she was unofficially dubbed at the last family gathering, is still in dry dock. The new carpet and the new seats have been installed. One of the seats doubles as an ice chest. Jerry, never lacking in ingenuity, has rigged it up so that the ice chest can be drained through a hole in the deck. The next hurdle is the upholstered cushions that cover the gas tank and motor. Do we tackle the reupholstering job ourselves or hire it out? I think we'll get a few estimates and then decide.

When Proud Mary sails (or - to be more accurate - guzzles gas), I plan to make myself comfortable on the new seats, sip a cool drink, and read or write while Jerry fishes. I won't have to take a dictionary with me because I just bought one of those nifty little electronic dictionaries. I'm already addicted to this little gizmo and keep it handy whenever I'm reading.

Spiders are taking over the barn. We've got to call an exterminator before we fill the barn up with new hay for the winter. My thoughts about spiders . . .

I really don’t want to harm you.
I’ve heard about Charlotte’s Web.
But the stalls are no place to gather your wealth.
The barn wasn’t built for you.
It’s home to three gaiting horses;
and although they never complain,
I’m annoyed by you, your family and friends,
all cozy in lacy homes.
You’re a creature of God, I’m told;
but I wonder - really, I do!
If the devil himself has sent you here,
to invade this wholesome barn.
So my broom sweeps away your empire.
I’m sorry you toiled so to build it.
Go! to the trees, the woods, and the fields.
I won’t pursue you there.
You won’t miss the lowly barn flies –
A wealth of mosquitos you’ll find.
And the sun will make your fair webs
glitter and gleam like diamonds.
Judith B. Landry - 2007