Sunday, May 30, 2010

Students: Why Visit Savannah?

(letter to seventh graders, introducing a workbook that will accompany them to Savannah in September.)

Dear Student,

You walk up steps every school day. Do you know how many?  Most of us can't answer that question.  As Sherlock Holmes said, “People see, but do not observe.”  How many of us just pass through the world without observing most of what we see?

When you visit your grandmother, do you observe what her home tells about her past? Have you looked where she keeps her wedding dress, childhood treasures, and letters from her own grandmother?  If so, then you pass through time when you walk through her home. Do you ever ask her about her childhood?   She asks you about yours!  She wants to tell you about the people and places that made her who she is, if only you’d ask.   She raised someone who raises you, so, deep down, her past is a part of your past, too.

Savannah is our state’s beautiful grandmother, and Savannah will be telling us stories of her early life, a life that’s a part of the past of every Georgian and every American.    She “talks” through guides, but also through what you see.  The people of her past tell you stories through their buildings, designs, and artwork. 

This booklet will be your source for notes, quotes, and examples when you return to school and write for your teachers about what you learned.  The questions here will help you to “hear” what Savannah says.  Make notes on what you observe, and make notes on the stories you hear from guides.  Make notes, too, about how it all affects you, and about your friends. 

Someday, this booklet may be the souvenir of a trip that made a difference in your life, a memory of a fun time when you outgrew a stage of childhood, something for a grandchild to find in your attic.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Joys of Larkin

(reflections on Philip Larkin by way of an essay published on line in CONTEMPORARY POETRY REVIEW.)

The late writer Rachel Wetzsteon begins her essay "Philip Larkin and Happiness" with a disclaimer:  the title isn't one of those jokes, along the lines of a slim volume called "German Humor."  For the famous curmudgeon, she writes, happiness was key to his work, even in its absence.

The article cites a poem that took me by surprise a week ago.  Called simply, "Coming," the poem conjures the look and feel of sunset outside a row of suburban homes at that time of year when days are getting longer. When a thrush sings, "astonishing the brickworks,"  Larkin reflects that the feeling is like that of a child "Who comes on a scene / Of adult reconciling."  Without understanding why, the child "starts to be happy."

Reading this at a deli as the sun rose on a Saturday, following an exhausting Friday, I felt that happiness unfold in me. 

I've written elsewhere on this blog about the joys of Larkin.  I recommend Ms.Wetzteon's essay, which focuses on a marvelous poem called "Born Yesterday."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Meaning of LIfe: Detectives' Perspectives

(reflections on two novels, FACELESS KILLERS by Henning Mankell -- first in the series -- and TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT by Alexander McCall Smith.)

In FACELESS KILLERS, Henning Mankell writes of his detective Kurt Wallander that he rarely gives himself over to philosophy, repose, or introspection. "Life for him was a matter of juggling practical questions that needed resolution" (123).

Same here. My perpetual to-do list is like Wallander's -- answering mail, putting off a phone call, cleaning up the place, making a note to call a repairman -- only "find killer" isn't on it.  On Sundays, and whenever I take time to write here on this blog, I wonder if life is being frittered away doing small errands and ticking off deadlines that are met with a flurry of activity and then forgotten.  When I have a large swath of time, I miss the errands that give shape and urgency to the activity of the day. 

That may be a large part of the appeal of contemporary detective novels: murder gives point and urgency to all the busy-ness of the day.  Coffee, showers, bills, car trouble, family crises, unanswered messages and other homely details beset the detectives of Mankell, Cornwall, Grafton, Mosley, Cruz Smith, making their lives more of a piece with our own,  They share in our daily stuff, and we share vicariously in the pursuit of truth that's supposed to put our mundane life in perspective.  

With McCall Smith, it's the other way around: it's the small problems and perspectives on life that give his books their flavor, and the investigation of crime merely binds the threads of his characters' homely concerns. 

In a scene of introspection during TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, Alexander McCall Smith's detective Precious Ramatswe sits with tea before her family wakes up.  She enjoys the moments before she has to juggle practical questions of her own: preparing breakfast, dressing her kids and husband, "a hundred things to do."  But for the moment she could be alone, "As the sun came up over the border to the east ... hovering over the horizon like a floating ball of fire" (55).  This brings to the mind of Mma Ramatswe something that a priest once told her, when she worried that the sun would someday swallow the earth. "Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know"(56).

I like the sound of that.  If convicting a murderer isn't on one's list of things to do, it takes something else to make it all worthwhile.  Religion is supposed to provide that, but a creed and assurances of forgiveness don't make sweeping the floor or buying the milk any more meaningful.  Let one see those "practical questions that need resolution" as part of the "work for love to do," then that's motivation.