An Adventure

Monday Morning Musings:

“‘I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’”

–Lewis Carroll, “The Lobster Quadrille,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

I’ve been on an adventure since last Wednesday. Just so you’re clear, it’s a Merril Adventure, so it doesn’t involve car chases, hot air balloons, or ski slopes; no danger involving avalanches or volcanic eruptions. I’ve not been caught in a coup, nor been accused of spying. I’ve not encountered a single lion, tiger, or bear. However, I have seen ponies. (I’ll just pause here for you to say, “awwww.”)

 

It’s an adventure involving women, friendship, and writing. In fact, I’m on a writers’ retreat. It’s not an “official” retreat, that is, it’s not sponsored by a group or organization. That also means there is no pressure. I haven’t spent the last few days hiding away or feeling anxious. Instead, I’ve formed new friendships while learning about writing memoir, fine-tuning passages, and formatting blog posts. We’ve done critiques, but we’ve also eaten great food, drunk wine, shared memories and expertise, laughed, and explored the lovely Chincoteague/Assateague area—apparently the area is a magnetic center that brings people, as well as birds, from all over.

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Janet Givens  instigated this writers’ gathering, offering her lovely vacation home to almost total strangers. Susan Weidener  kindly offered to drive Marian Beaman and me from Pennsylvania. I admit, I was apprehensive about spending a week with women I’ve never met, but it has been a wonderful several days—and I now have new friends!

It’s possible I may have baked and brought my Mandelbrot (aka “Mommy Cookies”) along—because how could I go a week without chocolate goodies? Susan brought chocolate, too—so one crisis was averted. Sigh of relief. Can you imagine me going a day, much less a week without chocolate?

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Just a few left.

 

Our group expanded during the week at Janet’s. Kathy Pooler 

joined our circle from afar. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

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We were joined—in person–by Mary Gottschalk and Carol Bodensteiner  on Saturday night. Apparently on our blogs, both Mary and I are taller. Who knew blogs had such power? On Saturday night, the six of us gathered together at Janet’s, enjoyed stinky cheese (brought from Vermont), wine, and dinner—along with talk of writing and life. I’ve been among truly brilliant and interesting women who have fascinating tales to share and knowledge to impart.

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Although I’ve missed my husband and cats, it’s been a fabulous several days.

Please do click on the links to meet these women. Perhaps you may also want to buy their books. (You know you want to.)

In addition to walking and talking, listening, and eating, I did do a bit of writing. Here is an echo poem I wrote during this past week–while the weather was beautiful and warm.

 

Chincoteague Island, March 2016

Four women gathered together.

Weather?

Well, it couldn’t be better.

Sweater

off and writing going

flowing

growing with critique.

Incomplete

forms arrested,

tested

by practice and time.

Sublime

words, write, repeat,

delete–

but now it’s time to eat.

Sweet!

Laughter from we four

offshore

gazing and walking

talking of Peace Corps,

more–

Four women together

weathered

bettered.

 

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Essay XII,” Art

Have you ever been on a writers’ retreat?  Please share your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Finding My Words

Monday Morning Musings:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

–T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (lines 118-119)

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

–Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

I’m at a loss for them today, so I decided to write about words. Unlike Eliza Doolittle in the musical, My Fair Lady, who sings:

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!”

–“Show Me” From My Fair Lady, Lerner and Lowe

I am never sick of words. I love words. I didn’t know—or more likely did not remember—that it was Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who first explained that a portmanteau word was like the suitcase called a portmanteau: “Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.” (You can read more about it here.)

One of my favorite Carroll portmanteaus is “chortle,” a word that has entered everyday vocabulary. I love it because it sounds exactly like what it is, and it makes me laugh to even hear the word in my head. You can find some new portmanteaus here. I think “Internest” is a great word because I’ve seen my daughter do it. It means “the cocoon of blankets and pillows you gather around yourself whilst spending long periods of time on the Internet.” Another favorite is “epiphanot”: “ an idea that seems like an amazing insight to the conceiver but is in fact pointless, mundane, stupid, or incorrect.” I’m not judging anyone here. I think I’ve had plenty of epiphanots myself—although I do picture Cliff Clavin from the old TV series, Cheers, when I hear the word.

This weekend my husband and I saw two very different movies—hey, it was movie catch-up weekend—Far From the Madding Crowd and Ex Machina.

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdeen (isn’t that a great name?) says in a line from Hardy’s novel: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It seems to me that it is not so much the language of the time, as it was the moral constraints imposed on women that prevented them from speaking. Bathsheba could not talk of sexual passion and desire. But the men, too, talked around it. They discussed marriage in economic terms, not in words of love. Much cannot be said, and perhaps was not even thought. Perhaps then there were no words to describe what they felt. Actions, however, have consequences in this story. Women who give in to desire are punished with death or debts. Women who use words thoughtlessly—as in sending a Valentine’s card—must also pay a price. The movie is beautiful—you will want to move to Dorset, England. The acting is wonderful, too. (I found this short article that discusses the movie and book, if you want more information.)

In Ex Machina language becomes not so much a means of defining or limiting gender, but rather, it becomes a method testing what it means to be fully alive. Reclusive billionaire and definite alpha male Nathan Bateman (a bulked-up Oscar Isaac) brings nerdy but cute programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason) to his estate to Turing-test his A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander). We all know that computers can use words and can be programmed to talk and write, but can they do more? The movie is exciting and thought provoking in its exploration of what it means to be human. Does an A.I. have feelings? Can an A.I. pretend? Can it feel pleasure or desire? And would a human know?

Humans seem to be hardwired to use words and form languages. We like to name things. It would be an epiphanot to say that languages evolve over time. (See what I did there?) I think most people know that whatever language we speak is different from that same language spoken centuries ago. Cultural and technological changes and inventions fuel the desire to create new words.

The creativity of novelists, poets, and other artists has also led to the invention of new words. Who can forget the scary terms coined by George Orwell in 1984? Orwell deliberately invented new words, such as thoughtcrime, newspeak, and of course, doublethink. He wrote, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” English author and former spy, John Le Carré has also created words, such as mole, meaning someone who infiltrates an organization. You can find some others here. Words can bring goodness and light; they can incite evil, too. They can be used to deliberately obfuscate, or to enlighten.

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom House”

Words. I was at a loss, but now I seem to have used 939 of them. I’ve finished the job, but I don’t think it’s complete. What is a word for that?

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole of Memory

This might be a long post. You see, I had intended to write another post on books. It was going to begin something like this:

         When I was a child, perhaps about ten or eleven years old, my older brother gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was a paperback book, a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s manuscript that would become the book Alice in Wonderland. I think my much older brother might have purchased it while traveling in England. I seem to remember him telling me in his sort of theatrical, conspiratorial whisper that the book was a copy of the author’s original manuscript, as though it was a true treasure he had purchased for me. And actually it was. I was nerdy kid, and I thought it was very cool to own such a book. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. The book vanished somewhere, along with my youth, down the rabbit hole of time.

         So that was what I intended to write about. But then Brian Williams happened.

         And then suddenly there was news everywhere about false memories.

         And I started thinking about a memory I have. I remember being in one of those old-fashioned elevators. It’s the kind that has the metal grill work door that you pull closed, and then you see can see everything outside of the elevator as you go up and down. Something like this:

"Montecito Inn3" by Vmiramontes - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg
“Montecito Inn3” by Vmiramontes – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg

I remember taking this elevator in my grandparents’ apartment house in Philadelphia. Problem? Well, apparently this never happened. My mom said her parents never lived in a building that had such an elevator, and my brother confirmed it. Neither of them could think of any relative who lived in such a place. So was I ever in this elevator, perhaps visiting someone else? Or did my overactive imagination take some old movie I watched and make it my own experience?

         What are memories and what are dreams? And what are dreams of memories?

         My husband and I have been watching the TV show, Fringe on Netflix. In one episode, a former rock band keyboard player (played by Christopher Lloyd), now in a nursing home, has a late night encounter with his young son, who had died many years earlier. The keyboardist later mentions that when his son was younger, the son told him of a dream he had had. In the dream, he met his father in a nursing home. It turns out that the mysterious creatures known as the Observers experience time differently. One of them took the son when he a child to meet his father many years in the future. The boy thought it was dream, and for the father, the experience had not yet happened.

         Storytellers all over the world have written about time travel. There are time machines, and then there are stories of people who can just wander into another age. I have always loved these stories. Perhaps that’s why I’m a historian.

Philosophers and scientists have also theorized about time. It’s said that animals do not experience time the way humans do. They live in the present. Some human cultures also experience time differently. In fact, those of us in modern western culture probably experience time differently than those in previous centuries—before electric lights, accurate clocks, train schedules, and all the various social media devices we now have alert us to news 24/7. Not that time didn’t matter, but perhaps it mattered in a different way. The hours left of daylight to accomplish a task, the changing of the seasons, when a crop should be planted, when a cow should be milked—all of these things were important, but perhaps it did not matter to previous generations if it was 7:00 or 8:00, or even what year it was.

         Books and written records bring some past worlds to our present existence (as do other artifacts). But they are often incomplete. In reading an eighteenth-century divorce petition, I might discover the bare bones of a couple’s unhappy marriage—when they married, and why the petitioner sought a divorce. If there are extant depositions, I might discover more. Perhaps a neighbor saw the husband brutally strike the wife, or witnessed the wife having a sexual encounter with another man. (Some of those depositions are pretty juicy.) The documents also tell me about legal language and conventions of the time, and perhaps provide some details of how privacy—or the lack of it in the eighteenth-century–but I will probably never know more about that particular couple and their unhappy life. Yet I might glean some idea of how they lived from other records, from accounts and stories told by others. These records are not time machines, but they do give those in the present a window into the past.

And that brings me back to this.

Once upon a time, a teenage boy bought a book for his sister. This girl, living in Cold War America, read about the fantastic adventures of a girl in Victorian England. As she read, she traveled through time and space. She saw people dressed in nineteenth-century clothing who had weird tea parties and spoke in a way that was different from the people around her. She encountered magical creatures. In her dreams, she may even have tumbled down a rabbit hole with the English girl, Alice.

I might not remember the thoughts and dreams I had then, but I do remember receiving the book. A memory of a book, a gift of the past, it now exists in the present.

 PS. Shout out to Rachel Carrera! Her blog post on Lewis Carroll triggered this post. Check out her always interesting blog.