Monthly Archives: September 2012

I’ve Been Reading…


I don’t like to read books that are popular. I think it has to do with the fact that I am a bit of a snob. I really like the classics, and I have been know to personally describe my favorite kinds of books as “pleasantly boring.” Perhaps I feel like there is something ironically original in being an old-school, stick in the mud- if I am honest with myself this is a literary equivalent to everything hipsters are trying to do with mustaches and eyeglasses. But, if a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, I probably should check it out, even if it was a little too popular (and a little too recent) for my tastes. In an effort to open my eyes to the more current classics, I am making it a point to read some of the more recent winners.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I know why. This book was in a word beautiful. Last night as I finished it, I told John that throughout the book I found myself wanting to cry, not because it was sad but just because it was so very beautiful. I tried to think of another word that could describe it, but scrumptious or gorgeous or lovely just don’t do it; it is pure, sweeping, and enveloping, but there is not one bit of flash or kitsch about it.   Robinson has a way of making every idea within the book seem sacred, and her exact words make you feel you are entering into a sanctuary every time you crack the cover.

This is not a book to read quickly; it plods along and you might even admit to yourself that you are a bit bored by it, but somehow it seems so worthy and so lovely that you will want to come back to it again and again, in that way it reminded me of a devotional text more than a novel. The focus of the novel supports that description as well.

Gilead is the story of John Ames, a small town preacher well into his seventies, who marries and has a child late in life. He has been told that, due to a heart condition, he won’t live much longer, and the text of the book is compromised of a letter to his young son about what he wishes he would be around to tell him.

“I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, Im trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”

This premise could easily devolve into a mighty last will and testament or a list of platitudes, but John Ames is too aware of his own fallibility for that, so instead it is a stash of his most loved memories, often contemplated thoughts, and stories of his family. Much of it is profound, but the bits and pieces that make you smile or laugh and the simple gravity of his love for wife and son, somehow seem just as much or more important in the scheme of the story. Robinson writes John Ames in such a way that every memory and thought somehow holds an answer; I don’t think it is important to really know the questions, just that they are the kinds of questions every man and woman faces simply because we are alive.

This will not become my favorite book, but it might very well go down as one of the most beautiful I can remember. Robinson should win awards simply for the way she brings John Ames to life; if I were to meet her, I would be surprised to find she herself is not this rural, aged minister she uncovers him so subtly and so completely. Pick it up sometime, but don’t feel like you have to read right through. This one is better savored over a month or so.

Below is a passage that I read over at least five times the first time I read through it; I think it shows many of the qualities I described above.

“I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain, I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. HIs hands and his face were black with ash-he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs- and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from the inside of his shirt, and he did break it, that’s true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Through we didn’t notice it much when they were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been why no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do always remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very  beautiful as I remember it, though I’m pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it.”


Pied Beauty

A weekend hike in Eno River State Park and the way the sun shone through the windows this morning reminded me of this poem, an old favorite. The fall weather here does not disappoint, and my favorite part of our hike was seeing turtles sunning themselves on the creek rocks- their necks craned toward the sun like they were drinking it.

We are all a bit “dappled,” “fickle,” and “freckled,” and I like that his poem focuses on beauty found not in perfection but variety- all the colors of green on walk in the woods, the many colors in the iris of your eyes, thick layers of paint on a canvas, and the many colors of white in limestone- all made better by the inconsistency that creates its own harmony.

Not to mention that Hopkins creates fabulous musicality with his choice of wording. The alliteration of “fathers-forth” actually pulls you forward with the phrase, and somehow you can almost taste on your tongue the sights of the “swift, slow; sweet, adazzle.” Glory be to God for these things indeed.

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
            Praise him.
*Bolded words simply denote lines I especially like. A colleague of mine once described these as “golden nuggets.” Simply starting with what jumps out to you is a great way to begin when you are faced with a difficult poem (or really any poem).

You are going to need some cream cheese icing…

Never you mind the missing cookie.

These are really good cookies; they are also sort of healthy cookies. Not by any means low-fat, but, you know, the good kind of fats- almond butter, coconut, eggs. You really should make some; here is the recipe:

summerharms spiced banana almond cookies

And her pictures are so much prettier than mine, but the big thing that you should notice is pretty as her cookies are, they are missing something, and, mine happen to be strategically paired with one another based on their size and shape…

Half a container of cream cheese or neufchatel cheese, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and a splash of high quality vanilla whirled and fluffed with the blender makes these normal spiced banana almond cookies into a better than you remembered oatmeal cream pie. The smooth but spicy cookie marries well with the sweet tang of the icing.

These are the perfect summer into fall treat- warm, cinnamon autumn flavors with cool cream cheese icing.

The only problem with these is that they tend to fall apart; we haven’t seemed to mind too much. No one worries about dignity when eating a cookie.

How to take a 6 day bike tour in Michigan…

We wanted a grand adventure this summer, but it turns out we really only had time and resources for a small adventure. In that spirit we thought about what we like to do on vacation. This is encompassed by two major activities: strolling the sites of a walkable town and eating good food. The problem is that the walking is never quite enough for the smorgasbord we find, and so the idea of an “active vacation” was born, and with a husband with a history of bike touring, Michigan Bike Tour 2012 was born- 200 odd miles around Northern Michigan with stops in-between.

*Disclaimer #1: the mileage and activities will seem rather epic to many; they’re not, just about anyone could do this ride (and should!).

*Disclaimer #2: Many of you might be thinking “Michigan?”, and I was too. I originally was set on a bike tour of coastal Maine, but it seems that the Sunday drivers on the winding coast don’t make for hospitable road conditions. I went into this Michigan trip a bit begrudgingly, but,  heavens, is it a gorgeous place! Hi thee to Northern Michigan in the summer. Just last night, I told John that I have found myself longing to return several times, and he agreed.

So, if you are ever to decide to go on a 6 day bike tour here is a handy, though incomplete little guide to having a good time. Get ready for a lot of pictures…

You will need a vehicle that can contain or retain your bikes and all of your gear. If you are me, you will need a real suitcase for your “real person” clothes and another suitcase for your “bike person” clothes (you really should wear the shorts, I know, I know, but they are a good thing). If you are us, you will send your husband to Florida to buy and drive back a champagne colored Jetta TDI with trunk space that goes on for days, and you will call her Angela Merkel to honor her German heritage.

We really needed a new car anyway- promise.

Next you will drive your car to a great starting point; we chose a place at the head of a trail: Gaylord, Michigan. If you are adventurous, you will camp because nothing inaugurates 60 miles of cycling like sleeping on the ground!

Gaylord, Michigan, the home of Alpenfest! We happened to roll into town on the biggest day of the year…

It is always the right time for a camp fire.

You should awaken bright and early to get on the road. 63 miles means 8:30- 4, but with room for stops in-between.

Once you get on the road it is very important to keep your spirits up…

Try a stop at the playground in Wolverine, MI.

They have swings! (for cross training)

You’ll need lots of snacks for fuel, and Cheybogan has a great little coffee shop. If you are lucky you will meet a nice lady from the UP; she will tell you wonderful stories about how Portland is exactly like the show Portlandia.

But the important thing is just to keep going; little victories along the way as you make it to each new town make it easier. Especially when the next little town is Tobinabee, with the cutest red library you have ever seen. I hope we have a little cabin here one day; it would rest right on the shore of Mullet Lake (say it with a French accent and it really sounds quite charming).

We also met quite a few other cyclist out on the 4 day Michigander trail ride. My favorite group was “Grandpa’s Gang.” A man at least in his 70’s had no fewer than 6 grandkids on all manors of bike; they were having the time of their lives.

And here is the really important thing after you keep on keeping on through the trail, you really should reward yourself with a soft bed and good food, so we did on Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel. This is a place to see and experience at least once. It was like being back in the 60’s at a supper club. (There was a lounge singer, though regretfully she did not emerge from a clam shell.) We moseyed around the island, soaked up the charm and spectacular views, ate a five-course meal in the dining room, and danced to the orchestra in the “lounge.” It was so much fun.

Corralling bikes and panniers onto the ferry is a team effort!

The Grand

In Mackinac the fudge and ice cream flow like wine.

And the salmon live in this beautiful bay…

And the streets are charming, though the ubiquitous horse is not required to wear a diaper…

The hotel’s decoration is over-the-top in wonderful way, and be sure to get on your Sunday best for the evening’s events so as to be in dress code.

Objects are bigger in life than they appear on the screen.

and after a lovely evening and a huge breakfast, you should get back into your lycra and back onto the ferry and back onto your bike because you have miles to go before you sleep at the campground for one more night.

A few other things you should do on a bike tour that were not pictured include:

See old friends and have amazing conversations in Traverse City and eat the flakiest croissant possible in America at Nine Bean Rows,

Eat a pasty,

Buy something to do with Michigan cherries in Traverse  City,

Ride the trail around breathtaking Sutton’s Bay,

Stay at a Bed and Breakfast and talk to your housemates at breakfast,

Interview each other about the trip on video- even though your wife will tell you she hates it, you will laugh about them for months afterward,

Visit another great friend on your way home, who graciously offers an air mattress and a beagle to cuddle, and eat at Frita Batido’s in Ann Arbor (yum),

and, perhaps most importantly, when your wife tells you she has nothing to prove and wants to be picked up from the final 15 miles of the trip, you should gallantly race back to the car and drive back to get her. She will be alright;  an E.M. Forester novel and a man’s weekend cadre of fly fisherman will keep her company (and protected) in Wolverine. She will love you forever for it.

Bike touring really is one of the most special ways I have ever traveled; we plan and hope to make it a yearly affair. I hear they are building a trail in Maine to be completed soon; Maine Bike Tour 2013!

A thing of beauty…

Prolouge: In my time teaching English I realized that what I loved to teach most was poetry. I had never thought much about my specific appreciation of it until I began periodically receiving notes from students in which they thanked me for my attitude toward poetry. (I once received a mug carved with the words “Carpe Diem” after a particularly zealous lecture on the 17th century’s answer to YOLO.) From time to time, I will share a poem to keep my literature muscles in shape as well as to share something I love. My students usually shuddered at the first mention of poetry, but I hope that by the end of it there was a deeper appreciation for it all.-

A post on Ann Voskamp’s website this morning reminded me of this Keat’s poem. Keats was one of the most romantic of the Romantics and has a story as full of tragedy as could be expected from that. In true Romantic form his favorite topic was beauty, and he was a great student of it. To him, the actual objects of beauty were just a first blush to the philosophical questions and metaphysical pondering that could be extracted from them. In this poem, Keats established his reason for writing his book of poetry Endymion. The fear of professional oblivion is an oft-repeated theme in many poets, including the old Bard himself, and here Keats proclaims that his writing will be established as a thing of beauty and will therefore last forever. I particularly like that Keats claims the right for his poems to exist forever most likely before they are even written; to him they are a thing of beauty waiting to be born on the page and it is his hope that will alone warrant his charge.

It is worth noting that Keats died young and knew early on that he would not live into old age- a classic case of the tragic, romantic youth with tuberculosis. When he warns against letting his work go unfinished in the “bare and hoary” winter, he knows that if his work is not quickly done, he will not get the chance to finish. This “thing of beauty” he was to write was a kind of last will and testament; he knew that men inevitably “pass into nothingness” but here is his hope that something of him will remain.

*Bolded words simply denote lines I especially like. A colleague of mine once described these as “golden nuggets.” Simply starting with what jumps out to you is a great way to begin when you are faced with a difficult poem (or really any poem).

Looking particularly tragic and consumptive.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast
That, whether there be shine or gloom o’ercast,
They always must be with us, or we die.

Therefore, ’tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimmed and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.

O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end!
And now at once, adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed. 

It’s not the heat…

It’s the humidity!

Oh my how many times have we said these words over the last few weeks, and then rolled our eyes at what a cliche we have become. I have always wanted to live in the Carolinas and felt like they would be my kind of place, but, for real, the humidity has invaded every nook and cranny of life. Today, the weather sent a cool blessing from Heaven and we enjoyed a foretaste of fall. I am not convinced that summer’s boggy waves will not strike again, but today there was a promise of the ideal Carolinas, the fall/spring Carolinas that I had always pictured in my mind and heart.

And so before these days where nothing will evaporate (this is John’s scientific explanantion for why we feel like we are sweating all of the time; I think it could be proven in a laboratory -maybe- he says that we are always sweating this much, but when the sweat reached the atmosphere in normal to dry climates it evaporates into the air; here the sweat meets the air and the paltry drop in the bucket to the dew point of us bows in submission to the mighty humidity; this mighty humidity shares the wealth and slathers you with a little something to remember it by. Ladies I have been “glistening” more than ever before.) end, I want to commemorate the five best and worst things about the humidity in North Carolina’s summer.


1) I can not prove it, but I am convinced the moist air makes hair grow faster, eyebrows, legs, all of it. Urban legend? Probably, but we are in the atmospheric equivalent of a greenhouse, so …

2) People leave lot of things on curbs here and thrift stores even have covered patio areas with lots of treasures, but they have all seemed to acquire a must that I can not imagine ever getting out.

3) That crisp, freshly cleaned sheet feeling that is probably the most satisfying of earthly things can only be achieved if you dry the sheets minutes before making the bed. It is like a time trial trying to actually get into bed before the sheets develop a damp hairiness ( I think this would be the equivalent tactile sensation to finding a food “toothsome;” this is excellent in al-dente pasta but a tragedy in the linen closet).

4) What it does to your hair; I don’t think I need to explain.

5) I mentioned the glistening, but what I really should have said is the down-and-out sweating. There is no escape. A couple of friends who hail from Florida called the humidity life-giving and quenching; all I can think when I am outside is that the very life is running out of me. Three outfits and two showers later in the day, I crawl into my hairy sheets and get ready for it all to repeat.


1) No dry skin; John’s poor, dry cracking feet are perfectly soft and lovely. Now I don’t have to encourage him to wear socks to bed because honestly no one likes to do that.

2) Happy, little mushrooms grow in random places all over town (see above). These are the platonic ideal of mushrooms (excepts for the polka-dots), and you see them scattered about everywhere. I always knew that fungi appreciated a soggy existence, and Durham obliges such that they feel at home just about anywhere.

3) The landscape is so lush. In Kentucky by the end of summer the grass is too dry to comfortably walk on with bare feet; here everything is verdant and soft. The ground feels loamy and the trees look nicely nourished.

4) I like being a part of the south, and humidity is part of the deal. It has made people slower and I like to think kinder for ages, and I am thankful for that. I have been reminded several times of these lines from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it … Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” I don’t profess to be a soft teacake, but you get the idea.

5) Lastly, the heat and humidity add a quality of humanity to the place. People don’t just stay inside, so when you are inevitably out at a food truck rodeo or a neighborhood brewery in the blaze of day, so are your friends and neighbors. They are just as flushed and sweaty and dazed as you are and really there is no way to hide it; instead it becomes a badge of the place. Everyone makes those good-natured remarks about “What a scorcher it is!,” and everyone wears those loose, baggy outfits that touch only 3-4 points on your body, and no one looks put together. Pretense is lost; maybe that is why the humidity makes the south a little kinder.

Cheers to summer, but especially to the coming fall.