Remembering Others’ Pasts

If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?

– T.L. Beddoes from Dream Pedlary

I’m not a big fan of novels written in diary form. I do, however, enjoy reading the real thing. I usually have to read a published work if I want to read someone’s account of their daily lives, since diaries are traditionally not a widely shared thing. (Blogs are another matter.)

So, the other night I had a lovely midnight reading fest. I say fest because I feasted on a story written 84 years ago when writing for oneself seems to have been more a genuine effort at pleasurable and reflective engagement with one’s own life than it does now. Today, with all our “reality shows” and YouTube confessionals, personal blogs and ego-based attempts at snatching fame for fame’s sake, it seems as if a lot of published material is conscious of itself – the writer thinking as much about audience as his own experience.

I’m guilty, too, I acknowledge. But, I can appreciate purity of intent immensely. This reading felt pure.

What was lovely in the story that I enjoyed in the peace and solitude of a still house at midnight was the genuineness and simplicity of the account of a man, a retired Captain H.T. Lewis, who was traveling transatlantically with his wife, Madge, onboard the the S.S. Cameronia in 1930. First of all, the captain could actually write. I mean lovely punctuation and everything; he was able to tell a story. I just wished he’d told more of it. (Captain Lewis was always referring his ‘reader’ to Madge’s copious diaries. It took me a bit of time and an obituary to find out Madge was his wife. I’d love to read her diaries.)

Here’s the Captain writing about the experience of the ship bound for Glasgow setting sail from New York:

“With little or no fuss or ceremony we were soon on board, bag and baggage; and then to the rail to see the others, especially those we left on the docks. A bag-pipe band came aboard with some man going back home – they gave him a good send off. The good old Scotch and Irish faces looked up from the dock – smiles, tears: waving, as the ship whistled goodby (three times) and moved out ever so quietly from the pier. Some hearts were just breaking on the dock, though they tried hard to smile through pent-up tears: perhaps leaving for Ireland and Scotland brought up folks back home, and, too, many were probably on board, going back, whom they would never see again.” [Captain’s underlines.]

Sometimes, after a day of fatigue and headaches, one goes to sleep and wakes in the middle of the night rested and peaceful. That’s the way it was when I had the pleasure of reading Captain Lewis’s observations and memories. In my clear frame of mind in a head no longer aching, I was receptive to his words. He brought me back in time. He wrote about the state of England after the war (showing strain and poverty) and of Germany (peace, friendliness, health). It was so interesting to get this man-on-the-street account 84 years after the fact, so different (in the account of Germany) from the bit that I remembered from school. He also took me on board the ship, which sounds like it was a big, warm, snug boat, not of the cookie-cutter variety which he sailed on back home. I remember him spending a day on that second ship and dedicating it, quietly with his wife, to diary-writing.

It’s nice to go back in time, sometimes, especially from the safe warmth of one’s comforter and pillows.

And, it seems a shame to keep the Captain’s ‘log’ all to myself. His voice should be heard, shouldn’t it? Though I was the lucky one to ‘purchase’ this diary, it shouldn’t be – and, really, it isn’t – only mine. So, at some point, when I can scan with care, I would like to put up the used sections of the diary, the part with writing and annotations and pastings of newspaper clips and typed itineraries. I don’t know if anyone will read, but it will be there, free and liberated from the closed covers of this lovely leather book.

Meanwhile, I have a few scans to illustrate…

Copy of diary1






Sowing Wild Oats, the Transcendental Kind. Serious humor.

I didn’t expect to call it hilarious when I picked this book up, but it’s true:  Louisa May Alcott’s short satirical ribbing of her father‘s ‘commune’, Transcendental Wild Oats, is hilarious. All those times you read books with a humorous hippie holdover from the ’70s or watched Dharma’s parents clash with Greg’s, you probably never knew that poor Louisa went through the experience first and for real.

And, while there are probably many ways one could approach this work, one thing that flies off the page when reading this story is the oppressive patriarchal dynamic that existed and, unfortunately, too often still exists. I’d suggest we not be too sensitive about the idea that stubborn male brains have often caused family pain. We all know some people lord their power over others in their circles; the Y-chromosome has just historically made it easier for some members of the human race to do this. Beware: many times it comes from good and honorable intentions. It just doesn’t work, and a husband-wife checks-and-balances system, had it been in place, may have. Even, if it only happens rarely, it hurts when it does. Most of us have some sort of experience with it.

And that’s what hit me when reading this surprisingly funny, sharp, readable story and the supporting material in Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary, published by the Harvard Common Press.

I’d always heard Louisa  was practical, the one who picked up the financial pieces when her father couldn’t and who probably rejoiced when she was finally old and autonomous enough to help her family. She bought their then state-of-the-art sink, I believe. That’s truly an exciting thing as anyone knows who’s experienced looking on helplessly as the powers that be in the family made one or more bad choices. I suspect Bronson Alcott made many, and his wife and daughters, including Louisa, suffered for them.

This book is separated into four parts. The first is background on the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-1800s, the second the parody, the fourth snippets from Louisa’s journals and the fourth eye-rolling explanations of the Fruitlands endeavor written by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, the commune’s founders. Louisa was about 10 or 11 in during the short period at Fruitlands when her family and a few other people went super-ascetic and attempted to eschew anything product that came from a non-human living thing, get back to the most basic of basics and lose all friends by evangelizing on their new lives.

In Transcendental Wild Oats, you can really hear Louisa’s frustration with the unrealistic, impractical thinking that can make lives miserable for those who must obey.  Life’s easy when someone else is doing the work, as the two head honchos of the Fruitlands commune would find out, if only they weren’t too busy pontificating to ferry passengers after they bum a ride. (They couldn’t pay as they shunned money.) But Brothers Lamb and Lion, the names Louisa May Alcott gives to the Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane characters, do not seem so quick on the uptake. Despite being fast to rewrite their principles when the work’s too hard, they just don’t see the light. So, out goes the vow to avoid using animal labor and in comes the ox to pull the plow. I got the feeling that since Lamb and Lion weren’t cooking dinner or doing the laundry, they probably forgot that they weren’t the only ones with fatigue problems.

Mrs. Lamb gets no helper to ease her labor. She refers to herself as a ‘beast of burden’ because, like many women through history, she was the creature weighted down with work that pie-in-the-sky-thinking husbands  delude themselves to think is a joyful love labor for a mother’s tender heart. In actuality, it’s a backbreaking, pack mule burden that is, arguably, unconsciously abusive. No money for her, no meat to cook with – only veggies and grains, no coffee or tea – only water, no shoes for her children until she blew that idea out of Brother Lion’s head, no clothes made from animal products, a proselytizing husband and his equally preachy buddy. And, we  think it’s bad when we don’t have a working dishwasher…

The idea comes through even in modern times: the silly menfolk made life burdensome for their families with their wild ideas (again, admittedly well-meaning) and, frankly, they burdened themselves with a ridiculous scheme that nearly kills one of them. He learns his lesson, of course. This is, after all, a parody written by a woman who I am sure loved her father but was, nonetheless, the long-suffering child of an extreme thinking family head in a strongly patriarchal time. She knows to teach his character a lesson. If you don’t mind the spoiler, I’ll tell you Brother Lamb rises from his foolishly self-induced deathbed realizing that food is actually a gift from God and he has a responsibility to his family, not just his highfaluting ideals.

That’s the nice thing about rewriting a part of your life, you get to be the one who preaches. Only, this time, the preacher was right.

(I originally posted this a long while back on an Open Salon blog I started, but I hardly use it, and wanted to post the piece here, too.

Armchair literary tours?

I just discovered the Street View feature of Google Maps. What a kick! I took a tour of a Hungarian city that I last visited 20 years ago. It brought back so much of the flavor of the place for me, and I thought, ‘What a great tool for traveling from your desk!’

Now, I am thinking about applications to literary interests. When I really get into a book that takes places somewhere far off, now I could, conceivably, not only look at pics of the place and look at online author comments and snapshots of their geographic inspiration, I can take a little “walking” tour of the place. A new way to “Let your fingers do the walking,” to use an old Yellow Pages (remember using those – in hard copy?) slogan. As long as Google trucks have photographed the place, I guess it’s an option until I win the lottery, which, face it, is hard to do when you don’t play.

Any A Discovery of Witches fans out there? Here’s Google Maps Street View of Oxford, England.

Keepers of Our Story, Better hope they care…

If a picture can speak 1,000 words, imagine how much an old house can speak. This is a blog about words and story, so the loss of a historic house seems appropriate here.

Something happened yesterday that is astonishing in the combination of its significance and its protagonists disregard of said significance. A house, the oldest in Dover (at least, until yesterday) was demolished. It was half decade older than our country. Built in 1724, the Draper House had a history of being home for generations to a single family, a family that helped fight the America Revolution.

Our Revolution from our shared American history.

A couple of people liked the land the house was on, but not the house, itself. So, they bought the property, house and all. But there are little things that can get in the way of the enjoyment of a dignified, historic home. For example, it seems that one of the owners is tall, and the pesky 6 foot ceilings of the old house were inconvenient. Well, what would you do with an inconvenient piece of our country’s history?

Tear it down, of course.

Never mind that such old houses are rare and that this is Massachusetts, arguably the home to the birth of the United States. Never mind that the history contained within the walls of the house belonged to everyone in Dover, in Massachusetts, in the United States. Never mind that a descendant of the original owners – you know, the ones who fought our war for independence – penned a heartfelt letter (readable on the ‘Save Dover’s Oldest House’ Facebook page) to the new owners asking them to please let preserve this piece of her family’s and our history. Never mind that preservationists offered the new owners $50,000 to move the house to another location and then clean the site up in preparation for whatever modern home the owners wanted. None of that mattered, it seems. Yesterday, a wrecking ball crashed through and destroyed deliberately what no winter storm since 1724 ever did.

And there goes history. Or, at least, there goes the illustration, the physical telling of unique and important period in our shared history. Because the ceilings were too low. Because the house was too old for the taste of its final purchasers.

What is frustrating here is….well, lots. Reading newspaper articles won’t tell you a whole lot, but it will tell you something. According to a June 17, 2014 Dover-Sherborn Press article on Wickedlocal, the owners accepted the offer of $50K for the house’s removal. However, after holding on to the check for months, they reneged on their offer and gave the money back. Why the refusal of free money? One can only wonder…and wonder and wonder. Free money is generally a nice thing, especially when you are basically being paid for being socially responsible.

A Boston Globe article from February 3, 2008 is the only place that I could find offering any kind of glimpse into why the owners didn’t let anyone save the house: timing. 

(Here’s the passage from the article by Anna Fiorentino in The Boston Globe.)

When Oliva applied for a permit to raze the Draper House last May, the Historical Commission voted to use the town’s demolition review bylaw to buy some time – up to a year – for efforts to raise enough money to relocate it.

After the decision to invoke the bylaw, neither the Historical Commission nor the society heard from Oliva, officials said, until the commission received a letter in the fall stating he was no longer interested in donating the house.

“At that point the offer was off the table,” said Oliva. “We had already waited a year and a half before they even requested the demolition delay. We needed to move on.”

I guess things were taking too long, and they wanted their new modern home, already!

The thing is that these people obviously had the money to buy a nice house on a nice piece of land; what they didn’t have was the understanding and sense of responsibility that they were buying stewardship of history, of story, of physical storytelling. Because, after all, a house tells a story. And, a house that was built in 1724 in rural Massachusetts? That tells quite a story.

But not anymore.

And, I can’t imagine the owners have won a fond place in their new neighbors hearts. Not only have they destroyed, willingly, a community treasure, they have also snubbed their noses at community life. When the story of the Draper House is written one day, it will be story of longevity and continuity that ends with a big who cares from its final stewards. It will be like an elegant, eloquent speech that ends with a big F. U. to its audience.








This entry was posted on July 15, 2014. 2 Comments

A fun little Disney Princess rebellion…but are they right?

Here’s a link to a cute video from AVbyte that’s fun to watch. I found it via Facebook and Upworthy, where there’s an interesting discussion going on about the video’s message.

Some people agree, some don’t, the usual stuff. But, to me, it seems a bit retro, doesn’t it?

Setting up a juxtaposition between the extreme of the image of Disney Princesses and the extreme of the idea that a significant other will cramp your personality…I don’t know. Perhaps we need in 2014 to move beyond this. Perhaps the aim and message now should be that partners should let each other be who they are and still be teammates. We don’t need a man, do we? And yet every human needs a companion…which kind of does mean women need men. And men need women. It’s often HIGHLY unfortunate, but part of a balanced life. (And, of course, a better way to say this is: Depending on your sexual orientation, you need another person. But, I am sticking here with the age-old theme that the video refers to.)

Still, maybe I’m just in a good mood today. I can see times I would not sing – I would YELL – this song from the rooftops. And, for the teammates-who-need-and-want-each-other idea, both parties need to be in on the agreement. Sadly, men have often failed terribly  through the ages, including today, at being equal, understanding partners.

I think someone could probably write a dissertation on this video, actually. That would be very interesting reading.