Taking a Second Look at Poetry

People don't like poetry. Not only don't they read it, they make fun of those who do; shaking their heads at them in a pitying sort of way, as if poetry lovers were slightly off-balanced. I don't judge them. After all, I don't get the appeal of muscular guys tossing each other around in carefully choreographed moves while pretending it's all real. I have, at least, tried watching such shows in an effort to understand. I wish the poetry haters and ignorers and disparagers would do the same.

I think most of the problem is in the way poetry is introduced to us. People often meet their first grown-up poems in school, where they're faced with titles like
Thanatopsis or Il Penseroso. That's enough to put anyone off. If they do get past the title they may find such welcoming first lines as "Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!" and "Hence, vain deluding Joys." I kid you not, we read all of these in my rural high school. And while I appreciate, even love them now, (except for Il Penseroso; it's what one might call a downer), I struggled through them back then. Because of these bad experiences, I have my own ideas of how to approach the subject. It goes beyond choosing poems that fit one's reading and comprehension level. Why not introduce poetry as mini-stories, a sort of text message on any topic imaginable?

If you crave adventure filled with unusual places and people, how about a beginning like this -- "I met a traveler from an antique land, who said; Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert." Interested? You won't find it in National Geographic. Try
Ozymandias by P. B. Shelley, instead. It's pretty short, so for a slightly longer tale I suggest this opening, "'Courage!' he said, and pointed toward the land, 'This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.'" (The Lotus-Eaters, Tennyson.) At the very least it might hold you until the next Patrick O'Brian novel comes out. Finally, what armchair traveler could resist learning more about Xanadu, where "Kubla Khan (did) a stately pleasure-dome decree"? Not to mention the sacred river Alph running through "canyons measureless to man down to a sunless sea." (Kubla Khan, Coleridge)

Probably everyone associates poems with love. Adolescents sigh over them, quote them, sometimes even write them. When we grow up many of us read romances, go to romantic movies, and long for long-stemmed roses and flowery words. Will "O my love is like a red red rose, that's newly sprung in June;" do? In a different vein, even I might be tempted by a book that opens "Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove..." Be warned, it's definitely not PG, and the movie version could turn out quite racy. (Robert Burns and Christopher Marlowe, respectively.)

Bookstore sell a lot of mysteries. I know I have shelves full of my favorites, and I'm not alone. For many, the discovery of a new book is cause for celebration -- and maybe an all night read-a-thon. Fortunately poetry isn't lacking here. A favorite from my childhood catches attention with these opening lines; "'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveler, knocking on the moonlit door." Who is this man referred to only as the Traveler? Why is he knocking on a stranger's door in the middle of the night?
Is there anyone there, and if so who, or worse yet, what? I still feel a creepy sense of foreboding when I read those lines. They're not by Lovecraft, King, or Holmes, but Walter de la Mare. It's called The Listener. Don't miss it. For more mysterious goings on try ""He disappeared in the dead of winter;" or "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind." Go ahead and take a chance -- read a poem and have an adventure.
(W. H. Auden, then Francis Thompson.)

Poetry debates philosophy and ideas like reality and free will; it frequently muses on the meaning of life, not always at first glance. Poems can be probed forever and never quite comprehended, or they may mean absolutely nothing. They sing, warn, complain, chide, and lift our spirits. They also tell stories. Stories about people. Stories that begin like this; "That's my last duchess on the wall, looking as if she were still alive." (Robert Browning's
Last Duchess.) "He saw her from the bottom of the stairs before she saw him," Robert Frost tells us in Home
Burial. And Walt Whitman tempts the reader with a story where, "on the beach at night, stands a child with her father, watching the east," in his piece of the same name. Trust me, there really is a wealth of wonderful poetry out there waiting to be discovered. Maybe next time "When the quiet-colored end of evening smiles" you'll consider turning off the TV, reclaiming your favorite chair from the cat, and curling up with a good book. Of Poetry, of course.

Read Well, Friend

(In the first paragraph the poems are by John Milton, W. C Bryant, Byron's
Sonnet on Chillion, and Il Penseroso again. Final quote from Love Among the Ruins by Robert Browning.)


Home Comforts

I'm not much of a housekeeper. If I qualify as a 'yo-yo' dieter, (and I do), I should be the mascot of the Yo-Yo Housekeeping Club. So feel free to be as shocked as my Mother would to know I have a book about housekeeping on my shelf. A very large, 884 page book, called Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson. While I could reasonably be expected to but a book on art, and occasionally science, a book subtitled The Art and Science of Keeping House isn't my usual fare. It's not your usual cleaning-up book, either. In some ways a cross between Alexandra Stoddard and the instruction manual that came with your washing machine, it's also much more. (The fact that I long ago lost the manual from my washing machine was one of the reasons I bought it. Being on sale was another.) Thus several years ago I found myself the proud owner of a book with 72 chapters on cleaning my house. In the spirit of sharing the wealth I bought one for each of my kids, too.

Doing exactly what this type of book discourages, I started reading straight through from page vii to the end. The second chapter looked promising.
Easing Into a Routine is just my style. Save time! Shorten housekeeping! Keep lists! I was primed. (I love lists, having at one time kept a master list of my lists.) I read on. Daily schedules sure, but weekly, monthly, semiannually and annually? This was more than I'd bargained for. Weekly laundering chores followed. It seemed that throwing towels and sheets in once a week, and washing my clothes when I ran out of clean underwear, just wasn't the thing. Not my idea of easing in, but it wouldn't stop me. I read on.

I breezed through the section on food and kitchens. My grandmothers and mother may not have spent a lot time instructing me on the finer points of dusting, but thanks to them I know my way around a kitchen, and food. If Mendelson ever adds a chapter on cooking and baking, I'm her woman. I'll even clean up after myself. I was fascinated by the idea of keeping a separate rag bag for each of the several types and sizes of rags I should have. I learned how to sweep the floor with a broom -- it seems I have been doing that correctly. However, I didn't realize there are people who go over their floors on their hands and knees with a dust cloth after vacuuming, just to be sure. It shouldn't have surprised me, having once known two women who weekly scrubbed their baseboards with a toothbrush. While each raising several small children to boot. I don't know where they are now, but I'll wager they still have the most sparkling baseboards in their neighborhoods. Or arthritic knees -- take your pick.

It's not fair, though, to dismiss Home Comforts as another of those self-improvement books that invariably leave you feeling more out of control and depressed than before. In fact, after a quick glance, both of my kids insisted on being given their copies immediately. I'd been thinking about keeping the books until they went to college or got married. But, as one of them pointed out, by that time I probably wouldn't be able to find them. What caught the kids' interest was the way almost arcane bits of information, like caring for daguerreotypes and tintypes, co-existed with detailed explanations on fiber composition, care and cleaning.Very detailed information. The section on removing stains is more complete than anything my washing machine manufacturer ever dreamed of.

The author made her book more than a compendium of tips on folding fitted sheets and maintaining your drains, or even calculating the efficiency of light bulbs. In the name of cleaning science she spoke to many industry insiders and experts at obscure governmental departments. (I like to imagine that in the process she made some usually ignored people people very happy.) The result of of her zealous research is a book even the most skeptical can trust. If a co-worker spills coffee on her blouse and reaches for the hand cleanser, you can tell her that the tannins in coffee could be permanently set by the soap, and, by the way, the hair spray she keeps in her purse isn't a good cleaner for ball point pen marks. The alcohol may get the mark out, but the guns and lacquers left behind can be just as hard to remove. This is not an old wives' tale. You learned it from an expert.

As for myself, I've decided this book has earned it's place on the bookshelf, taking up the last three precious inches of space between Granddad's copy of Edger Guest, (It takes a heap o' living to make a house a home."), and the end of the shelf. It's a fitting place, I think. After all,
Home Comforts does contain an entire chapter on taking care of books. A short chapter it may be, running not much more than four pages including illustrations. But it is an entire chapter, with enough information to make my second grade teacher and my husband happy. My teacher, because of the detailed instructions on opening a book for the first time. Lay the book open, keeping the pages upright. Then carefully open the pages a few at a time, alternating from front to back. One never opens a new book from the center. Miss Ethredge knew that. My husband would have appreciated the general air of reverence shown here, and the wisdom imparted in the opening sentence, "The best way to preserve a book is to read it." But then he didn't need anyone to tell him that. Neither do you.

Read Well, Friend


Written on the Wind

"On the planet the winds are blowing: ... The pampero blows, and the tramontane and the Boro, sirocco, levanter, mistral. Lick a finger, feel the now." ( Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Anne Dillard.) I can't read a passage like this without wanting to fly off to a strange place, lift up my arms to heaven and feel the sirocco, the polar easterlies, the chinook she writes about. So many names for nothing more than the easily explained movement of air over the surface of our world. Each name stands for a different experience, a unique place, direction and power. I want to know them all.

The Chinook, for example. I always thought I would have to go to Alaska to feel it. Now I discover that it's any warm wind blowing East from the Rocky Mountains. I grew up a few hundred miles east of those mountains. Just think, Eskimos, black bears, salmon, and me -- all enjoying a chinook! Then there's the exotic sounding tramontane. I confess I was disappointed to learn that one definition says it's any wind blowing from the opposite side of the speaker; the classic meaning is simply a north wind. A bit of a let down, really. Still, that's two down and a lot more to go.

The sirocco. Ahhh, that's definitely exotic. Desert, sheiks, and caravans with camels, right? Sorry, but no. Technically, any dust or sand storm qualifies, though I refuse to accept that. I've been in enough of those to know there's nothing exotic about them. You just swallow a lot of dirt and it gets up your nose; grit fills your eyes and your lids are plastered shut. No, thanks. As far as I'm concerned just any old sandstorm doesn't count. I insist on going through mine on a camel in the desert of Morocco. (My parents, though, would have been tickled to know they hadn't just lived through the Dust Bowl, but a whole bunch of siroccos. Sounds like a lot more fun.)

Some winds are pretty specific. A sweater wind, for instance, can melt up to two feet of snow in a day. Of course that presumes that you have at least two feet of snow in the first place. Yet another good reason for me to leave Tennessee and return to Colorado. I don't think much of my chances of getting a sweater wind otherwise. In that vein, it's a good thing I'm determined to visit Greece some day, for only there can I stand in both the gregate, which blows NE from Greece, and the etesian, his contrary twin going NW. The pampero, as I should have guessed, blows in Argentina and Uruguay. The counterpart to our north wind, it brings cold fronts in from the S or SW. While you're in the area, don't miss the Boro. You will find the tribe in NE India. Presumably, you can also pick up the wind there as it's passing from Europe to Turkey.

There are a lot more winds out there, as you might have guessed. But before I blow off for now, (sorry, couldn't resist), I must mention three more. One is called the levanter, which I initially confused with a catalog with a similar name where my husband liked to drool over, and occasionally purchase, very expensive pens. Poor levanter, it's really done nothing to offend me, spending it's time puffing along from the western Mediterranean across the Straits of Gibraltar. In the same way I always despised the mistral, which I somehow thought a feeble spring wind in France, greatly enamored of by bodice-ripper romance writers. (They use it a lot in the titles. Otherwise, how would
I know?) In reality the mistral is a cold, dry, often violent wind that scours the Rhone Valley in winter and early spring. Now that's more my type. Finally, for the wind most likely to disappoint, I give you chocolatero, which blows sand around in the Gulf. That's it, no tiny little Reese's cups or dark chocolate Dove squares, just sand. How sad.

I just might become a collector of winds -- by definition and experience. I've been in plenty of them; they weren't exactly lacking in my childhood in NE Colorado. Since then they've blown on me with near hurricane strength in Florida, as near-miss typhoons in Japan, and very real tornadoes in Tennessee and Nebraska. I'm not unique. There can't possibly be anyone in this world who doesn't know how wind feels, except the children who have to live in those plastic bubbles and may never feel air moving tenderly across their cheeks or struggle to keep their balance as it tries to send them to their knees. The rest of us, the vast majority of us, know it in some form, by some name. Whether suhaili, garigliano, turnagain, or chergui, bayamo or Cockeyed Bob, it blows on us all. You could even say all of us have inherited the wind. We might as well enjoy it.

Read Well, Friend


Ho-Hum Potter and the Luke-Warm Prince?

(Spoiler Alert!! This book-to-movie review is written by April Kelsey, a delightful writer much more qualified than I to discuss this topic. It does contain spoilers. You have been warned. Fair disclosure -- April is my favorite daughter in law. Her own unique blog can be found at http://penitustemplum.blogspot.com)

On Thursday, I finally got the opportunity to do something
I had talked about doing for almost a solid year: I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the big screen. A year is an awfully long time to wait for anything it seems, especially to see one of the most anticipated films of the year. But since the book is my absolute favorite in J. K. Rowling's entire series--and since the other novel-to-film adaptations had been so dazzlingly executed--I figured the movie-going experience would mark a high point in my otherwise humdrum existence.

What I had forgotten since I last closed the cover on The Half-Blood Prince is just how dense and complex the book really is. Along with the main storyline (Tom Riddle's harrowing past, Draco's recruitment into the Death Eaters, Harry's discovery of the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore's search for the Horcruxes, etc.), the book also details the evolving intricate relationships between the characters. And while avid readers of the series salivated over every last juicy consonant on the page, the big-screen result is...well...not quite so titillating. At this point in the game, moviegoers expect more Advra Kadavra for their money.

To give the movie's writers and director credit, they did a fair job bringing The Half-Blood Prince to life. In two and a half hours, they cover the main plot well and devote a fair share of time to exploring the relationships that matter most in the series. After all, anyone who has read the series would agree that Ron and Hermione's deepening affections play an integral part in the story's dynamics--not in the least because they lend the story dimension and depth where needed. But fans of the series should be prepared for some disappointment: Lupin and Tonks barely make even a cameo appearance in the film, as do Fred and George Weasley, Professor McGonagall, and a few other favorites--including the vicious Lord Voldemort.

However, the movie's only real deficiency is the manner in which some aspects of the main story were handled. For instance, my favorite scene in the book is when Narcissa Malfoy begs Severus Snape to protect Draco as he carries out the Dark Lord's wishes. Rowling portrays Narcissa as a once proud woman who has become desperate and remorseful; she falls to weeping at Snape's feet, begging for his assistance. The movie version of this scene, however, couldn't be more different. Narcissa remains the proud woman, head held high, tears just barely glittering at the corners of her cold eyes. Convincing Snape to perform the favor is almost too easy; in fact, the whole scene feels rushed, as if the actors were running late for another taping. Snape seems almost eager to pacify Bellatrix, which is hardly the case in the book. As a result, the scene lost much of its poignancy in the adaptation, which may come back to bite the director sometime in the next two films when Snape's precarious double-agent status is revealed.

Also, the movie does a poor job of introducing one of the book's most fearsome characters: Fenrir Grayback, the vile and bloodthirsty werewolf of Voldemort's crew. Fenrir gets a fair share of press in the book; out of all the Death Eaters who escape Azkaban, Fenrir is considered the most dangerous. You'd think, at the very least, Emma Watson (Hermione) would be given a line in the film to say, "Oh, wow, do you know who that is?" But she isn't, as is nobody else. The most moviegoers learn about Fenrir is contained on a hard-to-read wanted poster stuck to a wall in a dark alley; blink, and you miss it. Moviegoers who have never read Rowling's series (like my best friend, for instance) won't know who Fenrir is or why they should find him sufficiently terrifying. As is, Fenrir only makes three short appearances in the film and utters maybe two lines. The director probably could have left Fenrir out of the movie altogether and no one, except the most die-hard fans of the book, might have noticed.

Of course, very rarely in movie-making history has a film trumped its print counterpart in storytelling quality, and The Half-Blood Prince is no exception. That's why readers continue to read for entertainment. What goes on in the theater of the mind exceeds anything that can be portrayed on a screen, no matter how far CG effects have evolved. But moviegoers expecting the nail-biting action and dazzling whimsy of the last five Harry Potter films should be prepared for a different kind of experience, as should the series's devoted readers. While the film's makers did a fair job of bringing The Half-Blood Prince to the screen, they obviously had to straddle that everlasting fence between staying true to the novel and treating moviegoers to a good time--no easy feat where such a rich and complex book is involved.

Read Well, Friend


Sea Fever

Sullivan's Island beach was perfect this evening. The narrow ridge of black sand curved between the receding tide and a scruffy band of coastal weeds and wildflowers. Knowable and intimate, it was the perfect place to stroll barefoot along the water's edge, alternately watching two sailboats and the fishermen wrestling every so often with the small sharks that inhabit the tidal area. After a few minutes I found myself quietly humming about barges with treasures in their hold. The old Girl Scout camp song fit my dreamy mood, but eventually I felt a need to move on to something else. (In my mind, any experience, no matter how sublime, always becomes better with the right musical accompaniment. Preferably sung quietly. Your idea of ideal background music might not be mine.) The trouble was, I couldn't think of anything else. There must be hundreds of songs about the ocean, beach, and tides. Not one of them came to mind. I decided to move on to poetry. The results were a little better.

John Masefield's Sea Fever immediately came to mind. An obvious choice, but definitely appropriate. I was, after all, enjoying
a "windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying." (There actually weren't any seagulls flying or crying, but the pelicans were having fun.) Crossing the Bar flowed out next. This poem has always fascinated me. My maternal grandfather, I'm told, was a short, tough, hard cussing Welshman with a real temper. I only know two more things about him, and one of them is that Crossing the Bar was read at his funeral and quoted on his tombstone. At his request. What makes a Nebraska rancher who employed and cared for men dying from black lung disease until they passed, a horse trader, the man who publicly denounced the local KKK -- what makes a man like that request that poetry be read at his funeral? How many more 'civilized' people do that today? And why would he choose this piece of poetry? Sure, it's about more than the ocean, that's merely the metaphor Masefield uses to talk about the inevitability of death with the hope of a salvation at the end. But why a poem at all? I've always associated the love of poetry with a sweet nature, a sensitive and gentle personality. Don't we all? Yet my tough ol' Granddad Richards seems to have loved poetry -- and the sea.

My Mother grew up in an age where poetry was considered necessary for an educated person, even if you did live on a ranch a 'fur piece' from anywhere. They were required to recite it often at school, and she spoke of how she and her older sister entertained themselves while washing dishes by seeing who could memorize their poem first. The one she mentioned most frequently was also her father's favorite -- The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver W. Holmes. "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul," she recited, her eyes drifting dreamily out of focus. What was she seeing, I still wonder. Was she remembering the warm kitchen, the two sisters passing dishes from one to the other, sharing poetry and secrets? Or was it the nautilus itself, lying on some sandy beach, washed gently by the flow of the tide? I never asked her.

And what of my Granddad, the man I never met. What am I to make of his love of these two poems? Statisticians would say it means nothing at all. Two pieces of anecdotal information aren't enough to allow me to draw a conclusion. But I don't have the soul, or the attention to detail, of a good statistician. Whatever type of soul I do have, there must be a little of the poet in it. And the beach comber, too. For despite the sunburn, sweat and sand, I really enjoyed splashing along the edge of the water this evening, looking at the ocean, birds and sky. Maybe I inherited it from my Grandfather. Maybe I was just born that way.

--Read Well, Friend


First Crushes

Do you remember your first crush? I do. His name was John and he moved to our town about third grade, and... Actually, I intended to write about books, but John just got in the way somehow. After all, I've fallen in love at first sight with a lot more books than I have men. My first crush's name was The Poky Little Puppy. I loved that puppy because he was round, curious, stubborn, and just a little bit bad. Not too bad. I didn't like to hear about really bad children -- or puppies. For instance, Peter Rabbit was much too scary for me. He purposely disobeyed his Mother, and that was very wrong indeed. Poky just enjoyed what he found in nature a little too much, and I understood that. He may have missed out on the chocolate pudding, but got the strawberry shortcake. My idea of a happy ending.

I third grade I fell head over heels for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Well, I wasn't so crazy about Amy, another willful character, and spoiled. She obviously didn't deserve her sisters! Still, in the pages of
Little Women I immediately acquired four sisters who argued, loved and had a lot of fun together. More fun than I was convinced I'd ever have. I lived in their world for a long time, writing plays and inserting myself in their adventures. I was even convinced they would love me more than Amy, because I would never be spoiled.

I imagine children having been surreptitiously reading under the covers since lights were invented. Being a disgustingly obedient child, I never did -- until someone handed me
Christy by Catherine Marshall. At last I'd found the girl I was meant to be -- brave, adventurous, she was even a teacher like I planned to be. Her curiosity and courage led her into the strange life of a poor, superstitious Appalachian people. Staggered by their ignorance, Christy's struggles and triumphs became mine. I read until the last word of the last sentence. At 4 AM.

My family rarely drove the four hours to Denver. There was no reason to except for the fresh seafood restaurants. On one of these rare trips I bought a book titled
Pride and Prejudice. Still in grade school, I'd never even heard of Jane Austin; it just appealed to me. From the first line "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife", to Elizabeth and Darcy's happily forever after -- sans mother -- I couldn't stop reading. Light was fading and I read quickly. Soon the the city then suburb lights faded, leaving only the occasional lights of the Interstate. I read on desperately, holding my book open, my finger on the exact word I had just read, determined to get through as many lines as I could in the brief moments of light afforded me. Suddenly towns I'd ignored as useless became the most important things in my life. I knew in my heart that no town could ever bore me again, not if the inhabitants of that book could go with me.

They say there's no love like your first, and I believe it. I've fallen in love with lots of books since then, met characters who invaded my life and lived in my brain for a long time. We're also told that most first loves fade, that later we look back wondering what we saw in them in the first place. That may be true for some, but not me. I still return to my first loves. They captured me in my childhood and never loosened their grasp. I remember that poky puppy fondly, as do my children, and I look forward to soon introducing him to my grandchild. The others I would take to the proverbial desert island without question. They've been to college, around the US and to Japan with me. But the real power of a first crush is that it lives on in your mind forever, something that helped shape who you are and will always be a part of you.

--Read Well, Friend


Pileated Woodpeckers at Tinker Creek

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I developed an obsession with Pileated Woodpeckers. First of all, between my mother and grandmother, I spent hours standing at our dining room windows with binoculars, studying birds and relaying information about them. Was the underside of that wing black or gray and was the ring around the vireo's eye white? Trying to tell someone else exactly where a small bird has perched is hard enough. But I'll swear in court that we once spent a week, maybe more, trying to see if the very tiny spur curving off the foot of a very tiny sparrow was orange or just the same color as any ordinary sparrow's would be. I think that if it did have the requisite orange spur, it would be a real feather in Mom and Grandma's bird list. So to speak.

It didn't help that my Dad had specifically designed that side of our house with windows so large they had to be special ordered. The view was marvelous -- different kinds of trees, a creek, grass and flower beds. We watched deer eat the daylilies, and turtles carefully pick off strawberries one by one. Trees dropped their leaves, then budded, and soon new ones of green and silver blew in the hard NE Colorado winds. We watched it all, never failing to notice and remark on it. But mostly, we watched the birds. And studied bird identification manuals. Not content with our regulars or the occasional stranger that wandered in, we scanned the tiny colored pictures, dreaming of pelicans and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Together we mourned the supposed passing of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Just one more bird we would never see.

That was about the time Dad became fixated on Pileated Woodpickers. I think the word Pileated had something to do with it. It's such a fun word to say. Pileated. Even if you know what it means, and I didn't, a name like that must belong to a very special bird, wouldn't you agree? Then there's its look - basic black slashed with white around the throat. Add the long curved bill and that ridiculous fire engine red cockade, and you realize God created something special. A bird guarenteed to stop you in its tracks screaming "Look at me! Look at me!" Also it's true that it lived so far away finding one would require a very special miracle. All of that just made the Pileated Woodpecker more fun.

One day when we came home from school to find him sitting at the big windows with binoculars and a birdbook, one of us asked him what he was doing. "Not much. Just keeping a look out for Pileated Woodpeckers." Had he found any, we asked playfully. "Not yet," he said. The same words were repeated quite a few times over the next few years. Pileated Woodpeckers became our personal Scarlet Pimpernel. We sought them here, we sought them there -- but never found them anywhere. Then I married a Navy man, and the landscapes outside my window turned to identical houses set in small yards of grass. But my Dad never forgot. He followed all our moves in Peterson's, as we called it.

"You're in Pileated Woodpecker territory," he'd report. "Let me know when you see one." And I looked. I looked because he would probably never really see one, but I could see it for him. I took my camera kayaking and camping. I visited the most likely places to find them -- the places where they'd been sighted just yesterday or the day before. I never managed to find one. Then, on a camping trip to Reelfoot Lake with my family, it happened. My husband decided to take the kids to a small playground near our campsite. They begged me to go along, maybe sensing that I was tired and dispirited. But I stayed behind to enjoy the quiet. Like me, the bird I sought preferred stillness. My camera was in my hand, ready for the moment. I just sat and waited.

The woodpecker was sighted that day -- by my husband and kids. At first I thought it was an elaborate tease set up by my husband. I questioned the kids in detail, asking them about its size, markings, bill, everything I could think of. It was true. They had seen the long sought bird, my Dad's ornithological Holy Grail. I still haven't seen one, so I never got to take that picture for my Dad.

What does any of this have to do with
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? On page 70 Anne Dillard says "I found a Pileated Woodpecker in the sky by its giant shadows flapping blue on the white ice below." As far as I know she never mentions one again. But it's enough to take me back, enough for a reminder of the power of the written word -- and memories.

--Read Well, Friend

How Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Broadened my Mind

Sometimes I just need to go back to the comforts of my youth, and re-reading books is a favorite way to do this. In college I discovered Anne Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I picked it up because I grew up on a Colorado farm with trees, a creek, beaver ponds -- even a great horned owl woods. I knew the birds, trees, flowers and grasses around me. An introspective child, I thought myself a deep thinker, wise beyond my years. (Which clearly proves that I wasn't.) But once I began reading Pilgrim I entered a world both more detailed and much broader than I had known. I remember thinking with astonishment "I didn't know you could look at the world that way!"

What is it that causes our minds to suddenly take leaps in new directions? While backpacking in the Rockies I'd learned to identify conifers, mushrooms, and the botanical parts of flowers. At the farm I loved to sit by our creek or under the trees, absorbing the sight, sound, feel and scent of life. The power of God and his creation surrounded me, and I savored it, drinking in my surroundings as deeply as I could. But for all that, it was Anne Dillard who showed me a new way of looking about, a new way of thinking.

Growing up I had a great need to control everything -- even my thoughts -- so I divided knowledge into individual pieces. Philosophy, science, experience--all my learning--went into separate files; mixing them would have created chaos. And chaos was what I feared most. But in her book Dillard showed me a very messy way of thinking. Information about blind people who had recovered their sight followed pages on stargazing, with van Gogh and Galileo thrown casually in. Long, flowery inner musings sat side by side with the eating habits of the praying mantis. (Did you know they can eat garter snakes, mice and hummingbirds? How do they get them to hold still long enough?) Honestly, there's not much neat or tidy about Tinker Creek.

I suppose I was nicely poised for change when I read Pilgrim. I'd left my high school class of 36 to go to a much larger university, mostly because no one else from my town was there. I chose to study engineering , clearly all wrong for my interests and personality. I was looking for a chance to be a different person, one I knew was locked inside of me. (Of course I thought this made me unique.) I wanted to discover new worlds, within and without. Instead, I stumbled on a new way to see the old one. I realized it was time to get rid of my neat categories and let my mind get messy.

If Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote You Can't Go Home Again, maybe it's because he had tried to recreate his youth by re-reading his favorite books. Honestly, I don't want to go back to the past, I'm too curious about my future for that. But sometimes I like to stop and think about how I got where I am , and the books that helped me get here.

Read Well, Friend