Old Loves and Magic

The other night I finished re-reading the fourth Harry Potter book, and I realized my heart was racing. I felt warm and sad.

I’d forgotten how much I love children’s books, which is funny because I have shelves full of them. I read them when I was a kid, and continued to read them unashamedly through middle and high school. They weren’t the only things I read, but clear, sweet stories of adventure meant for audiences with the most wide-open minds were always my first love. I wrote my high school senior thesis on happy endings in children’s lit, and returned to my favorites during summers in college to be reminded and rejoice.

But I don’t read quite as much anymore (though I’m trying to make up the deficit this summer), and when I do I feel duty-bound to plow through grown-up books, to check them off my list, so that I will be improved.

For example, I’m about to force my way through the end of Brothers Karamozov, which was recommended to me over and over with great sincerity and enthusiasm by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. However, the novel has sat next to my bed for a very long time, containing three separate bookmarks which represent more than a year and half of teeth-gritted effort. This is not to say that I think that Dostoyevsky is too smart or difficult for me, or that it is not a wonderful novel, or even that I won’t enjoy it someday. I’m just saying that right about now, I am not loving it as it ought to be loved.

I must face facts I have forgotten: I do sometimes get that lifted, warm-and-sad feeling when I finish a book for adults, but I get it so much more often with kids’ books. When you write for children, there is no need to be obtuse, because children are not shy about the truth. It will not startle them coming round the corner as it does many adults. The best children’s books treat good like good, bad like evil, and mystery as if it is something wonderful to revel in. But I can’t really explain–stories have to be experienced.

Grown-up literary novels are written by people who expect, for better or for worse, to have what they have written discussed and pondered and considered, and perhaps, on a sunny day, enjoyed. But a good children’s novel is meant to be fallen into, to be put on like a garment,  because that’s what kids do with the things they love.

On my fridge is a little slip of paper in my fourth grade handwriting. It looks like this:

Council of Galadriel

A written explanation of the inner workings of this girl-power-on-the-grammar-school-playground circa 2001 version of Tolkien’s masterpieces would not be worth the space it would take up on the page. But suffice to say, when I look at this little list now, more than fifteen years later, I have two reactions, both of which make me smile.

First: Only one of the girls listed had even a small working knowledge of what the novels actually contained or who any of these characters really were (and she was not me), but we understood magic, that these names with all their solemn vowels could be portals to some greater world, and we wanted in to that place.

And second: That magic naturally fit and even characterized a childhood friendship which would become the foundation of something which has so far proved to be enduring. Of the three other girls on the list one just moved out of my apartment, one just moved in, and the third is moving back to Greensboro with her husband at long last later this month. And if you mention a good story to any of us grown women, we will glow. We loved magic then, and in a different, deeper ways, through years of practice, we love it now.

So shame on me for neglecting the stories which first taught me so much. Maybe next time someone acts surprised that I’ve never read whatever adult classic changed their life, I will write down the title, but then, if I am feeling brave, I will recommend right back at them one of the books which changed mine.

Maybe, in good time, I will become my grandma as I remember her, repeatedly confessing with only a very little bit of regret that as she got older she would merely re-read the her same favorite books over and over, because “they were just so good!” It is well for each of us to find stories in our own heart’s language.

Note: This entry from 2012 contains recommendations of some long-held children’s favorites, all of which I still stand by wholeheartedly, if you’re willing to stomach my sometimes stilted and flowery descriptions.

Favorite Words

For years my favorite word has been quixotic. She’s a marvelous little heiress of a word. She didn’t have to make her own way in the world, work to build her own connotation. She’s named after Cervantes’ legendary windmill slayer, and the Oxford English Dictionary draws connections with the word vagabond. She sounds good too, like mint ice cream, and a loud, old-fashioned oath, and shuffly feet.

My other favorite words are stolen from others. In the play Wit the main character describes the first time she came across the word soporific in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. (All the best words have stories, of course.) The little girl is fascinated to discover that “The bunnies in the picture are sleeping. They’re sleeping like you said, because of sop-or-fic. The illustration bore out the meaning of the word…just as he had explained it. At the time it seemed like magic.” And she moves from there onto John Donne.

There’s also the list from The Cozy Book. “Mumble, Scribble, Sandal, Muzzle, Alabama, Cuspidor and Orphan Annie, Pachysandra, Sarsparilla, Tusk and smug and fog, Galoshes, Ambidextrous, Henrietta, Amble, Dawdle, Wobble, Mosey, Listen, Cousin, (Close to cozy),Superstition, Baked Alaska, Dandelions, Hummingbirds, Busybody, Dillydally, Ali Baba—Cozy words.”

And just now flipping through the OED I found the word shriven. That’s one I haven’t known for long, but I love it. It sounds like it lives at the heart of everything truly good, and it does.

But I’ll tell you a secret. It easy to think of lovable words, but it is far easier to think of unlovable ones. Pull out your psychology textbook or your latest tax return or even your saved texts and you will find them: words which have had their livelihood confiscated. Words which are no longer permitted to mean anything to anybody, to be colored in some brave, bright or bilious way, but only to be a code, destined to be deciphered by the brain and summarily discarded. Most can be resurrected if one is willing to stop and eat them slowly, but some are quite dead and one must replace them with their first cousins. What follows is a post mortem.

UNNECESSARY (un-needful, not full of need, not desirous of action); FULL (abundant, fitting, “…it is fitting and right, its out constant duty at all times and in all places…”); TRANSCRIPT (across the written word, a ship skimming over ink to deliver the message, the meaning, the truth); LIKE (bearing a likeness to, as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, we are to bear likeness to Him); COMMON (as in the Book of Common Prayer, and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the commonalities which bind us); ORIGINALLY (beginning, birth, that from which we inevitably derive our meaning); DEMONSTRATION (manifest action, letting words live, living oneself); SECURE (do not think of safety, but why you desire safety, of what and for what?) GRADUALLY (gradient, sloping, speeding down a grassy hill not so gradually after all); CONFIRM (with assurance, understanding, a setting of records); PREVIOUS (before, progenitor, parent to the now); COMPLETE (“He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head He gave up His spirit.”)

It is the connotation which makes all the difference, you see. We need denotations to communicate, connotations to do everything else, to express.  A word without connotation has, as yet, no color. It has not lived. Bathroom for example, means simple body functions to most of us, but really it’s the sanctuary of the bathtub, the place of solitude and hour-long wonderings. (I planned this entry in the bath.) Also, my grandparents use the word costly instead of expensive, and I find it vaguely enchanting. What does expensive mean anyway? Out of thoughtfulness? I like taking words apart and putting them back together and seeing how much bigger they become. It’s filling, satisfying, right.

For real, thirst-quenching language here is a sonnet from my favorite word dismantler, stitcher, piler and occasional word-welder, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Favorite Clothes

Sometimes people give me old clothes. I really like that. They tell me “This just looked like Alice,” which is flattering. Apparently I have a style. I am distinctive.

But then sometimes, I look closer at whatever they’ve given me and I wonder, “Really? That screamed my name to them from the back of their closet? Or did they just think ‘Oh. A dress. Alice wears dresses. She’ll take it.’”

Because I’m that girl. I’m a take-that-last-cookie-so-you-can-wash-the-container and take-that-dress-I’m-sure-I’ll-wear-it-tomorrow kid. I cannot resist good clothes. I avoid going to Goodwill when I’m broke because it makes me sad, and I never even look at stuff retail anymore because I get so indignant that I’m actually being charged for it.

So maybe what I end up with is a little eclectic. This is not to say, however, that I don’t have opinions. I have lots of them. Most of them are about things I love, but there are a couple strong negative ones, which I think I’m going to go ahead and share. This is the internet after all. It’s time I offended somebody.

Uggs are ugly. This should not need to be said. They are even uglier when stained with road salt. And ugliest when worn with basketball shorts, as I saw a man do in Long Beach a couple years ago.

Do not wear cargo shorts. Ever. Please don’t even ask about cargo pants. The only legitimate excuse I can come up with for such behavior is if you use all of those pockets on a regular basis, in which case, you look truly strange, but more power to you.

Maybe you think you don’t care about clothes. This entirely untrue. Even my little brother cares, evidenced by the fact that he stubbornly refuses to wear the wonderful bomber jacket my mom got him a couple years back. What you wear matters. I don’t really mind too much that he won’t wear it though, because that means I get to.

In other coat news, more men should wear pea coats. I know women are attempting to dominate that market now, as they do almost everything, but they were originally worn by sailors. So if you want them, which you should, take them back! Don’t be afraid.

Then there’s the marvelous silk one from my Grandma’s closet which I’m only just now beginning to gain confidence about. I did wear it to a wedding, though.

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Final coat of note: my leopard fur (faux.) My Grandma and my cousin have matching ones, and I like to wear mine to entirely inappropriate occasions, like a low-key hall Christmas party.

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If a certain piece of clothing is my favorite, I will wear it nearly anywhere. This includes my polka-dot dress which I wore to pack up last year, and my eyelet lace graduation dress which I nearly ripped playing Frisbee a few weeks back. Oops.

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There’s also the brown leather and black suede skirts which I found with Hannah at Goodwill at different times. The suede particularly tends to show up in all sorts of odd places.

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And the hound’s-tooth jumper that used to be my aunt’s has run the gamut from Italy to Storytime.

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Then there are sweaters. Sweaterssweaterssweaters. Big, cozy, versatile sweaters. Here is a sampling of my favorites:

Black, courtesy of United Airlines, for not swimming:Image

Green, the one Emily Van Vranken loves, for wandering:Image

Orange, cashmere for fall, for crowded couches:

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Dad’s, for lazy days and flat cakes:

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And blue, my favorite, for pizza and everything else:

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I’m also a huge fan of anything with a waist. (I assume we all know what a waist looks like…) They are the key to success. So get thee some belts and high-waisted skirts and maybe even some high-waisted pants, and have at it!

Then there’s Family Pantry gear. Obviously. (Kevin is spending the summer with me, if anyone wants him.)

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I like clothes that remind me of people I love (i.e. everyone above). Maybe that’s really why I love hand-me-downs so much. They come with people and stories attached. They come loved and lovable. It is easy to forget that they’re factory made. I do care how they look, but maybe not quite as much as I like to pretend I care. Because sometimes I reserve the privilege to unapologetically wear something really hideous. Just because it sometimes makes a bad day better.

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Favorite Books

Just now I had the great pleasure of staring at my bookshelf for a couple minutes, deciding what to write to you about. I’ve had these shelves since Mary and I moved into this room when I was about five, and they sag a little with an assortment of classic literature, children’s books, and a growing number of writings on educational theory and policy. I skipped over ones I know you will have heard of. You know Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, and Harper Lee, and if I have not already told you about I Like You and The Cozy Book, I’m sure I will someday, whether you want me to or not. Also, though I’m appreciative of all the ed books, I am not destined to crack any of those bindings with overuse. What I chose, perhaps unsurprisingly, was almost exclusively kid’s books.

There is something in childhood flights of adventure that is binding. It is the dyscatastrophe and the eucatastrophe, the moral imaginings of battle and redemption and grace. Not that most of these are adventure stories in the traditional sense, but they are written for people who are still small enough to see how grand this Story really is, who have not yet believed the falsehood of everlasting meaninglessness. Thus, when you read these stories, you have to read them like a child, like they matter, else you’re reading blind.

All of the below books fall into one of two categories. Either when I first read them I wouldn’t shut up about them, like I won’t shut up about the ASC in Staunton, VA, or, more simply, I cannot remember a time when their stories were not a part of my bones. They are listed roughly in the order that I first loved them.

The Melendy Books by Elizabeth Enright: (The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, Spiderweb for Two) Mary and I sometimes reminisce about these as if Mona and Randy and Rush and Oliver and Mark were real live people we actually knew, as if we too used citronella to ward off mosquitoes, and had a Cuffy to boss us about. Their childhood was my childhood. Last fall, I read The Saturdays to Liesel, and was delighted to discover that it was the same wonderful book I remembered, only better.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit: She dedicates it “in memory of childhoods identical, but for the accidents of time and space.” I do sincerely hope that everyone’s childhood contained moments like this, when you went on some complex quest for honor (and adventure,) and anyone who told you it couldn’t be done was only “Albert-next-door,” and not to be heeded. Also, Oswald Bastable is my favorite narrator of all time.

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes: The bits of this book that I remember coming back to time and time again are the chapters that Pinky, the cat, supposedly writes herself on Mr. Pye’s typewriter while he naps. The entire story is also good for learning about how to properly enjoy a summer vacation, pygmy owls, and watching.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: You may know this one, but still, isn’t it marvelous? There’s an underground network of evil out to get you and only you, and you and only you can fight it. Grandmothers are wise; pretty women with candy are not to be trusted; one may sustain awkward battle wounds; Quentin Blake’s illustrations are quite perfect—good lessons all. (Also see The BFG.)

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh: (followed by Mennyms in the Wilderness, Mennyms Under Seige, and Mennyms Alone) Often when I describe this series to someone who hasn’t heard of it, (which is, it seems, everyone but myself) they get a look on their face as if I’ve smilingly advised them to eat raw meat. It’s about a family of life-sized rag dolls who live unobtrusively at 5 Brocklehurst Grove. The story’s solemn weirdness is just mundane and unselfconscious enough that the entire thing is utterly enchanting. Trust me on this one: Soobie alone is worth the read.

The Penderwicks by Jean Birdsall: When I first got this book for Christmas in 2005, I read it three times in row to myself, then aloud to my family who was stuck in the car with me. I couldn’t stop. It’s subtitled “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.” All books should have subtitles like that. All of them.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: I’ve never read The Golden Compass, and have no opinion to offer. This, however, is a marvelous little mystery about orphans and cursed jewels and opium dens. He writes chase scenes that actually interest me, and that’s quite a feat. (I am not, strictly speaking, a fast-paced action kind of girl. I like talk.) I have a specific memory of outlining the whole plot for Sarah Moon on Mrs. Liebmann’s board one day, when we should have been doing classwork.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke: I like this book because of Venice, and I like this book because of Scipio, the thief lord himself. It starts as a story about friendship and growing up, then two-thirds of the way through, just when you’re quite comfortable, it begins to spit magic, forcing you to put in some effort and suspend disbelief you didn’t think needed suspending. But really, how could you be a child in Venice without a touch of the fantastic?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson: You saw the title—what else can I say? “Historical fiction about the Revolutionary War” doesn’t begin to cover it. Somewhere between fact and fable, it wasn’t written, but lovingly created.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: This one is different. It’s not a children’s book. It’s not even a novel. A family friend and former teacher gave it to me as a graduation present two years ago, and though during its first reading I accidentally dropped it in the slimy spillway at my grandparents’ house, that doesn’t reflect how I feel about it in the slightest. I think everyone should read this book, particularly people who use words on a daily basis. It is about being good stewards of language, perpetually handing it with care and wisdom. In her chapter called “Read Well” she writes about why it matters “Our lives are lived in relationship to words, written and spoken, sacred and mundane. They are manna for the journey.” Golly, I love words…but that’s for another day.