Monthly Archives: May 2009

Book Notes

This stack represents the top of the current pile I’ve been working on. Any guesses as to which one I’ve already abandoned? I’ll start from the top. At Large and Small by Anne Fadiman was a gift from H. We had both enjoyed her earlier book for readers, Ex Libris. She specializes in the personal essay and does a fine job of it, but I like the first book better; this one ranges over topics not so interesting to me. At least it is a small and lightweight book, which makes it possible to read while lying down just before the eyelids get heavy.

Creators is the first book by Paul Johnson that I have actually completed, though I’ve started in on two others by him. It is a collection of essays on famous creative individuals “from Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney.” Um…to be exact, I didn’t complete the book; there were a few in whose stories I couldn’t drum up enough interest at bedtime. The chapter comparing Picasso and Disney was certainly thought-provoking. Johnson thinks that the ideas of Picasso will fade and be outmoded, while those of Disney will endure–not because Picasso was so selfish and violent and Disney a maker of “family movies,” but for an entirely different and more fundamental artistic reason, which I don’t want to give away here.
I learned a lot more about many people in this book: T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, J.S. Bach, fashion designers and landscape painters. How does Johnson know so much, and how can he be so opinionated? He is easy to read, and refreshing in his willingness to tell you just what he thinks, and to not be politically correct, either. This book is one of a series with two others: Intellectuals, published many years ago, and Heroes, which has come out since. Some critics thought Intellectuals somewhat of a downer, but these last books should make up for that.
My friend K. lent me The Folding Cliffs. It’s not a book I’d have ever picked up otherwise, written as it is without any punctuation and me a member of the Apostrophe Protection Society. Is this even English? I guess it is, as I am able to read it, though it is definitely a variant form. In this case it is worth the trouble, though I’m not ready to tackle Merwin’s other poems. Here’s a sample from Cliffs:

The story is as captivating as the imagery, and I certainly won’t abandon this one, even if it takes me a year of little snatches. I like the way the words flow as soothingly over my consciousness as the stream over the narrator’s body.
Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden was recommended to me by two friends, so I was happy to find it in the used book store. I’ve read almost half of it, and enjoyed several of those hundred pages. But this is the one I’m quitting. B. says I could write a dissertation on “What Can Be Learned of Steinbeck by Reading Half a Book”; I gave him my whole dissertation while cooking dinner after my decision to quit, but I will spare you readers. It boils down to the reality that life is short, and there didn’t seem to be anything to be gained by continuing with Steinbeck. There has always been something missing between him and me. Perhaps this time would be different, and I’d be surprised and gratified if I’d finished it, but one can’t have everything in life.
The Hacienda by de Teran is a re-run for me, but now B. and I are reading it aloud together. It’s a fascinating story of Venezuela in the 1970’s and the author’s experience–how she got herself into a mess and lived in a primitive society for quite a while before escaping for her life. I’ve read a couple more books by this author and she tells a good tale–the ones I’ve read were the autobiographical accounts.
I love to read on a airplane. There is not much else to do, usually, so hours can go by without the attention being distracted. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton I took on my last flight as a treat I’d been long waiting to enjoy again. It was the kind of book that, the first time I read it, I knew to be the kind you have to read at least two or three times if you hope to get near the bottom of it.
Before our plane taxied down the runway I was well into the first chapter. My seatmate, who had initially seemed reserved, interrupted my reading to tell me that he much admired Chesterton and that particular book. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes we chatted on the subject of good writers, Christianity, how books had changed us, etc. And we still hadn’t taxied anywhere, because as it turned out, the plane had a mechanical problem which ended up delaying our flight for three hours, by which time we’d all disembarked and my new friend had got a different flight. I was quite pleased that the Lord had given me a short and sweet discussion time and a long and sweet reading time, all on the same leg of the journey.
Richard Wilbur may be my favorite poet. K.’s having introduced me to hers jogged me into digging out Wilbur’s poems again, which are so varied and beloved, I will have to write one or more posts just on him.
Now that there aren’t any travels in my near future, there might not be many new books begun, either. But as you can see, I’ve still plenty to keep me busy.

Good-bye to Pascha

Today is the Feast of the Leave-taking of Pascha, and this morning for the last time we sang in church the many variations on “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” and other such hymns reserved for this period after Easter continuing almost, but not quite, to Pentecost. Before we get to Pentecost, we have the feast of Christ’s Ascension, and tonight that feast will begin.

But it is still today, so I am posting a picture of an icon of the angel telling the women at the tomb, “He is not here; He is risen.” As one hymn says, “Why do you seek the incorruptible amidst corruption?”

Truly Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

More on Remembering

This morning I read about Pioneer Woman’s cemetery that her family takes care of here and I wanted to give you that link. She has a lot of photos. I enjoy her whole multi-faceted site very much so this is a good chance to share her with you.

And I forgot a couple of photos I wanted to include in yesterday’s posting. Below is a picture B. and I took several years ago in Jackson, California–in the “Gold Country” foothills– of an Orthodox church and its churchyard.And this one I haven’t personally seen, reportedly from the 17th Century, in Maine. It doesn’t look that old…perhaps the grave is old, but the headstone is newer. In any case, it is an interesting work.

Remembering the Dead

Our family has never tried to analyze what draws us to cemeteries. But our photo albums and memories are full of pictures from wandering through many such places all over the world. Last December I snapped this photo of our soldier son at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, near San Francisco. We had some time on our hands and we noticed this vast military cemetery nearby, so we decided to stop in.

In England, Pippin and I visited ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury and the 8th Century graveyard where some Orthodox Christians just happened to be visiting a particular grave that day. I took it as a special gift from God that they could show us the marker where St. Theodore (AD 602-90) had been buried. He came from Tarsus at the age of 67 and was one of the most important archbishops of Canterbury, and a link between East and West.

We also visited the grave of Winston Churchill near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. How wonderful to be able to put flowers on his grave (My daughter thought to do this, not I), to be close to him in a quiet churchyard with no crowds pressing.

But most of it is just history of everyday nobodies like us. Even in “historical” cemeteries the dignitaries who are buried there become less famous with every passing year, as the generations also pass and the descendants don’t remember very far back. So perhaps it’s not just history that is appealing. I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but for me there is some blessing in being reminded of the death that lies ahead for all of us, and a feeling of connection to those who have “passed over” to where they know a lot more now about Who God is and what Life and death are all about.

Aries Clifton Bradshaw Jr. (photo above) is buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery. In the Orthodox Church we pray for the dead that their memory would be eternal. Considering how people are not good at remembering, it appears that if anyone is going to remember us eternally it will have to be God Himself.

This fact was referred to today at a Memorial Day celebration I attended, where in a prayer given by a creaky-voiced elderly man I caught a few words about those sailors who have sunk into the deep “where only Your Name goes.” We were at the rural cemetery, and this year the historic societies were dedicating a new flagpole. There were things for sale: homemade pie with milk–how homey!–and rosebushes propagated from vintage varieties that have grown in the cemetery for many decades.

Women dressed in Civil War era costumes laid wreaths in honor of those who had died in service to their country. For over a hundred years Decoration Day (the previous name for Memorial Day) has been kept by similar ceremonies in this place.

So many of the graves here are old and abandoned, and the historical association has set up a program by which one can adopt a grave. At least 40 of the gravesites now have been adopted by people who keep the weeds down and might also plant some native plants for beautifying. I would love to do this! It is a rural cemetery, with headstones and crypts scattered all over hilly terrain covered with oaks and wild grasses. Not the sort of place with acres of lawns and flat markers that can be easily mowed over.

Headstones are not allowed in most cemeteries nowadays. This picture of a lawn is where my paternal grandparents are buried. It is a nice “memorial park” surrounded by orange groves and with shady oaks. My grandmother died 20 years before my grandfather, and he planted and tended roses by her grave, until they were banned in favor of the flat look.

All through history, Christians have buried their dead. The incinerating of human bodies, dead or alive, has most often been done in desecration of one’s enemies. I don’t like the flat and somewhat boring grave markers, but they are better than having one’s remains scattered to the four winds. They are at least marking a grave, where those left behind have honored their dead by making a place for their bones, planting them in the earth as the Bible describes it, as our Lord was planted.

(This infant headstone is in Jacksonville, Oregon.)

Those who will to have their own selves cremated–well, as my former landlady would say, they aren’t going to escape being raised to Judgment. Or as I would say, God won’t have any difficulty in remembering them.

Today’s ceremonies ended with the playing of “Taps,” whose words (unsung, except in my mind) made the closing prayer that always brings me to tears of thankfulness and hope:

Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lake,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well;
Safely rest;
God is nigh.