A Word About Redemption Stories

I love a redemption story as much as anyone. But there are certain necessary elements — remorse, concern for people who may have been hurt, an attempt to make amends, a change in behavior going forward. If those pieces are missing, it’s not a redemption arc. It’s a story of a stunted character trying to shirk responsibility.

Patricia Highsmith is the only author that immediately comes to mind who successfully made a character like this the main focus of her stories. Usually, a character of this nature would have a starring role only as an antagonist to the hero. And if said character gains power, that’s not evidence of redemption. That’s just upping the stakes.

Yes, these thoughts were prompted by current events.

 

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Feel Good Nonfiction Reads

How’s your blood pressure? Edging up a little, like everyone else’s? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the daily news? We all could use some reading material that will buoy us right about now. I have put together a list for just this purpose. I’m sticking to nonfiction for now, out of a personal desire to remember the positives in the real world. Some of these books contain tragic elements, but also the overcoming of such. Here are a dozen titles I hope will comfort, inspire, amuse and make you feel better about the world.

x400The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. My son told me this was the most inspiring book he’s ever read. Possibly the world’s most resourceful teenager builds a windmill from scraps he’s foraged and brings electricity to his village in Malawi.

 

Grandma Gatewood's WalkGrandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. The story of an average woman who decided to do something with herself after leaving an abusive marriage. She liked to walk. Long story short, we can thank her for the preservation of the Appalachian Trail.

 

theboysintheboatThe Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I never would have picked up this book if it had not been chosen for our community-wide reading selection a few years ago. Now I recommend it to everyone. If you’re in the mood for a tale of overcoming adversity to achieve something great through the virtues of teamwork and cooperation, this book is for you.

vgl_heroVery Good Lives by J.K. Rowling. A small volume containing the Harry Potter author’s commencement speech on the benefits of failure.

 

 

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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan. The subtitle for this is “How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less.” If we could bestow posthumous Nevertheless She Persisted prizes, Evelyn Ryan would surely qualify. A genius at advertising jingles, she kept her family in laundry detergent, appliances and adequate housing  by winning contest after contest.

9781250057839All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Funny and (mostly) affirming anecdotes from the life of a country veterinarian. There are a few sequels if this one leaves you wanting more.

 

 

outcastsppbk-smOutcasts United by Warren St. John Refugee youths from disparate backgrounds come together to form an American soccer team.

 

 

41lxckpvall-_ac_us218_Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. Why there’s still hope.

 

 

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Even curmudgeons need something uplifting occasionally.

 

Lunarb9781449479930_frontcover-tmbaboon by Chris Grady. Cartoons depicting the life of a woke moon monkey dad.

 

 

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She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel. I laughed. I cried. I cheered, as the author’s mother fights her way out of the depression that kept her glued to the couch for years and overcomes every obstacle to make a better life for herself.

 

51hli3qtxcl-_sx358_bo1204203200_Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi. Where art, friendship and data all merge, you’ll find this book.

 

 

 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Thinking About Fred Rogers

Mister Rogers

Credit: Daren McClure, flickr

We didn’t have a television when my kids were little. We occasionally popped a DVD into the computer for them, but TV as such didn’t come into their lives until they were out of grade school. The only thing I’m sorry they missed was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. we did read some of his books and we owned a cassette tape of his songs that they listened to again and again. So he still influenced their lives.

These days I work in a public library. Fifteen years after Fred Rogers passed away, parents are still coming in looking for his books to help their children through difficult issues. One mom recently said to me, “My first thought when I was trying to figure out how to help my son (through a loss) was, there has a be a Mister Rogers book we can find.”

Over the weekend I went with my husband and 20-year-old son to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — the documentary about Fred Rogers. My husband might have made it through with dry eyes. Maybe. Neither my son nor I did.

Spoiler: Was Mister Rogers really like that? According to everyone interviewed in the movie, yes, absolutely. The movie didn’t paint Fred Rogers as perfect and all-knowing. It showed how he had some growing to do through the years on some issues and that he struggled with self-doubt. He was human, but a pretty gosh-darned exemplary human.

The truly great thing about Mister Rogers was that he didn’t lie to children. He took on tough, tough subjects and let kids have their feelings about them. He never pretended children’s lives were easy. He never said, don’t be scared or don’t be angry. The vital part of his message lay in telling children those feelings are to be expected sometimes, but that there are healthy ways to express them and that you will survive having them. He also deconstructed gender stereotypes by showing that a man could be a gentle, patient, nurturer.

My newly grown son was a child who needed gentle, patient, listening adults in his life. After the movie, he seemed profoundly moved. All he could say at first was, “He really understood children and what they need.” Later we talked some more about the bigger philosophy of Mister Rogers and his message of unconditional love.

Go see the movie if you can at all. It’s a needed reminder in these dark times that there are people who strive for goodness and kindness, people who dedicate their lives to making the world better. It’s also a good reminder that heroism comes in many forms, including quiet small acts such as inviting someone of another race to soak his feet in your pool at a time when public pools were segregated.

I came away inspired to be my best self. I will try to be the person Mister Rogers believed I could be. And I will remember that even he had self-doubt, but he kept working anyway.

 

 

My Year: Twelve Ways of Looking at 2017

My year in review, in terms of moods and emotions.

January: Anxiety, shock. Impending doom. Grasping at straws of hope, picking up pieces of shattered wishes. The coldest January 20th ever, the world upended. A plunging of the stomach. Fury. Sick fear. Solidarity.

February: Calls and calls and calls. Emails and emails and emails. Postcards and postcards and postcards. Small personal triumphs. Small personal resignations. Heels dug in. Grappling.

March: Nurturing others and myself. Sitting with. Starting seeds: literal physical plants and new beginnings for myself. Trying to allow myself to bloom. Focusing close to home.

April: A few sprouts, a few false starts. A little cutting loose. Seeking of wisdom and camaraderie.

May: Nostalgia. Celebration. Family. Care-taking.

June: Opening. Doing. Self care. Moments of peace and fulfillment.

July: A dreaded ordeal. Survival. Defiance. Resistance. Resilience.

August: Doing. Accomplishing. Revelry. Thoughtfulness.

September: Improving what I can. Projects. Sorting. Aesthetics.

October: Planning and researching. New goals.

November: Setbacks. Doggedness, determination. Grindstone. Head down.

December: Repeatedly dragging myself back from the brink of despair. Grim realizations. Surviving. Teetering. Holding close. Looking for the light, making the light, being the light. 

The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Home is the sweetest word there is. – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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The home on Rocky Ridge Farm where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the “Little House” books. Mansfield, Missouri.

Reading the Little House series as a child, I was enthralled by the many adventures, big and small, of the Ingalls family: fording the river with a horse and wagon, fights with Nellie Oleson, twisting switch grass into kindling. I identified with tom-boy Laura, climbing trees and failing to keep her dress clean. Her detailed descriptions of home life also mesmerized me, as I read about Pa making his own bullets for hunting and Ma churning butter. Re-reading the books as an adult left me with an impression of a family always searching for home and never really finding it. (Of course, we now know Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, brought on some of his own trouble by attempting to stake claim to land that belonged to Native Americans, and a couple of similar questionable actions.)

After such a nomadic upbringing, Laura finally found her forever home when she and husband Almanzo moved to Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri. She settled in as a young wife and mother in her twenties and lived there for more than sixty years, until her death in 1957, at age ninety. In the late 1920s, the Wilders’ daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had a more modern house built for her parents half a mile down the road, and they stayed in it for a few years before homesickness brought them back to finish out their years in the house they’d built themselves.

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The Rock House that Rose Wilder Lane had built for her parents, Laura and Almanzo.

 

I live only a three-hour drive from the Wilder homes. After decades of talking about it, I finally made the pilgrimage last week. My husband was a good sport and went along with me. There may have been mentions of a fishing pond near our rental cabin to lure him into the adventure.

Both Rocky Ridge houses have tours on a regular schedule, and there’s also a separate museum building on the grounds. In case you’re planning a trip, the museum is where you buy the tickets for the tours. I wish they allowed photography inside any of the facilities, but since they don’t, you’ll have to take my word for what we saw.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Mansfield, MO

Pa’s fiddle! The museum has Pa’s fiddle in a display case. It’s in remarkable shape, and looking at it brought to mind many scenes from the books, from Pa playing the children to sleep with lullabies to big dances at the grandparents’. They also have Laura’s blue china cow creamer. I don’t remember which book has the description of it; but I do remember it being mentioned.

The homes themselves have been restored and preserved with as many original furnishings as possible, much of it hand-crafted by Almanzo. There’s some incredibly durable linoleum in the frame house that is not reproduction, or so we were informed. The Christmas Clock Almanzo gifted to Laura still hangs on the wall, ticking away. Laura’s writing desk is there. The original house is well-designed, but the ceilings are low. Our tour guide reminded us the Wilders were not big people. Laura topped out at 4’11” and Almanzo stood 5’4″. Keep that in mind when you think of him hauling bushels of wheat through a blizzard to save the town in The Long Winter.

I have a hard time on tours like this. It means so much to me to get to be in Laura’s home and see the actual objects described in her books, lending immediacy to the stories. But you can’t touch anything and you have to move on through when they tell you to. No standing and studying the details of any one thing until you’re satiated. I understand why and agree with it on principle. Gee willikers, though (sorry for the wooden swearing, Ma Ingalls), I wanted to soooo much. I experienced an intense desire to stay for hours, to sit it in her chairs and run my hand over her desk. Don’t worry, I kept control. Barely.

The final step of our literary mission took us to the Wilder resting place.

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Gone, yet still here in so many important ways.

What’s With My Brain in the Middle of the Night?

That feeling when you wake up at 2 a.m. with the urgent need to remember the name of the Greek god of the forge, and you’re panicked because you can’t conjure it up. You remember the Romans called him Vulcan but to save your life you can’t latch your mind onto the Greek designation. Then, as you wake up enough to realize there can’t possibly be an emergency in your life involving Greek mythology and wonder why you would wake up wanting to know, you segue from panic to irritation. Irritation at having interrupted your own sleep somehow and also because you still can’t remember the name and you really should know, with all the time you spent reading those myths in your teen years. But you need to go back to sleep so you can function at work tomorrow, so you don’t want to try looking it up. But you can’t go back to sleep until you remember it. Does it start with an H maybe? So you get up and open your laptop and discovered you were right about that much – Hephaestus. Then you feel satisfied and lie back down, close your eyes and…wait, wasn’t there something weird about his feet? What was that about?

I can’t be the only one this happens to. Right?

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