Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wise old Uncle Nate.

The fibers and sinews of my brain are as limp and lifeless as soggy spaghetti. (And you can tell it's true because I just wrote that sentence.) For the past two days, I've closely read something like 10 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's shorter stories and essays, written a position paper and compiled some criticism for a graduate student-lead class that's going to take place on Wednesday. I'm loving being back in the classroom. It's been so long since I've had a conversation about literary criticism that I'd almost forgotten how useless it is, and how I love to discuss it. My mind is being scratched in places I didn't know it was itching.

I'm particularly loving Hawthorne. I don't think I've ever studied his work completely enough to realize how relevant it is to modern (neopuritanical) American culture. Here's an example. And here is an excerpt of my paper:

Here Hawthorne employs the curious appearance of a veiled Pastor Hooper not only as a metaphor for secret sin, but as a criticism of a pervasive Puritan culture that by a near monomaniacal quest for perceived piety would prevent Hooper from “showing his inmost heart” to his congregation, his “best-beloved,” or even to his God. It is the act of hiding sin, rather than the occasion of sin itself, Hawthorne implies, that forces such isolation upon the individual. By carrying these effects of latent sin in the form of a black veil, Hooper exemplifies to his nonplussed congregation the lonely consequence of proudly and intentionally obscuring personal shortcoming.

I'm not a theorist, but I love what Hawthorne is getting at here. When we hide our sin, we isolate ourselves. It's a theme I see over and over again in the work of the 19th Century masters, and it's something I'd love to think about more. There's something cleverly profound in Hawthorne's work that makes me think I've found a new favorite.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I wish I didn't enjoy blogging so much. If I didn't, I'm sure I would quit. I think that for every ten blog entries I write, I have to explain, or defend, at least one. (I'm sure that Brian T. Murphy is even less a stranger to that phenomenon!) And sometimes, even I can see several meanings for one sentence and I realize that defense is futile. Thus was the case with my last post, so I killed it.

And now, with 150 pages of Hawthorne waiting to be read, I'll check out of here for today. Public Library, here I come. But, take heart, I'm sure that my desire to share the adventures of my first day of school as an Old Woman will best my desire to just buy a notebook for Pete's sake.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What we need is a PUNK REVOLUTION!

Yesterday, I saw a Husker Du sticker on a Volvo stationwagon and just like that, I was again a twelve-year-old girl in the back of a 1988 Honda Civic hatchback on a fall afternoon. I remember the smell of horse (the smell of my childhood) on the saddle-blanket I was sitting on, and clinging to my best friend Erin as her older brother took too many turns too fast on the way home from the barn. Randall was a senior at Indian Springs that year, and he was determined to work some kind of corrupting influence on his little sister and her friend in revenge for being forced to pick them up. Listen to this, he said, and pushed a tape into the player.

What came out of the speakers and rattled the windows of that little car was Husker Du and Eight Miles High. I was consumed with terror, nausea and elation as I experienced my first taste of American hardcore punk rock. Certainly,this was forbidden territory for a sixth-grader at Briarwood Christian School and surely I was among some bad people. I was thrilled to near-death. This, I remember thinking to myself, is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. I didn't know Black Flag from Bad Brains, Husker Du from a hole in the wall, but I knew that I had learned something about myself and I knew that I couldn't tell anyone at school about it.

Over the years, I slowly figured out how British punk had given way to American Hardcore and learned to love bands from the post-punk era like Mission of Burma, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxie and the Banshees, U2, PiL and The Church. As I got older, I loved The Cure, The Smiths, Sonic Youth and REM. Now, when I hear people talk about U2, I laugh. Your U2 isn't my U2, I want to say. I hid this obsession with "secular music" (you've got to screw your nose up to pronounce that correctly) until I got caught buying Disintegration in Turtles when I was on a Briarwood Raiders outing. My Raiders leader told my mom I wasn't "walking with the Lord." My mom told her off. And I went back to my closet obsession.

Now, when I think about fall, I think about Husker Du and I laugh to myself about how long ago this music was popular. When I hear young musicians talking about their influences, I get that weird feeling that I'm utterly out of my era. Sure, I like Patty Griffin. Ryan Adams isn't half bad on a slow day. And I can get into Reg's Coffeehouse, but nothing, no nothing, blows my doors off like Husker Du on a bright blue morning.

Oy. Oy. Oy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sweetness Follows

Readying to bury your father and your mother,
what did you think when you lost another?
I used to wonder why did you bother,
distanced from one, blind to the other.
But sweetness follows.
Listen here my sister and my brother
what would you care if you lost the other?
I always wonder why did we bother,
distanced from one, blind to the other.
But sweetness follows.
It's these little things, they can pull you under.
Live your life filled with joy and wonder.
I always knew this altogether thunder
was lost in our little lives.
But sweetness follows.

We Will All Go Together When We Go: Or, One Night in Manchester

Sometimes, I have a rare sort of emotional rumbling best described as a belonging feeling. I've had no more than seven or so during my life on earth, and they always mark some kind of momentous occasion. Like most of life's momentous occasions, I don't recognize them as particularly momentous until their memories have gone soft and sepia in the rock-turner of my mind. It's too early to tell, but I think I might have had such a moment on Saturday night at the Cracker Barrel in Manchester, Tennessee.

I was standing by a display of pumpkin-and-vine dishware when a six-and-a-half-foot man dressed in a polyester leopard print shirt loosely laced from his navel to his Adam's apple wove past a cotton-haired lady in a brown apron toward the hostess station. I'm not sure he could have drawn more eyes if he had come walking in arm-in-arm with a camel in hot-pants, but I am sure he left plenty of dropped toothpicks in his wake as the vast variety of assembled Bubbas stopped to stare, mouths yawning in shock and glee, as they struggled to discern an appropriate insult to whisper amongst themselves. The man didn't seem to notice that the narrow aisle between the jar candles and old-fashioned candy had become his catwalk as he pranced past the appliqued t-shirts in his own personal pride parade. This, I thought to myself, is going to be interesting. And it was. This evening, it seems, was destined to be a foray into the surreal.

It wasn't long after we sat down that I saw a tall gray man walk past the window. He wouldn't have been particularly interesting if it hadn't been for his flat-top haircut and his shirt sleeves. It seems that the sleeves of his white button-up had been cut and hemmed until they were only about two inches long. His jeans were rolled up to reveal white socks in brown dress shoes. I caught his message. This, he seemed to say, was who I was. It was me who picked your daughter up in a '55 Ford and made doughnuts in your soybean field. When my mother-in-law's huge blue eyes got a few times larger, I just looked back at her and said, Nice. Which is what I say when something is either not nice at all, or when I just don't know what else will fit.

Soon, a white Ford 250 pulled up and an entire family rolled out into the parking lot. The two women had masses of hair flowing down their backs past the elastic waistbands of their skirts. I call this particular kind of people Churchagods, because that's usually where you can find them on Sunday mornings. (It's at this moment that I want to be able to write something witty about them. I want to be able to make some kind of remark about this kind of subordination--do they feel subordinated?-- of women, that will make you laugh and dissipate some of the internal tension I feel when I try to write about them. There was a time when I stood before a group of people and pledged to submit myself to the all-male leadership of a church. In retrospect, I am altogether embarrassed to remember this moment. I wonder if, even for a moment, we stop and realize what it is we're actually doing when, as women, we do that?) So, this is all somewhat of an aside, but when I saw these women walk in, I started having that belonging feeling and I started to realize why.

I thought about the man in the leopard shirt and I wondered if it's hard to be gay, and not only gay, but OBVIOUSLY, FLAMINGLY, HOMOSEXUAL in a small Tennessee town. I imagine he's built up a kind of toughness that would easily surpass that of my friend in the cut-off sleeves. What must it be to be like that? What must it be to be the object of attention always? And then, I remembered that Little Richard (yes, that Little Richard) lives just down the road. And I thought it interesting that he would choose to return to his small Tennessee town. And I don't have an answer for this mystery other than that it is some sort of mystery that not belonging sometimes feels comfortable. So, it becomes clear to me: the feeling of belonging comes from a shared feeling of not belonging. Not belonging in your body, not belonging in your era, not belonging in your church, and not belonging, ultimately, on this planet. So, I think my point isn't that I am weird, but that we all are. Like puzzle pieces, we fit together in our differences. And the image that I'm left with is that of an entire nation of weirdos struggling together to find a normal that doesn't really exist.

Monday, August 20, 2007

On a Happier Note...

I start school on Monday. My parents baby-sat Corduroy this weekend so that I could have one last swimming weekend in Tennessee. In addition to T.S. Stribling's autobiography (!!!!!) , my mother-in-law gave me two giant Pink Pearl erasers. I kind of have a thing for Pink Pearl erasers. She offered me two zebra erasers, but I'm an Old Fashioned girl. Abby gave me a folder with puppies on it and four animal pencils that I can't wait to sharpen. David bought me a binder with flowers on it, lots of quad-ruled filler paper and a composition book (also quad-ruled)!!! I could die in school-supply heaven.

I've also been given some good advice like that from Amanda who said "Don't be that old student who makes everyone stay late." I have to admit, I probably will be.

Though my body is twenty-nine (or thirty) though my mind is an old thing, I am always beginning the world. Karen Peris

Update on Corduroy, Part Two

Corduroy's electrocardiogram showed a beautiful heart thumping bravely and regularly. The veterinarian, Dr. Ingrid Straeter-Knowlen, is also an M.D. who taught at U.A.B. medical school until she decided to see animals full-time. (And you can't blame her, can you?) She recently did the heart transplant on Babec the silver-back gorilla at the Birmingham Zoo. Unfortunately, Babec died, but he was a very old gorilla. All that to say, I felt pretty confident in Dr. Straeter-Knowlen's ability to examine one red Golden Retriever.

Dr. Straeter felt that Corduroy has a fungal infection, so we were back to our regular clinic that afternoon for a fungal titer and a round of anti-fungal medication. Fortunately, the survival rate for dogs in good health with fungal infections is almost 85% with treatment. Unfortunately, the treatment is not inexpensive. We should have the results of the blood tests by Wednesday and we're headed back to the vet this afternoon for another ultra-sound and some additional blood work. If the fungal titer comes back negative, we'll do a auto-immune panel to determine if Corduroy has some kind of auto-immune disorder. (I think the prognosis for those disorders is not good.)

If you have a minute, please pray that Corduroy's white blood cell count will be down and her red blood cell count will be up.

We Smiths feel hopeful. Corduroy feels tired of going to the vet and I can't say I feel any differently. I'm grateful for the great care of this small army of vets. I don't think I get better medical care than they are providing.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Update on my Little Red Friend

Corduroy had the second series of x-rays today. When the sweet vet came back into the room, I could tell by the look on her face that things were pretty bad. Corduroy's spleen looked enlarged and her bloodwork came back worse than it had been before. She prepared me for the worst to occur in short order. David came from work to help make the decision. The vet ordered an abdominal ultrasound just to verify what she felt confident of seeing on the film.

Fortunately (and maybe miraculously) Corduroy's spleen looked normal on the ultrasound. However, the problem of white blood cells (way too many) and red blood cells (way too few) remains, so tomorrow, we're going to a vetrinary cardiologist for a thoracic electrocardiogram. We're praying not to find a tumor of the heart.

Things are not good for Team Smith. We are sad. We're not ready for our friend to go.

The only thing I don't like about dogs is that they never ever last long enough.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Weekend Happening

Last Saturday, David and I went to the downtown library. Doing so is a simple pleasure in which we often indulge. There's something about all of that information, categorized and numbered and read and treasured and useful forever that makes me feel civlilzed. Intellegent. Hopeful that I, too, can grasp education and self-improvement with the aid of that universal passport, the Library Card.

As we crossed the parking lot, a wizened man shot toward us like some kind of black rocket intent on shaking us down for a few quarters. "Help an old nigger out." he said. David and I cringed, humiliated by the painful surrealism of being two white people in a nice car being panhandled by an old black man in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. "I'll get down on my knees." As he stooped to do so, David grabbed his arm and set him on his feet. I was thankful. At that moment, I couldn't have stood it. This city breathes history from every storm drain. Like coal dust and foundry soot and iron ore, we'll never cast off the scars of freedom riders and firehoses and police dogs. We'd never be allowed even if we could.

When I saw how the heat beat his head mercilessly and recognized his t-shirt from a formal I attended something like ten years ago, the desire to ease this man's burden pressed my heart into turning his scarred hand over and pouring the meager contents of my wallet into his upturned palm. As I did, I put my hand underneath his to steady its shaking and because I somehow wanted to cover those track marks so Jesus wouldn't see. I don't know where my head was. "Heal it from the inside out," I whispered to myself in case heaven was listening. Of course, at that moment, I knew where my quarters would end up. For some reason, I didn't care. I just wanted to make it better for him even if it meant staving off nighttime for a moment or two. Afterwards, he rocketed off to parts unknown for purposes certain.

Ironically, we returned to the library the next day. As we pulled (in our nice car) underneath the electronic gate to the parking lot, a black rocket man popped up outside David's window. "Help an old nigger out," he sang. "We went through this yesterday, remember?" David replied, "And we don't have any more quarters." At that moment, a muscular black security guard emerged from the air conditioning and expelled the man from the parking lot with a shaking fist and a harsh voice. "You the niggers!" shouted the ousted man. "You the white folk, niggers!" he said as he rounded the corner and out of sight. With lowered heads,we went inside.

As we drove home, we talked about who we are and what we do. We counted our blessings, realizing all the while that we can't help who we are any more than we could change our race or erase the reality of our privileged childhoods. We just are. Blessed and grateful, but are just the same. So, home we drove, past the men sleeping in Brother Bryan Park. Past the men and women standing waiting for supper at Highlands Methodist Church. Past Chez Fon Fon and Starbucks and the health food store. Home. Where we belong.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Everyone who knew me before 9-11 thinks I'm dead. Sometimes, I wonder if they're right. In the evening when the sun sinks pink and the katy-dids start up, I sit on my front porch and think about that mystery: If every living link to your past thinks you're dead, can you really be alive? Sometimes, after a few drinks, I start believing that maybe I'm just writing now to satisfy some Celestial Jury in whose hands my Eternal Destiny has been placed. When I was little, I saw some movie on television about people who died and spent a week in heaven waiting on their final judgement. They rode on those open-door trains like you ride on in the parking lot at Disney. You know, the ones who are driven by the perky teenagers in flip-collard Polo shirts and white tennis shoes? If one of those things pulled up right now, I couldn't claim to be all that surprised.

If I had the chance to recast the past six years, I might. But then again, I've always heard the voice of destiny pushing me just this way. Destiny speaks with a voice you can't resist, even when you realize it might need a little help to keep turning the wheels it put in motion for you.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Far Too Close to the Bone

Corduroy Dog was sick this week. And not just a little bit. I plied her with scrambled eggs, lamb chops, turkey, peanut butter, leftover meatloaf, ham, hoagies, Parmesan and special (extra yummy, they say) dog food, but she only ate three bites in two days. She drank water, but couldn't keep it down. When we left the vet on Monday morning, I had to stoop and lift her compliant body into the car. Even her fur looked sick. Finally, her temperature is back to normal and she ate five hamburger buns, a chicken breast, seven green beans and a lamb chop before going to sleep last night. When she's finished her antibiotic, we'll go back to the clinic to have another x-ray and an ultrasound to determine if some suspicious-looking patches on her lungs are cancer or snot. Cancer or snot. That could be a metaphor for life. When we have bad things happen to us, we've just got to wait and see if they'll turn out to be cancer or snot.

Snot, of course, isn't pleasant and it can make us feel as if we're dying. But in the end, it's only snot, and when the ragweed dies or the virus runs its course, we'll be back to normal. Cancer, on the other hand, has to be dealt with aggressively and with determination to be cured. If it can be cured at all. I realize that what I've been dealing with for the past few months, that black cloud that's been over my head as I dwell contentedly in the quotidian* below, is probably cancer. I think my prognosis is good and my will to survive is strong, but it's going to take some effort to fully recover. I see signs of life when I realize I still do love people who I can't talk to anymore and when I realize that the hope that died has been replaced by a new hope I hold for myself.

When I went to Montevallo to register yesterday, there was hope. When I realize that the life I always wanted is starting to bloom around me, there was hope. When I realize that I'm still able to talk to God and that I still want to be part of a church family, there is hope. In spite of everything, while I no longer believe** people are good at heart (or anywhere else for that matter), I realize I'm still going to be able to love some of them and walk with some of them as a part of a church. And that, perhaps, is the greatest miracle of my life.

*The word quotidian is one of my new favorites. Elizabeth Dewberry used it in an interview I read recently (wow, Elizabeth Dewberry has had her business on the Internet lately!) when she was discussing her relationship to then-husband Robert Olen Butler. "But what I needed to know," she said, "Was how we would manage in the quotidian." It was so delightfully pretentious that I had to claim it as my own.

**Among the things I no longer believe are the notions that we were created to suffer and that God derives some twisted pleasure from seeing us thrown under the wheels of life. I don't know why I feel the need to add that. Perhaps it's because those ideas are also cancerous.

***It's sad that I make footnotes for my blog. I wonder what my thesis (which, by the way, I have to start working on NEXT SEMESTER!!!!!) will look like. I think I have a sad little footnoted brain.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Montevallo Confederation

Since David and I moved to Southside, we've noticed that a startling number of our dearest friends were students at the University of Montevallo. This afternoon, I was informed that I'll be joining their number later this month. This is a huge redemption for me. God is faithful to me.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Thunder Storm

Today, I remembered that Friederich Burgmuller is good therapy. When I play alone, I sing along. One of my very favorite Burgmuller pieces is called "Ballade." When I play it I sing "NowI'mveryangry. NowI'mveryangry. Ha. Ha. Now I'm GLAAAAD!!! I'm GLAAAAAAAD!" (Here's a video of a little girl playing it, so that you can sing at home, too. Try it. It's good for you.)

My poor little piano hasn't been so abused in its entire life. I love my piano lessons because my teacher has an elegant grand piano that makes a beautiful sound--much better than my little spinet. Sometimes, my teacher plays her little digital piano and I play the big piano and we play duets. I love to see how loud I can make her piano get. I feel that if my piano was a person, she'd be a little old lady named Dottie and she would say, Do you have to mash my pedals so hard, sugar? My piano teacher's piano would be a man in a tuxedo named Captain Picard and he would probably, in an English accent, make fun of how poorly I play. Frankly, I find your Beethoven to be a bit twee, he would say. And I would say Shut up, Captian Picard, or I'm gonna mash your pedals.

P.S. They say that if you look into a mirror and say "Bloody Burgmuller" three times, a little Asian lady will creep up behind you and play a duet with you! I can't wait to try it.