pityitspithy

Depth in the Shallows

The Best Place On Earth

In Silent Simplicity

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959) was a member of Robert F. Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), the polar explorer’s second expedition to Antarctica. Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of the group and had no specific scientific training. He was eventually brought on by a grateful Scott after making a sizable donation to the effort. In addition to helping lay supplies along Scott’s route to the Pole, Cherry-Garrard served as an assistant zoologist. It is in this role that Cherry-Garrard made the worst journey in the world.

In July 1911, Cherry-Garrard, Bill Wilson, and Birdie Bowers walked sixty miles from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier in temperatures ranging from -40 to -77 degrees Fahrenheit and almost complete darkness. The only thing to keep them from freezing to death was the hauling of two sleds of supplies. The point of it all? To obtain the unhatched eggs of the famed Emperor penguin. Having gained Cape Crozier, the trio was caught in a terrible blizzard and, at one point, lost their tent. With only sleeping bags and snow drifts to protect them, the men sang in the windy dark to stave off Death. Cherry-Garrard and his companions made it back to Cape Evans a month or so later. Wilson and Bowers eventually joined Scott on his journey to the Pole. None survived.

Cherry-Garrard’s experience, though traumatic and painful, also yielded insights. The quote below helps us see what can come of desperation and privation; it is the joy of stripping life down to its essentials. When we are mindful of death, we consider how best to live. When we suffer cold, hunger, exhaustion, or any other test of will, we recognize what truly matters and are thankful for it.

“Those Hut Point days, would prove some of the happiest of my life. Just enough to eat and keep warm, no more – no frills or trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life…the luxuries of civilisation satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.”

 

 

 

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The Universal Particular

A Unique Commonality

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) is mostly remembered for her short stories. This novella is a series of connected tales along the lines of Sherwood Anderson’s later Winesburg, Ohio. In it, Jewett recounts the people and places of Maine’s coast. Considered a writer of literary regionalism, Jewett transcends any geographic categorizations with her subtle depictions of humanity in a beautiful and at times forbidding place. She featured stories of women but the universal appeal of her work is not limited by gender just as it is not limited by geography. Jewett, in the nineteenth-century tradition of Hawthorne, gives us a wider view of humanity precisely because it is deeper.

“In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.”

The Duke Of Windsor

Great Scot, Royal Canadian

The Stories of Alistair MacLeod 

Alistair MacLeod (1936-2014) was a Canadian writer and professor of Scottish ancestry. Born in Saskatchewan, he returned to Nova Scotia as a child. He taught for many years and eventually retired from the University of Windsor. He was a painstakingly slow writer. One obituary referred to him a “novelist in no hurry.” And if you are looking for a thrilling, gripping “read,” this is not your man. If you are looking to experience a writer lulling you into a world that is both foreign and familiar, grabbing hold of your emotions, memories, and sense of place, MacLeod is a master. Once hold of you, he never lets go. He wrote one novel, No Greater Mischief, and a collection of short stories. Largely set in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, MacLeod’s stories follow the fortunes and failures of the friends and families that populate that piece of the Old World in the New. All of life is here, in this little place.

This quote, taken from an interview with MacLeod, demonstrates the hard realities of life as he wrote about them, but also the gift of life that the certainty of death bestows.

“When you grow up in a rural area, especially on a farm, which I did for a while, you become very accepting of death as just another part of the cycle, especially regarding the animals. You breed them, you often see them born, you care for them, and then you kill them and eat them. So you grow up, as some people say, very close to your food chain, and some of the animals in that food chain have almost become friends for a while, so I think that farming people have a rather non-sentimental view of death. I also believe that if you work with your body—like a farmer, a miner, a fisherman, or a logger—you’re always putting yourself at risk. Such people are always in danger of losing fingers or hands or breaking their legs or being killed. So growing up in such an environment, you could never be surprised by death, and it certainly wasn’t something that could be avoided.”

A Dollop Of Trollope

Some Habits Are Tough To Break

The Essays of Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was a popular Victorian author of some forty-seven novels (including the much loved Palliser series and Barchester Towers novels), short stories, and travel books. He is, in our day, overshadowed by Charles Dickens. And the truth is he ought not be. Born in England, Trollope grew up in poverty. His father was an alcoholic and unsuccessful lawyer. His mother shouldered the burdens of family and took up writing to make money. Trollope eventually worked for the Post Office in a decades long career that took him to many parts of the world. He got up every day at five and, over a mug of hot coffee, wrote for three hours. He did this everyday for most of his life. The poverty of his youth haunted him so he never quit the Post even after making a lot of money from his novels. Many of his books concern some aspect of 19th century English life, and despite occasionally stilted language, still offer enjoyable and surprisingly modern storylines. In his essays, he talks about reading. Note that he calls it a habit. If you cannot find time, make time. And make time for Trollope.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”

Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

Linguistic Murder Most Fowl

The King’s English by H.W. Fowler

Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), Oxford educated schoolmaster turned English usage and style guide writer, is remembered, if at all, for his inimitable A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In The King’s English, a book he wrote with his brother some twenty years before Modern English Usage, Fowler laid the foundation for what was to become his greatest work. While this may seem a small thing, or irrelevant in our “anything goes” age, it is not. Fowler’s Modern English Usage is probably the best book of its kind. And while it is a standard reference for most writers, it is useful and interesting to anyone who speaks and writes the English language.

Languages are not static (unless they are no longer spoken), but rather are living and dynamic things. Rules govern grammar and usage (many of us have nightmares about diagramming sentences in grade school) but enforcing those rules like language cops betrays the inherent flexibility of speech. The best teachers know the rules and know when they should be broken. Or gotten rid of entirely. Fowler is one of those teachers.

 

“Any one who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable, and question his conscience, as severely as we ought to do about disagreeable conduct in real life, whether it is necessary.”

 

 

No Monkee Business

Not That Davy Jones!

In Parenthesis by David Jones 

No I did not just get off the last train to Clarksville. This David Jones preceded the Monkees. David Jones was a poet, painter, and engraver. The art of his life and his life in art were singularly colored by his experience in The Great War. Of all the War Poets, Jones spent the most time at the front. He fought in the major battles of the war and was severely wounded at the Somme, an experience he captures poetically in the quote below. But as Peter Salmon observes, Jones differs from Owen, Sassoon, and others in that he describes the experience of war rather than judging it. Both approaches have literary and poetic validity, but Jones’s poetry, while complex and laden with historical and mythical heft, is richer. As Jones said, “I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.” In the verse below, Jones speaks to a consequence of war (people die and are wounded) but speaks specifically to the profoundly modern experience of humanity being reduced or destroyed by technology that far exceeds what is necessary to kill. Somehow he captures the hubris and humility in all of us.

“He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.”

Fortunate Sons

Men In The Middle

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was an Australian writer, poet, and soldier of the Great War. Out of his combat experience came The Middle Parts of Fortune, also published as Her Privates We. The latter title came from an edition in which the curse words were cut out. Later printings restore both title and expletives to their rightful place (the only version worth reading). Manning’s novel captures the grime and grind, boredom and blood, of life in the trenches. Born out of Manning’s brutal experience at the Somme, the novel was feted for its realism. Eliot, Hemingway, Pound, T.E. Lawrence, and others saw in it perhaps the truest depiction of the soldier in war. While Manning sheds light on the human condition through the prism of combat, his book also speaks with compassion toward all mankind under the stress of devastation and destruction. We have only to witness the heroism of our brothers and sisters facing Hurricane Harvey to see something of this.

“Death, of course, like chastity, admits of no degree; a man is dead or not dead, and a man is just as dead by one means as by another; but it is infinitely more horrible and revolting to see a man shattered and eviscerated, than to see him shot. And one sees such things; and one suffers vicariously, with the inalienable sympathy of man for man. One forgets quickly. The mind is averted as well as the eyes. It reassures itself after that first despairing cry: “It is I!”

“No, it is not I. I shall not be like that.”

The Whole Of Part

A Sage Spirit

The Life and Music of Arvo Part 

Some things, some people, can only speak for themselves. I will introduce the Estonian composer Arvo Part only by saying that he is worth your time. In this link, he delivers remarks at St. Vladimir Seminary after receiving an honorary degree. He speaks slowly, not so much that we may hear him, but that we may listen to his words. In the background is a beautiful piece of music he composed in the 1970’s. It is haunting, transformative, and of a beauty that cuts to the heart. Stop. Listen.

http://www.sacredartsinitiative.com/2017/06/17/arvo-part-at-st-vladimirs-seminary-from-my-musical-diaries/

 

True Grit

Made In Detroit

The Fiction Of Elmore Leonard

Leonard, a native of the South who ultimately spent his formative and adult years in the Detroit area, is well-known for capturing the dialogue and conversational oddities of a given place. This is true in his Westerns and crime novels, such as The Moonshine War, set almost entirely in other regions. But it was Detroit, writing in and about, that he was at his best. Reading his books, feels like eavesdropping on a conversation at the Lafayette Coney Island. He was known for spending hours at the courthouse in Detroit picking up language and story ideas. Leonard exceeded the inspiration and parroting dialogue he gathered as an observer. His characters have soul, and it makes even the ugliest sympathetic. In the quote below, a piece he wrote for the Chicago Tribune back in the 80’s, Leonard gets to the heart of Detroit, and to the people that are the heart of the city.

“There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs.”

The Prince of Planes

A Flight Of Fancy

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry, throughout his short life, was many things. But he is best remembered as a writer and a pilot. In the early days of commercial flight, he flew routes in Africa and South America. During an international race in 1935, he and his navigator crashed in the Libyan desert and nearly died. They were saved only when a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and rendered aid. This experience is memorialized in Saint-Exupéry’s book, Wind, Sand, and Stars. He also fictionalizes a bit of the experience in his best known work The Little Prince. In Flight to Arras, Saint-Exupéry tells of a terrifying mission over France following the German invasion during WWII. So much of what he wrote is poetic, and yet, it is rooted in harsh realities. It is as if we see the fragile beauty of life best when death lurks in the background. Saint-Exupery went missing on a reconnaissance mission over France in 1944 and was never heard from again.

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.”

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