Brilliant Beginnings!

Have you ever picked up a book that reeled you in with its first line? Many books fit that description for me, so when Holly (aka hollycm6) hosted a “Brilliant Beginnings” swap for the Cup and Chaucer group on swap-bot I was all in!

Swappers were to send a postcard with a favorite first line to two partners. I received two postcards today and one a few days ago.

The first to arrive was a handmade, mixed media card by none other than the mixed media queen, Diane W (aka midteacher).

Mixed Media by Diane W. (midteacher)

She appropriately paired her handmade postcard with an Edgar Allan Poe beginning from “To Science, A Prologue to Al Aaraaf”

SCIENCE! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Shelby (aka Shellbee8), a new swapper to me, sent a Notre Dame postcard with two classic beginnings–Charles Dickens’ familiar lines from A Tale of Two Cities and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Notre Dame, Paris

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  -Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Nothing to be done. –[Estragon] Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I received a bonus card from Holly (yay!). Happy mail dance! Thank you, Holly!

She wrote on the bookish postcard two quotes from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine–one from the introduction:

This book, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise.

And of course, the first line of chapter 1:

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed.

I haven’t read this one, but Holly wrote a micro review that compelled me to add it to my “to be read” list:

[This is] such a beautiful, sweet book, one that makes the world a better place because it exists.

There’s no way I can pass up a book that “makes the world a better place.”

My own brilliant first line came from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. That book! Not only did it give me a memorable first line but it also helped me find words for my struggle with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self,’ Christophine said.

What about you? What are the first lines that kept you turning pages?

Sylvia Barnes and Toni Morrison | Teaching, Preaching, and Doing the Work

Dr. Sylvia Barnes, October 2014.

Last week was not a good week for my heart.

Before I could digest the news that the literary goddess herself, Toni Morrison, had passed, I learned that Dr. Sylvia Barnes, one of my undergraduate mentors, had passed. With the news of both deaths, I felt as if every bit of oxygen was squeezed from my body.

As I sat through a brief meeting holding in the knowledge of their passings, I realized with everything in me that I am sick and tired of loss.

I’m tired of trying to find the words to express the deep sense of emptiness I feel when someone significant to me dies. There are no words for the love I can’t give, the unexpressed admiration and near deification of those who have profoundly impacted my life and who have had a strong hand in shaping who I am as a person, a writer, a scholar.

Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Mentors. Professors. Literary goddesses. I’m tired of processing loss.

It is interesting that both women died the same day, August 5, 2019. I held both in high esteem for their unapologetic focus on black lives, for their commitment to excellence, for their wisdom, for their very humanity.

Dr. Barnes was the Toni Morrison of my undergraduate world. We were in awe of her—her standard of excellence, her fiery passion, her unflinching dedication to the deep study of literature, language, and light. Her dignified presence filled any room she entered. She taught eager undergraduates so many things, not just about literature but about life and love and how to navigate the madness of the world. I distinctly remember some of the wisdom she shared about the importance of reading in gaining and creating knowledge, about relationships and love and attraction.

In her raspy voice, with polished Jamaican accent, she urged us to “Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on. Read!” She wasn’t just an English professor. Like Baby Suggs Holy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved–preaching in the clearing–she was a divinely inspired preacher offering keys for life; every single class with Dr. Barnes felt like a sermon of love for our beautiful Black selves.

When I struggled with racism in graduate school, I reached out to her for counsel, and she candidly shared stories of her own similar experiences while in pursuit of the doctoral degree. Somehow, just knowing she overcame them intensified my determination to push through.

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe–50 Years Anniversary of Things Fall Apart.” December, 2008. Photo by Angela Radulescu

I spend a great deal of time studying, teaching, and writing about Toni Morrison’s novels. My first real encounter with her came when I was in college through my own not-for-a-course reading. The Bluest Eye left me in utter despair. I had read other black writers. I was drawn to them because of the way they spoke to an American experience with which I could identify. But it was Toni Morrison who awakened the scholar in me, who made me ask questions and drove me to write about books; it was her body of work which led me to theorize through literature the unique experiences of Black girls and women.

It was Sylvia Barnes who showed me I could, who encouraged me to use my singular voice to speak about Black girls’ and Black women’s experiences.

It has only been a week, so I’m still processing these losses and what they mean to me. These women—goddesses, really—have filled me for more than half my life and have prepared me for their parting. Though they toiled tirelessly, there is yet much work to be done. The mantle has been passed on, and we—those of us who write about, think about, theorize about Black experiences—must get down to business and with urgency do the work.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge–even wisdom. Like art.  Toni Morrison, The Nation, 2015

Photo from Pixabay

Acquainted with the Night: A Painting and a Poem

“A Yorkshire Lane in November 1873,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Lanai Views | #WordlessWednesday

Lanai

“In the Mountains,” Li Bai (Chinese Poet, 701-762)

You ask me what my idea is, staying in the green mountains?
I smile but have no reply, my heart at peace in itself.

As the peach blossom on the flowing water goes into the unknown,
there is another heaven and earth, not among people.

Trans. William P. Coleman


About the images: Photos from a trip to Maui, Hawaii many moons ago. The photos were shot from a yacht early one evening.

A Woman’s Place

I had a series of “love posts” planned for this week, but my students warned me not to write/post them because–from their youthful perspective–it might seem insensitive to those who don’t have a Valentine.

I laughed. Do people really take Valentine’s Day that seriously? No matter. I won’t risk it. 😀

Instead, I’m dropping in with a favorite postcard from my “vintage” collection of postcards, acquired when I was a teen (I think)–before email, swap-bot, and Love Notes–when my friends and I regularly sent newsy letters and postcards to each other.

This postcard, printed by Hallmark, echoes the end of today’s [class] discussion of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: the very words used to demonstrate Petruchio’s successful “taming” of “Kate” can also be used to prove that Katherina really is the boss lady of the joint.

Quotes Challenge Day 3: Ride the Horse

Photo by my son, Vaughan M.

Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it. 

The final quote for the three-day challenge comes from one of my favorite books, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (published as The Bridge of Beyond in English). I feel I must provide a little context–without giving away too much of the plot, of course.

In Part 2 of the novel, Télumée, the primary character, is so profoundly grieved by her husband’s desertion that she sits on a stone in her grandmother’s backyard for several weeks, speechless and unmovable, reduced to a shade of her former self. Her trauma is understandable. After being obviously head-over-heels in love with her since they were children, Elie, her husband, suddenly and inexplicably becomes cruel and abusive and kicks her out of the house in favor of another woman. The events of her life become incongruous with the reality she’s crafted and the people she and her husband are and Télumée is so broken by this unfathomable turn of events that she “loses her mind” and can no longer function.

Télumée eventually “rises,” nurtured by her community and the steady wisdom of Toussine, her grandmother –“Queen without a Name”–who had suffered and survived many griefs herself.  I’m convinced it is the words Toussine instills at an earlier point in the novel that compel her to get up:

Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.

As suddenly as she falls apart, Télumée stands up to live a life different from the one she originally imagined–one that is authentic and communal and necessary.

I have always loved this quote. When I first read it, I put the book down to pause and consider it for a while. And still, several reads later, I am blown away by the tenacity Toussine suggests we must conjure up to survive wild waves of pain and sorrow–the grit it takes to position ourselves so that deep sorrow doesn’t shape our lives, define us, or guide us and the creative prowess it takes to use that sorrow to re-plot the direction of our lives.

Sometimes when the crises come one right after another and literally knock us off our feet, it seems easier to just lie down and wallow in sadness and misery. There can be healing in (temporarily) shutting down, in resting, but at some point we (have to) decide whether we will ride the horse–our circumstances–or let the horse ride us.

There is way more to say about this quote and way, way, way more to say about The Bridge of Beyond. I hope you’ll pick it up and read it. I also hope that when life becomes too much, you’ll choose to ride.

Today’s nominees are [see a previous post for rules]:

Have a restful, fun, and safe weekend!

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Note about the photo: The photo above was shot by my son when he was eight-years-old. He is quite the photographer. I’m working on getting him to share more of his work. #proudmom

 

Matisse’s Icarus: Fall From the Sun

I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago that my student Courtney sent two postcards, and the second arrived before the first. I received the first postcard today!

It appropriately detailed (as much as can be squeezed onto a postcard) her early musings about her life in France. And it features one of my favorite French artists, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.

Henri Matisse, “La Chute d’Icare”

If you’ve been following my blog for at least a few years, you might remember my sharing the work of 16 little Matisses that imitate his collage style.

La Chute d’Icare [The Fall of Icarus], from Matisse’s “cut-outs” period of his late career,  illustrates the tale of Icarus, the son of Daedalus who ignored his father’s warning and with wax wings flew too close to the sun. Matisse masterfully captured Icarus’ fall through the sky to the sea.

Courtney might know I have a ‘thing” for Greek mythology (re)interpreted in art and literature. Here are a few Icarus poems worth reading:

I think I’ll write a poem this weekend that recasts the story of Icarus in my own way. I already have a title, “Fly, Baby, Fly.”  I’ll include it in my reply to Court.