A Few Memorable Reads from 2021

If I were to settle on the one book that I found most satisfying to read this past year, it would be Circe by Madeline Miller. When I finished it, I wanted instantly to call Lindsey so we could talk about it. And then I scrabbled around in my head, thinking, who should I give it to next? Circe now is in my other daughter’s queue. For those looking for a fresh (subversive) take on a peripheral character of Homer’s The Odyssey, I give this book my highest endorsement. (And this is coming from someone who has never even dabbled in greek mythology.) As I’m sure others have done when they finish a book that leaves them thirsting for more, I launched eagerly into another of Miller’s greek myths, The Song of Achilles (which was published in 2012, and, of course, endorsed on the cover of Circe). Loved that one, too!

It only seems fitting that I include a link to the indie bookstore where I bought Circe: https://www.waterstreetbooks.com/book/9780316556323

Here are just a couple other good reads, neither of which are new releases, but well worth your trip to the library:

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2019. The granular details of the 30-year struggle for peace in Northern Ireland (ending as recently as 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday accord) impress upon the reader the complexities and fraught realities of life in the region, particularly Belfast. As fascinating as this account is of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, not to be overlooked is the story behind the story, the controversial interviews that took place with key members of the IRA. Boston College’s Belfast Project became the focal point of an international court case as the two sides fought over control of the cache of interview tapes, the secrecy of which was promised by BC. I assure you, as soon as you finish the book, you’ll be online in a flash, trying to find out all you can about the “rest of the story.” Start by googling “Boston Tapes”.

The Immortal Irishman, the Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan, 2016. When my brother-in-law Tom recommended this book to me, I knew it would be captivating because there are few books that can grab and hold his interest for the duration. My other motivation had to do with a discovery I had made about one of my Uncle Jimmy’s Irish relatives; Se´an MacDiarmada, a possible second cousin of his father, was one of the seven signatories of the Easter Rising of 1916, all of whom were executed for their role in the insurrection.

The Immortal Irishman follows the inspiring life of Thomas Francis Meagher from his privileged beginnings in Waterford City to his participation in the Rebellion of 1848 to his life sentence on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Australia, and his escape from there to the United States. You’ll follow with rapt interest his exploits as the gritty leader of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, at every turn asking yourself, “How did he survive that?” His is a remarkable story, and Egan does him full justice in his methodically researched and even-paced narrative.

As you can see, my interest cleaves to 19th and 20th century Irish history, and that’s no accident. On nearly every branch of my family tree, my ancestors immigrated from counties all over Ireland — Donegal, Galway, Waterford, Clare, Monaghan, Cork, Kilkenny — to this country either during the Great Famine or a generation later. It’s natural to want to understand the lifestyle of our forebears and their reasons for leaving home. . . for good.

I’m curious to know what books have captured your interest in 2021. Any common elements or particular motifs?

My Favorite Book: the Evolution of a Bibliophile

Depending on when you ask me, the mood I’m in, I’m apt to give you a different answer to the question, “What was your favorite children’s book?” Sometimes I might answer, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The full title is actually A Little Princess, Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Being Told for the First Time). Other times, I’ll say Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It surprises me, then, that I’m now casting the exercise in a different light. If I tried to resurrect the good feelings that surrounded the experience, I would have a hard time saying which one made me feel the best. Memory plays tricks, especially if the experience is weighted with emotion. 

I’m doing just that right now — resurrecting the early emotional experiences of reading — and trying to dissect how I felt in the moment.  I read Misty several times; what made that such an enjoyable read was its ability to allow me to imagine myself owning a pony. . . that I would have bought at Pony Penning Day. It’s a common fantasy for little girls, and I fell hard in my pony yearning. It would last until I fell hard for boys.

Misty was, I believe, as much about the illustrations as the story. Maybe even more. Years later, the name of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, would come more readily to mind than the author’s name. I began to search for books that he illustrated, finding that he regularly did the artwork for Henry. I enjoyed those other stories, including The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but not as much as Misty

While I’m pretty certain that I bought Misty at one of those Scholastic Book Club fairs that schools often had (and still do), the mysterious appearance of A Little Princess serves as an enduring vexation. I loved its story, even more, perhaps, than Misty, and greedily — no matter where I was in my reading — sought out the illustrations, scant as they were. Try as I might, I cannot call to mind where the book came from. Nothing was ever said about it, and because nothing was ever said about it, I concluded that it wasn’t for me to know. But, why wouldn’t the “benefactor” (as I would always view the anonymous person who put it conspicuously in my path) make a show upon presenting it?

Reading A Little Princess was a much different experience from reading Misty. The first time I held the book in my lap, I had shut myself in our upstairs closet. The closet was a favorite hideaway for all of us Morrisseys. It was a roomy space in the eaves between the two upstairs bedrooms. Importantly, it had lighting — a single lightbulb screwed into a porcelain lampholder with a chain pull, within easy reach of the deep cocoon that one could make with the sleeping bags and blankets. Surrounding my nest were army cots, Christmas decorations, boxes of photos and other items either permanently forgotten or relegated to uncertain status. The closet had a door. I was only seven years old, but even then I understood the value of solitude and privacy.

 My pleasure in reading A Little Princess was intimate, private, and solitary. One might say it was transformative. It was the first time that I could truly feel I was escaping, not just my family, but my tiny life. I lost myself in the story; it defined for me — for all time — the chief purpose of books, that is, to imagine oneself in another place, another time, and in different circumstances. It wasn’t as if, at age seven, I was weighed down with fearsome burdens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that I discovered for the first time that books offered magical alternatives, and, yes, temporary escape. Who wouldn’t love that, no matter what your life was like?

Nowadays, I typically have two, three, sometimes four books going simultaneously.* Even if I’m reading nonfiction, there’s a need to consider how the topic might tie into my life. It’s never remote or static. When I’m reading about specific moments in World War II, for example, I ask myself, how would my life be impacted if I were, say, a Frenchwoman living in Paris when Germany invaded the city in May of 1940? Teasing out that thought allows me to conclude that many residents — especially single women — found their options to be especially difficult. I can better appreciate their conflicted feelings about collaborating with the Nazis. If you’re starving or afraid, your unfortunate decisions are thus shaped. 

That’s merely one example of how books can shape our thinking, broaden our understanding of the world. Whether it be fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, etc., in some sense we are all looking to be transported. And although a return to a much earlier favorite might not produce the same feelings — in fact, it likely will not because our adult needs are far removed from those of our childhood years — we never stop seeking opportunities to deflect our current worries and to occupy our minds with more pleasant alternatives. 

*I should point out that although I read a lot, my brain often does a vigorous scrubbing; i.e., I’m apt to forget what I’ve read just as soon as I put the book aside.

Question for my readers: Can you think of books that, as a child or even now as an adult, you found transformative or influential? 

Massachusetts Birders Flock to See the Rare Steller’s Sea Eagle

Imagine being lost for a year and a half, desperately trying to get back on the path to home, which might be as much as 4700 miles away. You try one direction and it lands you in Alaska, you try another, and you’re possibly in Texas, then Quebec, then Nova Scotia, then Massachusetts, specifically the lower Taunton River. You’re alone, the only one of your species; the best you can hope for to meet your social needs is a similar predator species, such as the bald eagle. 

Birders all over the country are hyperventilating over the random appearance of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, native to coastal China and eastern Russia, and considered one of the world’s largest raptors. It lost its way mid-2020 through what is called vagrancy. There are a couple of primary reasons why vagrancy occurs. Often, a bird will make a navigational error, which doesn’t inspire quite as much sympathy as the other reason why vagrancy occurs, that is, extreme weather. Scientists are happy to point out the upside of vagrancy, despite birds’ own wishes not to be affixed with the “vagrant” label. With natural habitats becoming altered through climate change, accidental transport sometimes allows for a species to test out a new territory.  

It saddens me that this one remarkable bird — to even see pictures of it inspires awe with its splendid markings and enormous wingspan — is so obviously and desperately trying to find the way home. . . alone. We’re all pulling for him (or her), hopeful that with all this crisscrossing of our continent, the right path will be stumbled upon (or flown onto). 

This is a great site, kept fresh and interesting by birdwatchers who report on bird sightings: https://ebird.org/species/stseag

Sacrificing Family Gatherings to a Wily Virus

Bowie and Mona demonstrate the importance of family

The COVID scare has certainly altered our social behaviors, and no one knows how permanent these changes will be. Not all of the changes are bad, however; they just require more reflection and deliberate choices. For example, in the past, we might have comfortably crowded people in front of us in lines, or squandered time studying labels in a grocery store or the advertised features on boxes, bottles, and what have you. We’re more mindful these days, I believe, of the quality of our time spent around others. We’ve been forced to prioritize our moments in public. It seems that everyone I know has arrived at a similar juncture; we’re all sacrificing certain pleasures  in order to maintain some normalcy where it concerns the most important occasions or experiences.

To a heightened degree, all of us are weighing our options, with the hope that our sacrifices will result in reduced risk to our health and the health of those about whom we care most. Our family decided for the second year in a row to forfeit our Christmas Eve gathering, a tradition we have honored — unwaveringly — for several decades. While I tend to think we all were on board with that decision — as COVID cases rise once again, there’s a sense of mounting anxiety, not just about wellbeing, but the fear that a pattern is emerging because of this highly transmissible virus, and we might never extricate ourselves from this predicament. What does that mean for family gatherings? How long can we collectively hold our breath, in hopes that we prevail over COVID (in all of its mutations)? And how many of us are worrying that our sacrifices will fail to save these important traditions, that they’ll be lost forever?

Every family out there must be fretting about the fate of their traditional gatherings. With all the sacrificing that people are doing, it seems a line in the sand has been drawn. Some things shouldn’t have to be sacrificed. I don’t hesitate for an instant in making a choice between a concert and my family’s Christmas Eve event. Or a Bruins game and a week camping with my sister’s family. Wherever things stand a year hence, I resolve to no longer surrender the moments that make life worth living.

What are the sacrifices that all of you have been forced to make in order to (hopefully) propel yourself and others to a safer plateau?

Planned Obsolescence Is Not an L.L. Bean Principle

 This is a love story about an L.L. Bean fleece vest. Now, here’s what you need to know. I’ve worn the vest every day for the last fourteen days, no exceptions. In fact, I’m wearing it as I write this post.

Now, if I didn’t also include the small detail – that I’ve washed it three or four times – you might think, ew, that’s just gross, instead of getting my real point, which is that I have found an article of clothing that, having survived several trips through both the washer and dryer, I love, or, better said, I still love. That hasn’t happened in so long, and it’s usually because once I put something into the washer and then dryer, it comes out as something other than what I put in, something decidedly not good. And that makes me angry because I view it as a breach of contract. Never mind that the washing instructions might say, “hand wash only” and “hang dry”.  I think they put that on just about everything these days to let them off the hook. The liberal and, in my mind, excessive use of labels like this is designed to convince you that all clothing is a giant gamble.  Have you noticed that labels are now sewn into seams in batches of ten or more to cover all languages? And, do you find yourself standing in front of your washing machine and squinting at the tiny icons, saying to yourself, That “X” is either telling me I can’t put this in the washer, or I can’t put this in the dryer, or it’s not microwavable.” Discouraged thus, you throw it in and follow with a Fuck it. (Be especially suspicious if a label says, “dry flat”, because that’s an indication that the item was constructed by garment workers in the midst of a New Year’s Eve celebration and they expect it to either emerge from the washing machine as something entirely unrecognizable or in no fewer than a dozen pieces.)  Sad to say, the expected shelf life of clothing these days has been reduced to about the same length of time one can expect fresh raspberries to stay. . . well. . . fresh.  The most maddening thing is that clothing manufacturers go about their business with deliberate, planned obsolescence as a key part of their model. I think, as proper punishment (or poetic justice) they all should be made to wear their own constructions after three washes*.

People who study fashion, especially from a historical perspective, are quick to point out that in the 60’s and 70’s clothing was made to last for several seasons. I’m not sure, but “several seasons” probably meant three. If we’re looking for a much more dramatic comparison, I invite you to consider how clothing was viewed in colonial times; one’s last will and testament very likely included language to assure that the testator’s one wool greatcoat and homespun breeches went to son Ezekiel or close friend Isaac. They weren’t taking any chances with their priceless “waring apparil”. 

Consider, also, the status of closets in relationship to other rooms in colonial era houses.  While all rooms at that time would be classified as utilitarian, i.e., there were no pointless foyers that wasted space, or sitting rooms – who had time for that anyway?, closets were the quintessential multi-purpose room, serving a variety of purposes (but perhaps not all at the same time): for conducting business (not necessarily “that kind”, but business business), dressing, praying, freshening up with a water basin, and, yes, for conducting “that kind” of business, too. These types of closets were larger than the rarer clothes closets. So, the obvious reason as to why 18th and 19th century homes, even the nice ones, did not have clothes closets is because, as alluded to before, they didn’t have much in the way of clothing. 

It’s probably unimaginable to 21st century trendsetters, but three and four centuries ago, “fashionable” could be used to describe something that had been enjoying decades of “on trend” standing. There was a much longer trajectory from “conception to reality”, which can be better understood by taking a peek at a typical New Englander’s daily planner; instead of having quilled “school shopping”,   Ezekiel’s parents likely entered a reminder to self to  “shear sheep”, followed the next day by “clean wool”, followed the next by “card wool”, and so forth. Or maybe the notation was, “trade yrlng** for Asa’s 2nd jerkin***”. When you illuminate more broadly the historical context, it’s much easier to understand and appreciate the relationship that people had with their possessions.

Today’s habits paint a very different picture of our relationship with clothing and accessories.  We are apt to assess our mood first before we reach for any one article; “What am I feeling today?”, we think aloud before we reach for the cream colored, slouchy, cotton/poly blend, waffle-textured, high-low sweater, and the frayed hem, distressed look, boyfriend jeans. But then we waver, “Maybe I should wear that coppery colored, high-waisted, pleated corduroy skirt that I bought on sale last month.” Our thoughts about clothing contradict our behaviors; we can refer to a sweater as our favorite, and love-love-love it, but it’s likely to be in a bag destined for the Goodwill drop-off center before the very next season. And while my advice might be to never get too attached to an article of clothing, the world can be a cold and unfriendly place if we don’t indulge in some of those feel-good moments that happen – even if rarely – when, for example, an ensemble not only feels right, but fits perfectly, too, or even when we wiggle into a new pair of tights and make the happy discovery that they fit everywhere and there are no baggy ankles and we haven’t ripped them the very first time out of the package. It’s enough to make us skip around or dance in those tights in our walk-in closet. 

On the rare occasion when we stumble on an article of clothing that exceeds our much reduced expectations, it is indeed a cause for celebration. In my case, the celebration has taken the form of repeat usage. It’s not that I set out to see if I could find the breaking point of this one L.L. Bean fleece vest. I just happen to love how it feels. It’s so cozy and warm. I don’t find it impossible to believe that everyone has at least one item that’s their “go to”, one item that inspires warm and/or hopeful thoughts when they reach for it. These objects of our affection – the well-worn cap that invariably sits on a fisherman’s head when he goes out in his boat, or the Ugg slippers that would be worn to bed if the wearer could get away with it – become important talismans. While it’s highly unlikely that anyone in this day and age will puzzle over the wording of their last will and testament to assure the fate of their favorite baseball cap or L.L. Bean fleece vest, having such an attachment is of the most innocuous sort. Even if life expectancy (of the item in question) is reduced, as surely it must be, I say, Go for it!  Wear it fourteen days in a row! You can always throw it in the washing machine (unless, of course, that vexing label says it’s hand wash.)

* unless we’re talking about the jean jacket, which evidence suggests has been around since colonial times, and can take any manner of abuse and still look as good as the day it was woven. . . on a loom.

**yearling

*** Ezekiel’s uncle Asa operates the village’s only tannery behind his house on the west end, appropriately located just downwind of the last homestead.

Hello from over here!

My blog, now more than ten years old, has moved to this new location. I’m poking around to see what this new home is all about, and exploring fresh ideas to make it perfect. I hope I can depend on your patience as I (boldly?) experiment with aesthetics and new ways of presentation. It’s an opportunity, too, to break away from habits that haven’t done anything worth keeping, either for you or for me.

If you’re a new visitor or follower, here’s what you can expect to find. When I was a high school classroom teacher, I was forever finding opportunities to tell my students stories, often about growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s next to a maximum security prison. Always there would be a point, sometimes subtly delivered, but educators never willingly forfeit a teachable moment. Chaos could be reigning, and all I needed to say (in nothing more than a conversational tone) to instantly grab their attention was, “Let me tell you a story. . . ” So, for decades, I’ve been telling stories, often in the oral tradition. Now blessed with an abundance of free time in my retirement, my brain has a chance to focus on my stories and luxuriate in the details. I’m enjoying this new sense of wonder that I bring to the effort. In short, this is all about my evolution as a writer. “Becoming a writer”, I find, is no easy thing. Just as there were countless acronyms and industry-specific expressions to learn when I entered the field of education, writing has its own lexicon. And best practices. And communities, some of which embrace new members warmly, but others of which who have forgotten what it’s like to be a novitiate (not in the religious sense), and get all smug and cold-shouldery.

One of the first lessons I have learned in my new endeavor is that “fresh new voice” often doesn’t include a second career baby boomer who fits into a majority classification. I get that, and I support organizations that are trying to bring understanding and fairness to the realm. It hurts, however, that my pieces might not be welcome, or that my ideas might be irrelevant for today’s conversations. At least, that’s what I fear.

All of my topics are nestled beneath an umbrella that encompasses my evolution as a writer. The particular topics that I prefer to write about include: my large, vocal family of Irish American heritage, genealogical discoveries within that same sphere, local history, my two capering canines, insights from my years as an educator, and commentary on what’s going on in the world. I have lots to share, lots to say, and I hope you’ll be just as eager to join the conversation. Maybe even coax me along so that I feel confident when I say that I’m a writer.

Let the adventure begin!