Monday, October 22, 2018

October features eulogies...

Taking the long way home.

My speech classes have moved on to Storytelling 101, my personal favorite. They are ready, prepared, and having a great time. I love watching them on the stage emerge as lovely butterflies from the chrysalis on the first day with total stage fright. Now they calmly take the stage, look the audience over and begin. In just a few weeks, they will be ready to take on the world, or at least give elegant speeches in their other classes!

The students wind their way through this course slowly, cautiously with one speech at a time. The value of rhetoric, persuasion, and good old-fashioned power point conclusive speeches are also on the perimeter.

A week ago, we finished acceptance speeches and eulogies. One is easy. One is hard. “You will give eulogies one day,” I say to them. My Arabic students are baffled by this concept, as they do not give these types of talks. “But,” I say, “you tell stories of your loved ones after they die, don’t you?” They nod in the affirmative. 

I let them be clever, should they choose, on their eulogies. Some take me up on it by eulogizing their alarm clocks or their first-purchased fair goldfish. One student, a few years ago, gave my eulogy. When he started out, I began to think to myself, “Well, I would like to know her.” And then, in another moment I knew who she was. It was alarming and lovely all at the same time. Eulogies never point out the faults of the deceased, as you well know. They always accentuate the positive!
When giving these eulogies, I keep a box of Kleenexes next to my chair. We have used them often. Once a student gave a eulogy for his newly deceased father…not a dry eye in the house. Sometimes we are stunned and just sit and let it sink in before we move on. Sometimes everyone gets up to hug the student. I guess I could sum this all up in one word, compassion. A eulogy for a lost childhood once sent me over the edge. 

Many tell stories of their grandparents. I love those the most probably because that is who I am. Their memories are strong and clear depicting the senses in strong ways for me…baking cookies, raking leaves, celebrating birthdays, sitting in church. My own imagination quickly goes back to my grandmother Luella. She left us many years ago, but I think of her daily. I write about her often, as you well know, using her red plates, sleeping under her hand-stitched quilts, listening to her daily Bible readings. She was the best blue-ribboned  cook, too!

 I want these children of mine to remember me in that way also. I want them to remember the early morning poetry reads, and the nights we watched the moon slide across the sky.

I want my eulogy to say she was a mother, a grandmother, a neighbor, a friend, a community member, a teacher, a writer, a storyteller, a thinker and she was funny. I also want it to say she was concerned about the world, and she loved deeply.  The poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote, “I don't want to end up having simply visited this world.” No, let’s not just visit.

This week I, along with hundreds of others, sat through an hour of eulogies for our colleague. It was elegant. We wept. We laughed. We hugged each other. We remembered. We loved her.

For a month, I have been watching “Charlotte” out my kitchen window. She really was the biggest spider that has ever took up residence on my windowpane. Day after day, she worked although I am not exactly sure of her occupation. I truthfully do not know what she did every day, but she was there to greet me in the morning and wish me happiness. Then one day she disappeared, and when I went to look for her, I found her egg sack attached to my windowsill waiting for spring. She left us her own legacy. I actually cried watching out my kitchen window.

My students learned about themselves more than they realized in giving eulogies last week. Now they have moved on to stories. Do they also realize how stories shape and teach us? They tell Poe and the Grimm brothers, and scary stories for the campfire. One young student said, “This is how my grandma told the story to me.”

And that, my friends, is all there is to that.

This column was first published in KPC Publishing Company.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Frankenfest and Mary Shelly, of course!

The rain falls with the first cold dampness of the season. I shut off the lights, light a lantern and pick up a pencil. With my eyes shut night, so tight that red blood vessels seem to pop inside my eyelids, I see her. 

I see her young, smooth hands quickly race over the tattered notebook with her pencil. I see her pick up the pencil and put it behind her red hair or between her teeth as she searches for the next line, the next thought, the next image. She does not smile as she writes. There really is nothing to make her smile. Her mother died during her own birth. Her father disowned her after leaving home with a married man to have her own relationship. The baby she carried in the womb, as she traveled by foot and by donkey from Paris to Switzerland, is buried somewhere in Europe. The man she loves disappears from time to time. Her mind is too advanced for her time, especially for young women. She cares not for frocks nor frivolous trinkets; instead, she carries books of chemistry and German poetry.

Her name is Mary Shelley, as you might have guessed. She has lived with me for over a year and a day, and every day I am amazed by her.

When Carolyn and I headed down to Indianapolis for the Indiana Humanities “Frankenfest” event, we had absolutely no idea we would come back with a year of study, activities, and adventure ahead of us. I guess one could say that often life simply chooses for oneself, and that is the case here.

One week from today is our own version of Frankenfest, and if you have not heard about it by now, well, then, you are hearing about it now! Starting at 9:00 at Cahoots Coffee Shop, we (not specifically me and Carolyn, but community members) will be reading the entire text of “Frankenstein” from beginning to end, which should be around 5:30 or so. Stop by, have tea, follow along, let your children color while they listen. At 10:00, you and your family can participate in the Franken-Walk beginning at Selman Timber Frame. Wouldn’t it be fun to dress up for that one? The Cline Museum will host a meet the characters at noon with lots of interesting talks and pop-ups spread through the museum. (And, yes, you can access the museum by way of Gilmore Street, just follow the signs.) Back in town, almost every shop is having a special event from making your own green fingernail polish to cookies to filling out passports for buttons and other surprises.
Trine University is also participating with a showing of the film, “Mary Shelley,” on Thursday evening at 7:00 in Fabiani Theatre! My own show of “Mary and Her Monsters” will have a two evening run on October 12 and 19 in Wells Theatre. Jacob McNeal will be joining me in this one-hour fringe performance beginning at 7:00. Please come early, as seating is limited. 

So, you have not read “Frankenstein” yet? There is still time, and if not, you know of the book and the enjoyment of the day will not be diminished.

I want to tell all of you this year has been a year of great learning. Someone asked me the other day, “Why did you do this?” I had to laugh…I had no choice. I had no choice. 

A young girl full of her own grief and monsters wrote “Frankenstein”. Her story is as riveting as anything anyone could write. I felt I had to tell her story. As for Frankenfest and why did we do that? Carolyn and I both would attest to the knowledge that we live with our own monsters among us. What have we built, made, colluded on in our time that has turned into a monster without us knowing or planning it. This book is as important to our current culture just as much as it was during the life of Mary Shelley.

We encourage you to participate. Come say hello. Paint your nails green. Listen to a chapter of two. See a pop up on the role barbers played during this time. Stop in at the library for games and to look at all the creative artists in our area.
Sadly, Frankenfest will happen only once! 

As for me? I am sure Mary Shelley, and all her stories, will live parallel with me as long as we both shall live.

Lou Ann as Mary Shelly

Sunday, October 07, 2018

A stroll through my garden...

Photo credit by Kumico Kim
The Autumn garden stroll has begun. I put on my tall water-proof boots alive with color, and head out in the early morning. The dew is thick as I saunter through the gardens. This walk is different from the spring and summer walks, it is the beginning of the ending garden walks. 

Colors of gold, burgundy, and deep orange are now the norm as I go from bed to bed. Chrysanthemums are rich in foliage and fill the vases in my house as well as the garden perfuming each inch of this old house. The summer sunflowers are heavy with seeds and are already in use by the blue jays. 

The potatoes have long been ready, yet wait for my gardener’s spade to pull them up. Perhaps today as my curiosity cannot wait any longer to see how well they grew down under the ground.

The grass is littered with leaves from the old maple tree, which is the crowning jewel of my backyard. Soon I will pull out the rake and put those rich jewels onto the tops of my flower and garden beds. I only wish we could still burn leaves as my sensory memory aches for the smell of burning leaves. Hopefully a drive through the country will satisfy that on a late fall afternoon.

It is chilly. Not cold enough for the heat to come on, but that chilly refreshing feel of adding an extra blanket and the flannel sheets. Soon that will be the case. As for now, I add an extra sweatshirt and put the kettle on. With cup in hand, my love for gardens extends cross the miles and I remember other gardens. My grandma’s gardens rich in flowers and raspberries and acres of green beans. My own farm garden with rich land and space to plant anything and everything, and I did. However, on this morning I am remembering another garden.

I arrived early. My arrival time was to be 9:00 a.m., but the taxi was quicker than I thought and I found myself wandering around at 8:30 in the morning. There were small lights on inside the house, but I simply sat on the front porch. I remember being chilly as we were deep into the heart of Autumn so I decided to take a stroll through the dew-filled gardens. They were similar to mine…chrysanthemums, marigolds, asters. By 9:00 I was back at the house and I promptly knocked. I was expected. I was invited. The door opened wide and two women opened the door. I stepped over the threshold and burst into tears. This was no ordinary house. This was no ordinary garden. It was the home of Emily Dickinson in the heart of Amherst, Massachusetts. 

I was not there because someone had sent me or I was preparing a research paper, but I was there because I had to be there. The women were a bit surprised by my outburst of tears, but told me it does happen occasionally.
This lovely day did not happen without great research, however. I spent over two years reading all of her poetry, reading everything she read, and reading as much as I could about her! (This is how I do all my own research!) Therefore, I was prepared with questions and possibilities. The docents let me lower her basket out of her bedroom window. The basket that once held gingerbread for the neighborhood children. They would reward her in return with small notes and flowers. They let me sit up on the landing where Emily sat watching and listening to company when she did not go downstairs. I sat on the same stoop, but the docents said they could see me. I was confused. Emily said no one could see her. Then we realized the house had been electrified, and with the lights out, I was invisible.

I followed the pathway of her coffin down the hallway, out the back door, into the alley, and into the graveyard. I knelt by her tombstone that simply says, “Called Back.”

One last stroll through the gardens with the part time gardener. He told me about great plans to resurrect her orchard and other newly discovered flowers. He leaned again the hoe on that late day in Autumn reciting poetry to me. 

“Besides the autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze.”

Yes, indeed, it is Autumn in your garden, and in mine. 

(This column was first published in last week's KPC.)