research, This Day in History, Writing

Ellis Island closes its doors, November 12, 1954

Arrival at Ellis Island, courtesy of
On this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, although it had not been the federal immigration center for 30 years.  From 1892 to 1924, immigrants to the United States through New York harbour had filed through its corridors, been checked for infectious diseases and mental problems; and then, if lucky, were released into the streets of New York.
When I thought of Ellis Island in the past, I always assumed that several of the Mitchells, Russells, Kanes, and other members of my father’s family came through this facility.  When I read that the facility was only open from 1892-1924, I realized that only one of my relatives would have come through its doors. Reading through This Day in History, I realized how little I knew about this icon of immigrant life. I was further surprised that Ellis Island only processed the third-class passengers; first- and second-class passengers disembarked at piers in New York or New Jersey to go through customs after a brief on-board inspection. Those at Ellis Island really were “the huddled masses.”
The Grand Hall, courtesy of
I have not visited the Ellis Island museum, although I suspect walking through it would give rise to hundreds of stories. I cannot imagine waiting in the grand hall for hours, much less the days or weeks it would take before a family member was released from quarantine.  These photographs are taken from the tour on Scholastic’s teachers site; although the text is for 4th- or 5th- graders, and rightly so, the pictures are powerful in themselves.
It is very strange to think that only my paternal grandmother went through Ellis Island; to be honest, I am not even sure of that, although it seems likely.  The early life of my grandmother is largely unknown, which seems odd in modern times. Last week, the social worker who is helping my parents with assisted living asked my three siblings and myself for the history of my grandparents.  I was appalled at how little we knew about my paternal grandmother. The historical record is all too brief, and honestly, seems to have a bit of the Irish blarney attached to it.

One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone.  She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her.  She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish).  The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.

I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh?  If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it?  Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress?  And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?

According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life.  How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?

Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived.  I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person.  My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.

Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?

goals, life, Writing

Life goals

Several months ago, when I stumbled across the Life List Club, I started thinking about how I have been driving on ice through life. For the Southerners among you, I will explain that driving on ice is simply impossible, unlike driving on snow, which is a pain, but usually manageable. Driving on ice means that turning the wheel often has no effect on the inertia of this 1-2,000 pound car, which merrily continues  in the same direction, whether that be into a guardrail, a parked vehicle, or a pond. In fact, when driving on ice, not turning the wheel is not the safe option it seems, because the tires may hit a little ruffle in the ice, or a ridge left by a snowplow, or any slight inconsistency, and also take off like a dog after a squirrel: perhaps a very old, very slow, dog, but just as intent and purposeful. I very much dislike ice. I have fallen on ice many, many times; in three cases, I broke bones; in a fourth, I dislocated my shoulder.

I went to graduate school to become a professor, but it became clear as I was planning my dissertation there were no positions in medieval studies.  I went to library school, and then proceeded to join the working world. The problem? I have missed teaching and research and writing. Also, part of why I wanted to teach included (perhaps incorrectly, since I hear complaints from my friends who are professors) having the time to write creative fiction and non-fiction that didn’t require twenty footnotes a page.

But I stuck my head in the sand, barely touching the wheel of the car, praying that it wouldn’t careen into the guardrail or a parked car. Last year, my first wake-up call came when my brother had a serious illness. I began thinking about my life, and why I was hiding from what I wanted to do. The second wake-up call came this summer when a woman I knew only online was killed in an auto accident. I had never met her, but in a way some of you will understand, felt I knew her rather well, She was young, had married the year before, and was a doctor who went to Pakistan to help out following the floods, had gone to Haiti to help after the earthquakes, a person whom I admired greatly. Suddenly, I realized that I was pinning all my writing time on retirement, and that life had given me no guarantees that I would survive to reach retirement.

Many participants in the Round of Words have been talking about life goals, beyond the writing goals. I signed up for a webinar on finding time to write; the presenter talked about having five areas that were of paramount importance and one would answer yes to any request from these areas. Other areas had to fit in where they could, or more often, get told “No.” My first four were easy: health, family, friends, and writing. Not to say that I haven’t neglected these areas recently, especially friends, but they were easily in the top five. The fifth one is much harder to add to the list, because it is the day job. I am often expected to be on call in the evenings and on days off or vacations any time my superiors want me. No, I’m not a neurologist, I’m a librarian. Yes, it is ridiculous, so please go ahead and laugh. As a first step, I would love to have a job that I could leave at the workplace; one where I am not made to feel guilty for each and every day that I take off (yes, I earn vacation, but the corporate culture is to retire with months of it saved up). However,  the best I can do right now is say no as much as I can without jeopardizing my job.

So, I haven’t yet made SMART goals (for the definition of those, see Kait Nolan’s post here), but I do have some idea of where I am headed.

My first area is health. I feel slightly guilty about putting this first, as it is all about me, but I also realize that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. I gained weight when I shattered both my tibia and fibula fourteen years ago and was confined to a wheelchair for several months; given the amount of time I’ve been heavy, it will take some time to come off. I have about fifty pounds to lose; I am hoping to lose between a half-pound and a pound per week through exercising at least forty-five minutes a day and careful meal planning. I tend to eat when I’m stressed, so I hope to transfer my stress relief from food to exercise.

My second area is family. I realized during this last trip that I like my kids (what a concept!) and that I need to have more contact with them.  I tend to withdraw from people, even family, when I am stressed or depressed. I had a strange and unhappy childhood, so I grew up as this strange, withdrawn child. I forget sometimes that I worked very hard not to pass that on to my children. I plan to be in contact with each of the four kids at least once a week, even if only a short text conversation. I am also going to devote one weekend evening to a date night with my husband.  We started out as great friends, and while we still are very close, we are so used to looking at one another over a row of kids, we need to get re-acquainted.

The third area is friends. I am a terrible friend, more so as I come under stress or during bad times. As I was a strange, withdrawn child, I had a lot of trouble making friends, and found rejection hard to bear. In the strange logic of the preemptive strike, I hide from my friends at the times I need them the most, so as not to be rejected. This leads to my not knowing what may be going on with them, not offering any help or support, purely out of ignorance. I plan to get in touch with one friend each week until I’ve re-established contact, and can maintain more contact. Depending on the closeness of the friend and our respective circumstances, I will keep in touch anywhere from once a week to once a month.

The fourth area is writing. Ah, this is the tricky one. I have sacrificed my creative writing, whether non-fiction or fiction, ripping out its heart to put on the altar of keeping the day job. However, I am not going to spend as many hours on the day job as I have in the past, so that I have more time for my writing. I will spend one and one-half hours on the articles I have to write, and one half-hour a day on my writing. It will be painfully slow, but it will be more progress than I have managed in the past several months. I mentioned in an earlier check-in that I had fallen in love with the dissertation topic again; it is bittersweet that I have done so, because it has to take a back seat to the articles; however, I am going to work on the dissertation one half-hour a day.

My fifth area is the day job. I cannot change it, but I can change my attitude. Thank you, Marcia Richards for a great guest post on  Lyn Midnight’s blog for that. My goal is to be as available as I have to be, and as unavailable as I can manage. I removed my work email from my phone; I will no longer answer the phone at home on the weekends if it is a call about work. Like all of my colleagues, I do the majority of my service and research requirements on my own time, and that is more than enough to ask. I do a very good job, but what I do is neither brain surgery nor rocket science, and I will not work 50 to 60 hours a week in addition to service and research.

So, here are my goals. I’m hoping to fold several of these into the Round of Words challenge, so that I will hold myself accountable for them.

literary post of the week, medieval, research, Writing

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431) was a peripheral member of the French king Charles VI’s court who wrote prolifically, producing 39 works from 1390 to 1431. Not confining herself to the traditionally feminine topics of health remedies, midwifery, and home management, Christine wrote about whatever piqued her wide-ranging interests:  the art of warfare, the evils of civil war, and a biography of Charles V, commissioned by his brother, Jean, Duke of Burgundy. Several of her works found favor with many of the royal house and were dedicated to Louis d’Orleans, Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy and Isabeau de Baviere, among others. Nobles and merchants alike read Christine’s works avidly until the early seventeenth century.

After a period of obscurity, which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, scholars rediscovered Christine for her part in the “Querelle de la rose,” a debate in which she criticized Jean de Meun’s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose for the character Genius’ use of “coillions,” a vulgarism for male genitalia as well as de Meun’s graphic depiction of the hero’s sexual attainment and impregnation of the heroine in the closing lines of the Roman. Jean de Montreuil, with Gontier and Pierre Col, prominent French scholars and defenders of Jean de Meun, harshly criticized Christine for her effrontery in maligning the masterpiece. Joined by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, Christine renewed the debate in another series of letters, to which the defenders responded. They attacked Christine saying that she could not possibly understand the depth of the work with her small female mind, that she should remain quiet, and leave interpreting literature to the men.

Who was this woman who dared to argue with some of most influential intellectuals of her time? Christine was born in Venice to Tomasso de Pizzano, a graduate of the university in Bologna. Charles V of France hired Tomasso as his astrologer; in 1369, Tomasso brought his wife and young daughter, Christine to Paris. Although Tomasso taught Christine much about science, philosophy, and Latin, which is more than most women of her time learned, she laments that she did not learn more from her father, such as Greek, and that custom decreed that she learn more about spinning than about science (L’avision 161-162;  Cité II:36:4; Mutacion 1:413-419).

In 1379, at age fifteen, Christine married Estienne du Castel, a court secretary. Their marriage seems to have been unusual, not only because they had a real affection for one another, but because Christine shared Estienne’s work, also working as a copyist at the court. However, Christine’s happy married life was short-lived. Her father died about 1387, shifting the support of her mother and two younger brothers to Christine. In the fall of 1390, Estienne died of a fever while traveling with the court. At age twenty-five, Christine became the sole support for her three young children, as well as her mother; some accounts include a niece as well. Both Tomasso’s and Estienne’s legacies were in dispute; Christine spent fourteen years fighting in the law courts over their debts and past wages. During this period, Christine began to study, while writing love poems and confessional poetry, for which she received patronage from various members of the royal family.  After several years of study, Christine began to write her longer prose works of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, and histories.

Drawing on her background as a copyist, Christine started a publishing house or copyist shop, employing several copyists and illuminators. Two of her illuminators became known by the titles of her works they embellished: one is the Othéa Master; the other is the Cité des dames Master (Meiss 9, 12)  As Christine weathered the lawsuits and became more proficient at running her shop, she came to feel that in some ways she was becoming a man. She describes this transformation in Mutacion de Fortune in an autobiographical digression. Lines 1332-1397. Proud of her Italian heritage, Christine often describes herself as “une Italienne,” footnote?  She maintained her fluency and interest in Italian language and literature, and was instrumental in bringing knowledge of Dante’s works to France[1].

[1] “Di santo sdegno similmente accendevasi quella valentissima donna a cui appartiene il vanto d’aver rivelato Dante alla Francia, Christine de Pisan.”Farinelli, Arturo. Dante e la Francia: dall’età media al secolo di Voltaire.” Genève : Slatkine, 1971, reimpression de l’edition de Milan, 1908., v. 1, pp.150-151.

book of days, book review, literary post of the week, research, Writing

Gone with the WInd

On August 16, 1949, Margaret Mitchell died from injuries sustained when she was struck by a taxicab in Atlanta, Georgia. Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her only novel published during her lifetime, Gone with the Wind (GWTW). Released in the summer of 1936, GWTW had sold a million copies by December. A 2008 Harris Poll rated GWTW the second favorite book of Americans, selling more than 30 million copies at that time. It has been translated into over 40 languages and published in 50 countries. It was smuggled into Nazi-occupied France, where someone caught with it could be shot (1). Nebiy Mekonnen was arrested during Megistu’s Red Terror in Ethiopia. While in prison, he wrote his translation on the only paper available to him, the inner lining paper from cigarette packs. The completed pages were smuggled out in cigarette packs. When he was finally released, He compiled over 3000 lining papers to print his translation. (2)

Despite the popularity of the novel (some would say due to it), academicians dismiss it as conventional and unevenly written. Educators avoid the political morass of its glamorization of slavery and a classist society that deservedly met its end 150 years ago.

While I was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., my family moved to Atlanta when I was 8 weeks old, so I am nearly a native. I read GWTW ensconced in an overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room the summer I was 9 years old. I left that chair for nothing beyond basic necessities for several days. There were many things about it that held me entranced. Scarlett O’Hara had a brash Irish father and a genteel Southern mother, like me; unlike me, she lived in a sprawling house with an upstairs, and had her own room. When Margaret Mitchell wrote about Atlanta, she named streets that I knew, on the way to my father’s office, or down where the Capitol building was. I knew the town she wrote of; I’d walked those streets.

I had heard family stories from the Civil War; how my great-great grandmother had hidden the family silver from Sherman’s men by throwing it in the well; stories of genteel poverty after the War filled my youth. In my innocence, not fully understanding the complexities of Scarlett’s character, I made Katie Scarlett my role model. It didn’t matter that I was a girl; I could still go out and conquer the world, just like she did. I began to voice my opinions, to my genteel mother’s distress, who warned me that boys didn’t like smart girls. I wonder if the popularity of GWTW in war-torn, occupied countries wasn’t due in part to the way Scarlett found a way to survive in such harsh conditions.

It is true that GWTW glamorizes a way of life based on a fundamentally evil concept. I have to agree with Pat Conroy that Mitchell’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan “appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society” (3). Perhaps I am naïve, but I certainly understood that the KKK was not a good group, no matter its description in the novel, and I cannot imagine any other reaction despite Mitchell’s depiction. Even at nine years old, I knew that Atlanta was a different place, and a better place than antebellum Georgia had been.

I would like to say in closing, that if all you know of GWTW is the movie, it is a pale shadow on the novel. At 1,037 pages, it is not a small investment in time or energy. It is not a perfect novel, but the characters have a vibrancy and life that leaps off the page. Despite all the academic training I have undergone in the meantime, I still recapture the glow of possible futures when I open the novel again.

(1) Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett.” The New Yorker. August 31, 1992, pages 87—103 (see page 101).
(2) Huang, Carol. “Tomorrow Is Another Day: An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native Amharic.” The American Scholar. 2006, Volume 75 (Autumn, Issue 4), pages 79—88.
(3) Pat Conroy, Preface to Gone with the Wind, Pocket Books edition.

medieval, research

Lapidary prose, or, what is a lapidary anyway?

The title of this blog comes from the common usage of lapidary, which is a person who polishes gemstones. There is another usage, which is a medieval symbolic compendium about gemstones; my choice of title betrays my bad habit of editing things to death, as well as reflecting my academic background. Although I wrote a master’s thesis on the symbolism of gemstones in two medieval works, not wanting to bore my readers, I looked at Wikipedia to see what it said about lapidaries. I was surprised not to see the meaning of medieval compendium, because there is a pretty good description of bestiaries, which are a medieval symbolic compendium of animals.

Medieval authors and readers loved encyclopedias, catalogs, lists and symbolism; the physical world was a veil over the true meaning of objects and events. Treatises were written to explicate the true meanings of objects in nature. Lapidaries are lists of precious and semi-precious gemstones, giving the physical, medical, and symbolic meanings of each stone. Bestiaries do the same for animals. For some reason, the symbolism of the bestiary has survived the centuries better than its counterpart, the lapidary. The lion as the king of beasts? That concept comes from the 13th century bestiaries. However, who today thinks that amethyst chases away idle thoughts and causes greater understanding? If lapidary symbolism had survived to the present day, every college student in the world would wear amethyst, because it is supposed to keep away drunkenness. In the 21st century, we no longer have the common symbolic system that was taught in the schools and shared by all educated people in the Middle Ages. We do have some common symbols; depending on the context, most readers will understand dawn as new beginnings and hope, and sunset as a decline or death.

Beyond the few symbols that remain from the bestiary and other traditions, the closest symbolic system in our literary past is the language of flowers, popular in the Victorian period, but which still holds sway today. Why do we buy a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day? Because the language of flowers held that the red rose is the symbol of passionate love. There are more examples of the common symbols that all readers understand, but they don’t seem to fit into a standardized system anymore.

I like the idea of a world with more symbolic meaning than what meets the five senses; that sense of there being more to everything is part of what attracted me to medieval literature. Do you think that there are systems that I am just flat out missing? How do we as writers imbue meaning into objects and events?

travel, Writing

Innocent Abroad, or, Why I am not a travel writer

When I was thinking about genre writing a few months ago, my DH suggested that I could do travel writing, because I like description and items of historical interest. I tried to write about the Alachua Sink, an interesting local site, and it was just awful. But then, I remembered that a couple of weeks ago, Anne-Mhairi Simpson asked about jet lag and international travel on her . I gave her the abbreviated version of my flight to London this past February, but I thought I would give the longer version here.

The trip was a long, hard one. DH and I left the house at 3am, as it is a two and a half hour drive to the Orlando airport. About an hour down the road, I realized that I forgot to pack my phone charger. Oh, just lovely; I suppose better that than, oh say, my passport, but I was still irritated at myself. On the way to New York, I had a roughly 5-year-old child kicking my seat for the entire flight; the two plus hours felt like five or six. The mother was oblivious to her child, as is too often the case when children are annoying the stuffing out of a stranger. The Hispanic couple seated next to me argued in fast and furious Spanish the entire time, starting when the husband asked for beer during the beverage service, at 9am, mind. After trying not to listen to his wife screech at him, trying so hard not to understand Spanish, for the next 2 hours, punctuated by the little angel behind me keeping iambic pentameter time with her feet, I could have used a beer myself.

Once on the ground, I searched fruitlessly for the shuttle service between terminals. Who would have thought that the clever (and very small) signs for the “JetTrain” would be for the shuttle? Oh, all right, everyone would, but I plead lack of sleep. When I got to the terminal, I found that I have not quite gotten to the terminal. “Yeah, it’s over there, across the street and down a block or so.” So, I took my very tired, very Floridian self out into the snow (yes, softly falling snow), which thankfully was not sticking but melting immediately.

I arrived in the strangest terminal I’ve ever seen. There was a large common area, like most airline terminals, but over half of it was a café/diner/restaurant; it was very hard to find a seat or power plug (for my newly purchased phone charger) that was not in a café and therefore only open to paying customers. When the gate was finally announced, I wandered over to it, thankful to get away from the oddity of the café-only main lounge.

Once at the gate, I found yet another café; there were four seats for disabled passengers, but I had not yet sunk to the level of limping over to those (and there were no power outlets by them anyway). I broke down and bought myself a sandwich, hungry for the power plug more than the food. Either because this emergency charger is a generic one, or because I was being punished for some unknown karmic act, it took ages to charge the phone enough for it to stop shrilly announcing its need for power anytime I checked. I learned later in London, it takes over 6 hours to charge fully.

I looked around to see that in the back corner of the café was a reader for the boarding passes, in front of double doors. When the call came to board, we all filed through the café to the reader, and through the double doors to find ourselves on a jetway. It was like some Kafkaesque entry into Narnia, “Ha, see! You were in an airport all this time, and we fooled you! Surprise!” I had waited for over eight hours (cheap tickets often have brutal layovers) and just wanted to get going.

Falling into a fitful sleep, I was soon jerked awake when a very large man who was seated in front of me reclined to the point that I felt as though I should wash his hair, or shave him, or something. He shifted about every five to ten minutes, causing the seat to groan aloud at the mistreatment, and to make me fear for my shiny new knee being crushed by the whole thing crashing down upon it. I had weird nightmarish dreams, of which I remember none of the details, but merely the sense of unease and discomfort; I do remember wishing that I would not wake up until we had landed.

Well, I got my wish. I fell asleep with my usual wonderful timing—about an hour before I had to get up. I woke to the flight attendants telling the fellow in front of me to put the seat forward for landing. I was still pretty muzzy, but very happy to be landing. We all filed out of the plane and were directed toward Customs. As I entered the large room, my attention was caught by the long queues on the right side of the room: green for UK and EU passport holders; blue for other passport holders with nothing to declare; red for aliens with things to declare. I got into the blue line, and wait, shuffle; wait, shuffle. Finally, I got to the front of the line, and the agent asked for my entry card. Huh? I look around and everyone is holding an entry card. I must have slept through the flight attendants handing those out to passengers.
I said,” Oh, they didn’t give me one,” thinking, Oh blast!
She pointed to the other side of the room, where small tables were set with entry cards on them, and said, “Go fill one out.”

Getting out of line, I went over to the table, and picked up one of the pens attached to the table. Like everywhere else in the world where those pens are attached, it doesn’t work. I tried the next one, and the next one, and went to the next table, trying about seven pens in all, none of which work.

Okay, I’m a rare books librarian. I do not have ink pens in my office; I do have several nice fountain pens, but the reason they are called fountain pens become painfully obvious when you fly with them. Therefore, all I have with me is a nice mechanical pencil. Sigh. I got back in line, wait, shuffle; wait, shuffle. The same agent holds her hand out for the entry card; I said, “I don’t have a pen.”

She pointed to the tables, “There are pens on the tables.”
I replied, “There are no pens that write on those tables.”
She handed me a pen, and waved me back to the other side of the room. So I filled out the form, scrabbling through my papers to find the postal code for the hotel, and got back in line. Well, by now, there was no line. I handed the entry card to the same agent, who then held out her hand for my passport. She looks at it, and sighed, “American.” Ah, welcome to London to you too, my dear.

She stamped my passport with a certain disdain, and directed me to the exit. I wandered through an empty Customs area, and emerged on the other side. I spied an Information booth, so I went over there to ask about charging my phone. The fellow first said that plugs are different in the UK, and I will need to go buy an adapter. Okay, I was starting to get fed up with the assumption that I was so ignorant that I would not know that, but I needed his help, so I just said that I understood, and where would there be an outlet to charge my phone? He said, “We have no electrical outlets at Heathrow.”
I just stared at him, biting my tongue when I wanted to say, “You’ve figured out how to run a 21st-century airport without electricity?”

I thanked him and wandered off. Right by the front doors of the terminal (read, cold as the depths of Milton’s Hell, with the automatic doors opening to provide a refreshing stiff breeze every few seconds), I find a pillar with an electrical outlet, and plug in my phone and adapter. It was still useless except as a brick, and I knew that DH was waiting to know that I had arrived safely. Oh, and this charger freezes the phone, so I cannot call or text or anything when it is plugged into this charger. Very helpful. I saw an “arm-and-a leg-required” credit card calling station. If I stretched the cord, and went into a yoga position, I could still hold the useless phone while calling DH on the credit card station. He answered the phone, and asked how I was doing. Not the think to ask. “Awful! I’m awful! The phone won’t charge and I can’t use it when it’s charging and people are mean and it’s cold and . . .”

The poor dear handled his wife melting down 4000 miles away with great aplomb. He assured me that there were nice people somewhere, and I just needed to calm down and find them. He kept saying “Deep breath,” and I could only remember LaMaze classes. It made me laugh, and got me to calm down.

I managed to keep the call short, worried about the cost, and not wanting to sell either son into indebted servitude. Giving up on the phone charging, I saw a currency exchange and went over to get some GBP. The fellow was nice (I almost kissed him) and told me that I should use the ATM and save myself the commission he would have to charge; he also pointed me to the “Heathrow Express” signs down the way. The person there was also very nice, and helped me work through the procedure to get a ticket that would take me beyond Paddington.

I had been travelling over 28 hours at this point, so I dragged my poor self and my luggage to the train. Once settled on the train, I could relax to look at my surroundings. The first thing I noticed were the chimneys—there were three or four on every building, lovely old-fashioned brick chimneys. Need I say, we don’t have too many chimneys in Florida—they are just a tad superfluous. Even up in the Midwest, we don’t tend to have individual chimneys for each residence, but usually some common stack for the entire building.

I was also struck by how several things are the same. Buildings that back onto railroad tracks look the same, in a way, in both the UK and the US. While the train was nicer, faster, and quieter than most American trains I’ve been on, it was an analogous experience. But then we pulled into Paddington Station. Oh my goodness. Most of the “rail cathedrals” in the US have been long torn down or remodeled into other things, but here was a station in all its Vanderbiltian glory. Soaring iron archways sing the power and fascination of the railways. Travel shall set you free; it did, in so many ways. I tried not to be a real yokel, and endeavored to act like I walked through a glorious station like this every day. We have almost nothing like this in the States any more, where our industrial cathedrals are sports arenas, sold to businesses for advertising.

The woman at the information desk, and the woman was very helpful with my questions about the tube; slowly I was starting to feel better, and think that maybe people weren’t mean here. Subways are so different in London, at least from Washington, Atlanta, and Chicago, the only three I really know well. London’s really are tubes, 15-20 feet high, clearly tunnels dug for the trains and nothing more. Washington especially has made its platforms grandiose caverns, with the ceilings 40-60 feet overhead. One does not feel that sense of tunneling under the earth that is so very prevalent in London. It didn’t bother me, even though I am slightly claustrophobic, but it was just so different.

The other thing that really struck me is that the US is such a melting pot. Here the British look, well, British, the French, French, the Scandinavians clearly Nordic, Swedish, Danish; I look like all and none at the same time. For all my vaunted “Irish- and Welsh-American,” I look muddy and mutt-like in comparison to the real Welsh and Irish. It was quite a revelation.

I went the wrong way on the Circle line, but tried to look self-assured and managed to figure it out without looking a total eejit. When I got to Victoria, I realized that I was supposed to have gotten a ticket all the way to Pimlico, not just to Victoria. By this time, my native self-confidence had returned and I figured, eh, in Chicago, you can pay the difference in fare to get out, so I just got back on the tube to Pimlico.

When I got there, I couldn’t see anything like what I’d seen in Chicago, so I asked an attendant for help. He opened up the disabled exit and motioned me through. Someone came up and asked him something; I was hanging around waiting for him to tell me how much more I owed. He noticed me, and said, “Just go on, love, it’s fine.” Once again, I was struck by how nice people were.

Oddly enough, it was only when I surfaced above ground and saw the “familiar from pictures” tube icon that it really hit me that I was in London. It really knocked me off my pins; I had truly traveled all this way on my own. The hotel was only a few blocks away; I checked in with the extremely nice staff, went to my tiny room, where the only thing I cared about was that it had a bed. I forced myself to unpack and hang everything up, put everything in its place. I sat on the bed to decide what to do next, and woke up seven hours later.


Writing from life, or to escape from life

This past week, I’ve had several things present themselves that have made me think about childhood in general and my childhood in particular. Once I got somewhat older, I realized what an odd childhood I had. Let me rush to say that my parents never did anything to hurt me, and in fact did the best they could; they had odd, neglected, emotionally barren childhoods themselves, and really did not understand children. I responded by withdrawing, at a very early age; I also tried very hard to fit in with my older siblings, by learning to read very early, by helping my oldest sister with rote exercises in high school French when I was four. I tried to be invisible; when very young, curled up reading in an overstuffed chair; when older, by outfitting the box our new couch came in for a retreat in the attic, complete with cushions and lamp for reading.

My aunt was one of the adults who connected with me, teaching me embroidery at age five, knitting the next year, crocheting the next, and tatting when I was eight. She was brought up in the Southern tradition of keeping one’s hands busy. I heard a statement this past week about how young girls in the nineteenth century were taught to knit at age four; while the crowd around me shook their heads sadly, I realized that I wasn’t much older. Childhood was certainly not a concept in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t a concept in my home in the late twentieth, either. I remember when I first tried to play with my step-daughters, who were five and three at the time. I was at a loss how to play with dolls or hide and seek, to swing high in the air or slide in slippery freefall. I don’t think I ever told them that they gave me a childhood that I never had.

As a child, I read and wrote. Once I went to school, I got into trouble constantly for my “vivid imagination.” I observed the popular girls, the other families. I wrote about lost children finding their parents, of girls with friends and the parties they would have. In high school, I wrote about imaginary boyfriends, in terms that, although really quite innocent, horrified the nun who was teaching English. I learned then to be very careful who saw my work, and most of it went straight into the file drawer. More recently, as I said in an earlier post, I write about misfits who manage to conquer their oddities. Perhaps “misfits” is too strong a word, but people who have to work at getting what they want.

Writing has been my escape for the greater part of my life, but I am slowly working around to being able to use my experiences as well. I don’t think I’ll ever abandon the escapist writing, but I’m finding deeper corners to explore as well.


The compulsion to write

This evening I read Anne-Mhairi Simpson’s wonderful guest post on Carrie Mumford’s blog here . It gave me a lot to ponder about dreams and success and writing. If I am honest, I would like to have more time to write about things I want to write about; I would like to have enough money to travel to visit friends and places; I would like to be known and respected as a writer. This last is far above the others as a dream. I think of the books I’ve read that reached inside me, saw me, changed me, stretched my thinking. My dream is to write books that would do the same for other people. I don’t think that adds up being a famous writer, or even one that can afford to travel or quit the day job. It really is a far more prideful goal.

No matter the cost in sleep, brain function or attention span, I am happier when I write; when I don’t take the time, I stop thinking. That realization just slammed into me. When I was asked in elementary school to spell a word, I mentally wrote it on the ceiling. When asked to do arithmetic problems, I did the same. Teenage angst? Poured out in page after page. I look at my life and the pattern is rather astounding. I write to figure things out, to put my dreams into words, to connect with some part of myself that hides from the daylight and conscious thought.

This revelation applies to more than my personal memoir, morning pages sort of writing. I write about characters who are strong enough to change and grow and win against all the odds, hoping that I can borrow their strength and commitment.

I’d be very interested in anything you’d care to share about why you write.