Thursday, July 26, 2018

Margotlog: The Art of Losing

Margotlog: The Art of Losing

Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle, "The Art of Losing" has the command and sheen of great art. It's been one of my favorites for a very long time. Now I think of it after a day of losing first one, then another, then yet another crucial item: my car keys, my bigger cell phone, and almost my mind.

     The art of losing isn't hard to master
     so many things seem filled with the intent
     to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Losing and searching can become an obsession of flitting here, then there. Will the cell phone be hiding in the depths of my purse? Did I put it on the dining room floor as I ate dinner last night?

     Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
     of lost door keys, the hour badly spend.
     The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I call my very put-together friend whose house is just beyond the Ford Bridge i.e. just inside Minneapolis. "Mary," I say with a touch of hysteria in my voice, "I can't seem to find your house. Some nice man with a dress shop pointed me back to the Parkway, but now the numbers on 35th Avenue are totally off, far beyond yours!"

     ....I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
     some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
     I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Plucking up my courage, still unable to find my cell phone. I take a discarded old phone to AT&T where a charming young man sets is up to work again with a new "sym" card. Now it's chirping as it powers up. But will I be able to turn it off once on the plane to Amherst? So far, that hasn't worked. It chirps, and chirps, and chirps.

     practice losing farther, losing faster:
     places, and names, and where it was you meant
     to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Tomorrow in the dark before dawn, I will fly to visit this dear friend, younger than I am by at least a decade. Seven months ago, his partner of many years died of a cancer that could no longer be kept at bay. "I still weep every day," he tells me on the phone. Now as I turn myself toward the east, I sorrow for the one who is lost, joy for his life we both loved, though in vastly different intensites.

  --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
     I love), I shan't have lied. It's evident
     the art of losing's not too hard to master
     though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Margotlog: Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning To Be Free

Margotlog: "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning To Be Free"

The photo on the front page of the StarTribune 6/16/18 shows a boy, around six, staring up at an adult in combat garb toting a night-stick and hand gun. Behind the boy stands another adult wearing a red t-shirt, worn jeans, and running shoes.

How is it possible that the United States, home of immigrants from around the world, has begun in a big way, the separation of immigrant children from their parents? In 1900, my Italian grandmother, newly arrived in New York from Sicily. Her husband had served in the Italiay army and been sent to the North where he converted to Protestantism. When he returned to their tiny town in northern Sicily and built a small church for a very small congregation, Catholic townpeople burned it. He rebuilt, but the townpeople burned the second church. Fearing for their lives, the family came to New York. There Rose who would become my grandmother became so concerned for the hungry children and poorly clad women around her in the New York tenements that she delivered food, warm clothing, and blankets to residents three flights up. She soon collapsed and died.

Doing good for those in need is surely at the heart of every religious tradition on earth—that is, except for the Trump administration. Trump & Company have ordered thousands of children to be separated from their parents who’ve illegally crossed the U.S./Mexican border.

This U.S. policy smacks of Nazism, separating the “outsiders” from the clean, upright insiders, making those different from ourselves suffer. The thought of these thousands of children deprived of their parents and put in “holding pens” fills me with horror and dread. Congress needs to pass laws forbidding such heartless treatment of the friendless and powerless. It’s time those of us who are not Native American remembered that our ancestors also strove to enter this country, often poor and friendless. It is time we all remembered Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty: 

 "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-[tossed] to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Let us be the lamp of hope, as we offer freedom from want, charity toward all, and acceptance among us.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Margotlog: Two Statues in Florence's Bargello

Margotlog: Two Statues (Interrupted) in Florence's Bargello

Usually I've thought of myself as a lover of paintings, but when I visited Florence's Bargello Museum this past May, I changed my mind. Once a prison, the Bargello now is Florence's "municipal" sculpture gallery, full of extraordinary sculptures that fill a huge upper gallery. There are so many it's hard to take them all in. I didn't try. Almost immediately I was riveted by two, small, free-standing sculptures of young men. The first--Donatello's "David," is very family. This tart" of a boy, with round stomach and flaring backside, hides his expression under his shepherd's hat, decked with flowers and pulled low over his curls. But his pose is unmistakably that of triumph: Standing with one leg cocked, he balances one hand on the sword he used to slay the giant, Goliath.

It is a very sexy statue. The giant's winged helmet slides its wing up the boy's leg, giving us a shiver so enticing, it's hard to believe--that soft wing against the boy's naked inner thigh. Yet David doesn't seem to notice. He pouts, and withdraws into himself. He does not lift his head. In fact, he seems bemused by what he has done.

Across the huge chamber stands another young male figure--very slender, almost emaciated, holding a staff against his body. He is "St. John the Baptist" by Desiderio da Settingnano.


To visit the Bargello I was using the last few hours of my "Firenze" three-day pass. Initially I had activated the pass when I arrived with my two friends from Minnesota, Mary and Drew. An hour or so after we checked into our "Monestary Stay" convent, Drew became ill. The vivid red swath on his neck shouted distress: infection was creeping down his throat from his ear.

Immediately we took a taxi to a British doctor whom Mary located on the internet. This kind man gave Drew an antibiotic injection, but also suggested we visit Careggie, the hospital/clinic complex high in the hills around Florence.

I remember nothing of the drive to the hospital, but the nightmare of arrival is clear: we flitted from door to door, doctor to doctor in this huge complex and finally ended taking seats in a huge clinic full of other sufferers. Despite my Italian, despite waiting four hours, we eventually gave up.

Sitting beside the taxi driver as we left the hospital and drove back to town, I was struck by the beautiful green of the umbrella pines and darker spears of cypress. It was a beautiful May afternoon. For a few moments, the land enchanted me it has so often before.

Mary and Drew located a flight home that left just after midnight. This gave us time to enjoy a "last supper" at Accadi near the hotel. Next morning, they were gone, and I had two days to use my Firenze pass.

Sampling gelato, which was especially delicious, I walked along the Arno with its frothy jets and visited the Church of the Carmine. Then retracing my steps toward the Ponte Vecchio, and my room, I changed clothes to something cooler and headed for the Bargello.


Desiderio da Settignano is a less well-known than is Donatello, in part, I think, because he did not live as long, and in part because his scrulptures are more direct than Donatello's. Yet I was determined to give St. John the Baptist as much attention as I could muster.

Slowly, studying first the front of the sculpture, noticing the pelts that clothe the shepherd's emaciated form, I remembered bits of the Baptist's story. As Christ's precurser, John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, searching for spiritual insight. He ate nuts and fruit and made friends of wolves and even lions. Settingano's Baptist is so thin as to be anoxsic, but that is the point: he has renounced the fruits of the worldly life, and become an ascetic.

Keeping my eyes on the face with its somewhat stern expression, I slowly walked about the scupture. Do I remember whether Settignanon put his John the Baptist firmly on both feet? Now that I think of it, I believe that like Donatello's David, Settingnano has John the Baptist bend one knee. One heel is off the ground. This seems to suggest that all human effort is tentative. Just as with myself and my dear friends, Mary and Drew, we become caught in a flow of experience, not knowing what would happen next.

Now my eyes fill with tears. I am so sorry that Mary and Drew lost the experiences we had hoped to share. Their return home was harrowing--they missed the first transAtlantic flight out of Amsterdam and had to wait hours and hours before boarding another. Once home, Drew spent two days in the hospital. But modern medicine can work miracles. Drew is well, and Mary is her joyful self again.

Like Settignano's beautiful, emaciated figure of John the Baptist, we can pause only for a moment before life sends us on our way. Yet, as I studied this astere figure, so slender and alone, I discovered on the far side of his face, the beginning of a joyful smile. In the midst of uncertainty and torment, he broke free into ecstatic hope.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Margotlog: What Is So Rare as a Day in May?

Margotlog: What Is So Rare as a Day in May?

Here in North Country Land, we've suffered through a very very long winter. There was a snowfall in early May. I thought I might slit my throat and let a few drops of red blood festoon the white. Suddenly, all has changed, and as Yeats wrote, "a terrible beauty is born." But it's not terrible. "It's wonderful, it's marvelous that you should care for me. It's awful nice, It's paradise, It's what I long to see. You make my life so glamorous." That's Fred Astair singing to Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," one of their June/January matings which were as kind and friendly and even a little silly, always ending in "amorous." Note: It was the Gershwin brothers who wrote the song.

The robins in our back yard are strutting about with their red vests puffed out as if they were marshals at the parade. A wren pair has taken up residence in our neighbor's "play" house, where they've raised a brood for three or four years in a row. The noisiest of birds, and some of the smallest. I love their stuck-up tails and chatter in the vines. Even a female grosbeak, not as flaboyantly black and red as her consort, but still a biggish, brown-streaked bird with, as her name suggests, a very large beak, comes every day to the feeder.

Yes, the birds are back, but it's the sudden eruption of green and sweet scents that make me swoon. Years ago, outside the front window, I planted against all caution a sunburst locust --"too small a yard for three large trees" frowned the arborist. Yet the locust has flourished, and now spreads its fluffy, yellow-green fronds (truly more like a fern than a tree) outside my window. Up and down the avenues, as I walk to the drug store, huge lilacs hold their bouquets of light purple and white with such aplomb as to be dancers in a ballet.

Yet, there are already weeds--tree shoots I should have removed last autumn now wave their success in my face. I promise myself tomorrow to go out and whack them to the ground. There are losses: the beautiful azalea that returned for three years with its clusters of pink flowers--a lot like ballerinas dancing "The Sugar Plum Fair"--has succumbed to one of the longest and coldest winters we'd had in a long time. Only one side is in bloom, but the cluster of delicate pink flowers reminds me of home in Charleston, South Carolina, where the true azaleas bloom in April or even March, and the entire neighborhood where I grew up is rich with pink, just as ours is now. Ah, horticultureal success, and global-warming, bring the south to us in the north land. Amen. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Margotlog: Notes from Florence - 2018

Notes from Florence - 2018

     In the part of Azelio, a teacher calls to her children. If we were in the U.S., she's ask them to say
"cheese." But here, where cheese is beloved, she asks for a "soriso," a smile like a sunrise.
 So many of her pupils are Asian, I comment. She answers, "Chinese" Nearby a new mother coos to her baby, encourages, "Say 'Papa,' say 'Mama.'" A merli like our American robin except all black, flies across the path, its chirrup like the robin I left at home, perching on our birdbath filling up with snow.

    Who belongs where anymore? I name one of the few Italian trees I remember, "tilio," much like our North American bassrood with its heart-shaped leaves. Nearby a man with bronze skin leans over his knees as if sick. Should I offer him part of my sandwich? So much known and unknown. A man with pale skin rides a bicycle through the shade, his tailored coattails flapping. As I approach the slumped man, he sits up, pulls a ringing cell phone from his pocket, andputs it to his ear.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Margotlog: Facebook


It's probably what many of us fear--that our electronic contacts to those we treasure (and inevitably to those we don't) will be taken over by an "alien" force who starts writing things that shock, deride, and besmirch us.

Facebook has been in the news laterly because it has been less than cautious about protecting the electronic communications of its "users." Here's how I unpack that statement: First, "face" suggests we know to whom we speak. Second, "book" suggests a book held in front of us, read by one of us at a time. Of course real books are printed in the hundreds of thousands, depending on what their editors/publishers think will sell. But they are "used" by one person or a small number when one voice reads aloud to a class, family, or congregation. Or a teacher assigns a book to students, and most of them do indeed read it, then discuss it.

I tried Facebook years ago. For a few months it was rather fun. I have no idea now what I "posted" or what "mail" I received, but mostly I wrote little nothings, little squibs about real books, movies, plays --reviews, so to speak. I did not "communicate" with my readers as if we were face to face or speaking on the phone. Something about the privacy of writing on a computer seemed alien to speaking immediately and directly to a single person or a horde.

Then, all of a sudden, I began finding I had "posted" stuff that didn't sound like me. These posts were too jocular or snide; they implied things I would never speak about in public. Or even to my most intimate friends except in a low voice, in absolute privacy.

Within a week or so, it was clear that some alien force had assumed my voice. Putting words in my mouth, and worst of all, portraying me as someone I was not. Even here, I refuse to reveal the nastiness I was credited with promulgating. It took me a while to grasp what was happening. Once I did, I had to search around for help in having my "entity" removed from the organization. 

Now I read about hundreds of thousands of people who use Facebook several times a day. They write about everyday things, they express opinions, they rant and rave, they proclaim politically; they act as if they sat across a table from the person (s)  they communicate with.

I find it disturbing and very very dangerous. These "users" are placing elements of their opinions, experiences, attitudes, loves, hates before anonymous groups. It's far more "public" than standing on one's own front steps and shouting what you believe to the neighborhood. Or making a "sandwich board" with a message on it, which also includes your private information, easy for the world to read but rather hard to appropriate as you walk up and down a busy street.

We are often incredibly naive. I was, until that naivete began to get me in trouble.

Just for the record, as I write this on the blog format, I find myself reluctant to "post" it. I don't want to stir up those malign creatures who enjoy creating anguish, and coming off scott-free. Is this entry for an archive labeled "never sent?" No, I guess not. Let me know what you think. Or not. This is a blog, not necessarily an interactive entity. I value your privacy just like mine.

All best, M.

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Missionary Couple in 1912 China

Margotlog: A Missionary Couple in 1912 China

This couple, Altie and Elmer Galt, were my husband's Iowa grandparents who came as Protestant missionaries to China in 1912. I would know almost nothing about them except that Altie kept a diary which I've been reading. The small brown book is stamped with this title: "The Missionaries Anglo-Chinese Diary, 1912."

Her name was Altie Cummings and she had married Elmer Galt. Each page of the diary is identified by a page number, the day of whatever moon of the year it was (for example the 25th of 6th Moon), the day of the week, and above that, the month and year--all this in English. Then to the right is a message in Chinese, which, of course, I can't read. Each small page has room for two entries.

On August 12, 1912Wednesday, she writes, "I wash up and put away the last of Arthur's dear little clothes." Arthur was their first child. "Such a strange lonesome day," she writes on Sunday, August 4th. "Went to church again first time for three weeks"

Baby Arthur had celebrated his first birthday on July 28th, a Sunday.  "The dear laddie's birthday," she wrote. 'Such a precious treasure all year. If he only could be well today..just about the same, but every day no better; of course is really worse."

Her honesty and forthrightness astonish me. There is sadness and unclouded observation at the same time. "In the night baby had very hard time--vomiting and gagging. Sent for Dr. Love. They both [she means the doctor and his wife] came at 2:30 a.m. and stayed most of time until 2:30 p.m. Forenoon he seemed no worse than Sunday in spite of hard night, took new food, beef extract. By three o'clock began to get worse again--so hard. Dr. and Mrs. Love came at 8:00 p.m. to spend night. I go to bed at 11:00 but do not sleep - very hard night."

They tried many things to rouse and comfort the baby. "At 8:30 a.m.," she writes, "he finally drops into a natural sleep, and at 9:30 he quietly passed away--My baby!"

Journal writing, like letter writing, opens doors to everyday life. Altie's straight-forward, tender style, touches on sadness and joy with the same gentle frankness. Reading it gives me as much pleasure as fiction. But the experience is different. She is writing for herself (and perhaps her husband, even the future, though she shows no sign in her style of such awareness). Everything is lively and sincere, unclouded by uncertainty. She does not imagine that anyone could question her right to speak on the page. Perhaps this comes from whatever "calling" brought the couple to mission work. But her accounts are not strickly religious. Instead, they recount the pleasure of visitors--and there are many. Some are Chinese, many with Anglo names whom I suspect are single women from the United States who answered a "call" to carry God's word to foreign shores.

Yet, there's little "religiousity" in her accounts. She writes of visitors, of church services and the people she enjoys encountering there. She identifies her Chinese servants. I sense that she does not treat them as equals, which does not at all mean that she is harsh or insensitive to them. Rather, that they belong to another society, and social class within her world. This reminds me also of Eudora Welty's characters in her charming novel Delta Wedding. The year is not that different from Alti's 1912. The household in the state of Mississippi's Yazoo Delta teams with children and Negro servants, almost all referred to by their first names or nicknames--Bitsy, Howard, Roxie. Altie mentions the names of her Chinese servants, but I can't tell if they are what we'd call "first names," or something else. This is perhaps the only time my lack of knowledge about Chinese society inpedes my appreciation of her writing.

For the most part, Alti's life centers around her house and baby, this first year of his life, She is bolstered and encouraged by many enjoyable encounters with other women--ministers' wives, women missionaries, and travelers who stop to visit. It is a society segregated by gender, at least in her diary. The greatest pleasure in reading the diary comes from the amazing transparency and liveliness of her style. She is an unaffected writer who can create with a few strokes of the pen a scene, a mood, an assessment.

On Saturday, the 25th of May, she wrote: "Strawberry Shortcake! a few berries with ice cream two or three times before--from now on plentiful. Chiang NaiNai here fitting a new cover on my parasol. I also have gotten my blue grasscloth dress fitted." There is so much vivid description and intense pleasure conveyed in six handwritten lines.