This old house is made of wood and paint and memories, but
Lately, the sense that our time here will end has hovered on my shoulder,
A faint melancholy of knowing that one day I will walk out one last time,
Hand the keys to someone who won’t know any of it.
That spot in the dining room wall where a teenage
Tantrum left a divot in the plaster from a chair tossed in anger.
Where the same child discovered the internet, found a girl
In California and talked up a huge long-distance phone bill.
Where B&B guests gathered from around the world
To chat at the table over Bismarks and sausages and coffee on
Their brief swing through this old house, and our lives.
The election in the US has brought attention to a part of the people that has been misunderstood, and looked down upon — sometimes with justification — since the very beginning. I am talking about the relatively poor, non-college educated white class, predominantly of Scots-Irish ancestry, that’s spent most of the past 250 years in the mountains and hollers of Appalachia. This is a huge area that stretches from Maine to Georgia, and culturally influences even more territory.
We modern Americans like to sort of gloss over our origins, sometimes. I know enough about my own family history to smile at the old joke, that Americans “have been thrown out of some of the best countries in the world.”
My ancestors were non-conformist religious refugees, Quakers, from England and then Ireland, who took advantage of William Penn’s offer of refuge in Pennsylvania. They fled civil war, after 100 years of the beatings and trials and property confiscations and, in the case of at least two of them I know about, a mother and son, execution at the hands of the Crown at York Castle for refusing to bend a knee to a magistrate.
So I have a sympathy for the people who are still stiff-necked and proud and poor, those who get stomped on by the elites on either coast. At the same time, it’s fair to judge that culture as inferior in some ways, and to realize that they’ve learned how to be poor, stay poor, and resist any outside ways. [Note: my wife, who is of Scots-Irish ancestry, objects to the term ‘inferior’. I don’t mean it in the moral sense, or in the sense of not “being as good as everyone else.” I believe that all cultures have good and bad traits, in the sense of how well they work as adaptations to life’s circumstances. As admirable as Scots-Irish culture is in most ways, it doesn’t work as well as some others, such as Jewish or Indian, to drive young people toward academic and financial achievement. Sorry dear. 🙂 ) The very traits that make them who they are, the good things, also make them keep doing things that mire them in poverty.
But let’s give them a little slack, too, and remember that a lot of us are here because our ancestors were too damn hardheaded to adapt, to assimilate. We are here because someone with a name very much like mine, or Ferguson or O’Farrell or MacDonald or Sandburg picked a fight with the King of England or France, and the Church of Rome or the Church of England.
That’s who we are, too. Stubborn and tough and not partial to anyone telling us what to do or how to live. And, yes, frequently dumb.
So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two.
As for the one, a man would
praise her when he came to understand her;
but the other is blameworthy:
and they are wholly different in nature.
For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel:
her no man loves; but perforce,
through the will of the deathless gods,
men pay harsh Strife her honor due.
But the other is the elder daughter
of dark Night, and the son of Cronos
who sits above and dwells in the aether,
set her in the roots of the earth:
and she is far kinder to men.
She stirs up even the shiftless to toil;
for a man grows eager to work when
he considers his neighbor,
a rich man who hastens to plough and
plant and put his house in good order;
and neighbor vies with his neighbor
as he hurries after wealth.
This Strife is wholesome for men.
And potter is angry with potter, and
craftsman with craftsman,
and beggar is jealous of beggar,
and minstrel of minstrel.
Perses, lay up these things in your heart,
and do not let that Strife who delights
in mischief hold your heart back from work,
while you peep and peer and listen
to the wrangles of the court-house.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
The air grows older as it drains through the passages and doorways of
These ruins, where history stopped, where people leaked
Into the sand, were forgot.
If there is no memory left, did it ever really happen?
The stones feel the air drain past, patient, and say “yes, it did”.
The aged breezes surround, inhabit—an oozing, firesome force. They scorch crumbling brick, Caress the sleepers, curious if any faint dreams still stir,
In the soft, reddish dry light,
Under the changeless sunsets of forty wretched centuries.
The air entwines legs, hair, imagination,
The whispers of spirits long gone, their bones still sprawled nearby, call.
Questions, asked like thought from just over the shoulder.
Faded sighs and cries from a room buried and forgotten, born only on the wind.
I think it’s good to be astonished by at least one thing a day. My favorite line from this is “do not look for sparks in ashes long buried”.
by Gündüz Vassaf
“They say I am between the East and the West.
An identity crisis! Whose? Mine or theirs?
Enough of this nonsense.
Take the labels off and look at me. Just look
You won’t need a guidebook. Like all cities, I have my own sense of time.
I am a labyrinth of layers that only makes sense without a compass.
Trust me. Let yourself be, let yourself go.
But be careful what you go away with.
When you leave, all my empires, my religions, and passions
will be your fertile soil wherever you go.
Praised that I am, I am not proud. Much has been written about me.
To those who have found me melancholic
I say, “do not look for sparks in ashes long buried”.
To those who seek, amusement, I do not exhibit my past as
decorations for a perpetual carnival.
I am a home, I am a home without owners.
If you’re hesitant, not sure which way to go as you walk about, follow one of my cats. They will lead you to places, introduce you to people,
point out secrets they keep even from me. They, more than anyone, are the longest continuing residents of the city
A challenge to those who see the future in my past,
I am an obstacle for those who see only the future.
I see change with the patience of centuries.
Some want only to change the past and shout opportunity.
Look at my silhouette from the bridge on the Golden Horn.
Time has not passed me by, it has protected me.
I ask you, the same”.
Excellent piece. Among other disabilities, I am a history nut. I’ve been especially fascinated my whole life by slavery and the Civil War, which culturally continues through today’s political campaigns. I’ve visited Monticello 4-5 times, Mount Vernon, Madison’s little shack, and every battlefield of note between Virginia and New Orleans (with the exception of Vicksburg). I used to live in Williamsburg (long story, but we moved there when I was 9 and stayed in a guest house owned by William and Mary, where my dad taught for a year; I took a bath in what had been Jefferson’s office at one time.) I have vacationed in the South dozens of times over the years, and usually took in the places and stories wherever I am. I revere the Enlightenment and it’s ideas. This piece summarizes what I, a white guy, finally came to believe. I can barely stand to visit those places anymore, both because of all of the neo-confederate denialism that still bubbles up down south, and because I finally saw beneath the surface into the lives of the anonymous people that built everything. Every single nail and clapboard on the houses of their masters.
I know my reaction is unfair to the majority of Southerners who have to live with and live down all the legacy. But I’m reminded of my Muslim friends who get painted with the same brush when one of their nutcases blows up an airport. It’s not fair to the vast majority, either, but deep down in both there’s one kernel of truth: the South has a legacy problem it still hasn’t completely expunged. Neither has Islam, as both have the same buried, shameful, reflexive tolerance for the old hatreds.
Dear Ms. Sherman, When I read your reflection in The American Conservative I was so sorry to hear that you had mistaken the museum at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for a monument to the Declaration of Independence. This mistake clearly caused much despair to you, and I suspect, to your unwitting children, who later found themselves flung […]
I’ve been spending a lot of time in her room lately, up at the top of the house. There’s a finished room with plaster walls on the third floor, 40 feet off the ground, and the house sits on a tall limestone ridge. I can see for miles when the air is clear. It’s a quiet and peaceful place.
When this old money pit was new, a nameless young woman slept here. Nameless to me, anyway. A poor girl, making her way.
It’s been fixed up. I’m sure the floors then were bare boards only, with maybe a threadbare area rug.
The plaster walls were unpainted, probably. No money spent on servants. A metal bed with rough ropes for springs. An old, scratched bedside table and chair. A shallow closet with wire hooks held one or two of her things. There may have been a simple dresser, hand-made.
She must have gazed out that window—dreaming of another life when the work was done.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like up here then.
I wonder what she saw out these windows? What she thought in the coldest days of winter, with no insulation in the walls? Or when the room roasted in the summer? None of us have known a life like this.
Lincoln had been dead for 17 years. Things were changing, but not everything. Men in their 30s and 40s, missing legs, arms, eyes—sanity, in some cases—sat on benches on the courthouse lawn and reminisced the days away. The cannon that had mowed down Virginians and Alabamians at Gettysburg 20 years before dotted the grass, helped them remember other times.
She walked past them every day to and from visits to her mother in the worker’s houses on the other side of downtown, or when she ran errands to the shops downtown. The crippled, damaged men told the old stories over and over, of youth and glory and horror in the great struggle. Their eyes spoke more, though, things they could not speak aloud.
But the girl heard their stories. She also overheard all the talk in the dry goods store when the other servant girls chatted and gossiped about people and things they’d overheard their betters discussing over the morning paper. There were political arguments made out in public, and six partisan weeklies shouting at each other.
The owner of the mansion next door had been an officer at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and several others. He lost a leg in battle near the end of the war, a general by the time he came home. Later on, a governor of Pennsylvania.
Another girl like her worked for him. His home loomed up outside one of her windows, a different world of wealth and power and privilege. His carriage crunched down the gravel lane between the houses to the carriage house in back. On warm days, she saw him sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, reading, or walking on crutches, or on his wooden leg. She saw distinguished guests step down from carriages he’d sent to the train station for them. She knew he was an important man, and hurried past him on the street with a quick, shy greeting.
Sitting Bull had surrendered the previous July, at Fort Buford in Montana.
President Garfield had been shot the summer before her mistress had moved into the house. The news and gossip was full of nothing else for a while. Mark Twain published “The Prince and the Pauper.” And, oh, Bob Ford had killed Jesse James in April.
She probably couldn’t read the papers, though. She made an X for her name.
She was an immigrant, maybe Irish. Or German. Or Italian. Or from Bohemia. One of the floods of wretched that came in after the war for the jobs, the lands out west. Her family was here, too, but she was farmed out as a ladies maid/cook/char woman/nurse…(Whatever they called her, she probably did it all.)
Her father was a quarry worker, breaking the limestone into blocks and powder with a sledge hammer and muscle. A teenaged brother worked at an iron foundry in town. Another in an iron mine owned by her mistress’s in-laws. Her mother had two babies on the hip, the twins. There was another sister, too young to work for cash yet.
The young woman took care of a wealthy widow in a house on the hill. The old woman’s daughters had married mine and iron foundry and stamping mill owners, second-generation Irish and English, Quakers, movers and shakers making the stuff of railroads. Bridges. Guns.
I imagine her young. Unmarried. A heavy brogue, perhaps. Up before dawn every day to light the fireplaces, make the breakfast, empty the bedpans, clean the house, trim candle and lantern wicks, clean the glass chimneys. Before that, though she would take medicine and comfort to the old woman, who was not well. The old Quaker was stern, but could be kind. She was teaching the girl to read. It was only practical, she would say. The only way to rise above being a wage slave for the rest of her life.
Annie was the old woman’s name, and she would live less than a year. After that (and the girl knew it was coming), she hoped she could get another job, unless the spinster daughter of the house kept her on. The money she earned was needed at home. Maybe she would meet a boy and get married, and start having children like her mother had.
But on spring nights, when the air was soft and the incredible perfume of the blooms of a Black Locust at the corner of the house filled her room, she pulled a single wooden stool over by the window to watch the moon rise over the mountain. She allowed herself to dream of something better. She may have picked up an old McGuffey primer and labored over the pictures and strange shapes of words, lighting a kerosene lamp when it got dark
And now I use her room to write. Sometimes, I can almost see her sitting by the window, looking off into the distance. I wonder whether she ever found that boy, and whether she learned to read.
were carved more than 2500 years ago on the temple of Apollo at Delphi (Only the columns are left). But it must have been important. Those old Greeks didn’t γαμώ around about with what they carved on temples, especially at Delphi.
The Romans noticed and translated the Greek to the Latin phrase, “Nosce te ipsum”
Six hundred years or so ago, a family adopted the Latin version as a motto for its coat of arms, which is also a commandment for future generations.
I heard the stories when very young, and looked around …
She had been a beauty, but her life was marked by a broken home and some dark secrets—
Still she was deep, iron-willed, smart.
He, sprung of a king’s bastard somewhere in the misty mists, was shaped by unending work in the fields, and laughter, and curiosity—
Brilliant, a passion to be an artist, a teacher, a thinker, a prankster.
They were children of a different time, and products, too, of hunger and fear; children of the last century, proud, tough.
Long memories of family, faith, war, terrible losses, sacrifice, duty and honor.
And “Know Thyself” was in the air, always, floating up in the corner near the ceiling.
I remember the summers of tall corn, and Princess,
Running, face slapped and cut by green leaves while she
Dashed in and out of the alien-looking bases of the stalks
laughing, daring me to follow.
I remember feeling the darkness close in, alone in the tall corn, stalks closing over me, afraid.
Closing out the sun, closing off a sense of direction,
By a laughing dog who found me, asked-why-I-was-standing-still…
Running away, free among the stalks
Until I followed, redeemed, pulled into the unknown, laughing, too.
Summer days among the tall corn, lost, found, redeemed,
Long rows curving into mystery, terror, fear and salvation,
A friend who never left me, always came back, refused to let me shrink from the unknown,
A dog who kept me anchored in the now, in experience, in friendship.
A dog and a boy. A dog is a savior for a young boy, too frightened to know where to turn.
The land, the island wilderness, the endless rows of corn eight feet tall,
Twisting, curving, full of weedy vines, rocks and in a burst of fur and dust,
a laughing dog who
Never let me lose myself, always called me back, mocked my adolescent timidity,
Made me follow, explore and, eventually, to laugh with her.
The land, the land…. way more than just a summer’s day
In the tall corn with Princess. My puny fears, yes, but my foundation.
A link to a thousand ancestors. In my insignificance, still stronger by connections.
The land…. a family memory, stretching into antiquity,
The land… a sense of place, of time, of belonging, of self.
The land.. passed along now, my connection cut, but not quite.
The land… a sense of place ended, but not quite.
The land… a place to put my face into, my fingers digging deep, holding onto… but not any more.
The land…. a place that birthed me, shaped me with a laughing dog, long ago,
The land… a place that infused me, called to me, supported me, made me, set me free.
WHEN Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin … in the dust, in the cool tombs.
And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes … in the dust, in the cool tombs.
Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember?… in the dust, in the cool tombs?
Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns … tell me if the lovers are losers … tell me if any get more than the lovers … in the dust … in the cool tombs.
Sorry, but this sort of thing makes me geek out. If you could compress 2,600 years of human history into a 5-minute graphic following migrations of known, notable people, it would look like this. This shows several parts of the world through history, including back to the Roman Empire.
On this day in 1969, July 20, the first human stepped onto the surface of the moon. It may not seem like much now, but trust me: It was a BFD. The whole world stopped and watched, and held it’s collective breath as the Lunar Lander touched down with barely any fuel left.
If you were born after this event, it might be easy to misunderstand how radically this changed our view of the Moon—and the Earth. It had floated overhead from the Earth’s earliest days, billions of years, and yet we experienced it as almost a fantasy, a mysterious thing we had never touched.
On this day, it became a real thing for the first time in all of time. A real thing. We stood on it, and it was no longer a nightly mystery.
The last astronauts on the moon left garbage behind. They left their footprints, of course, too. And scientists believe those imprints—planted in another era by long-since retired moon boots—could last for millions of years amid the craters, faint reminders that the sooty surface of our favorite satellite isn’t so far from home.
We had one of those experiences recently that had a touch of magic about it. Unexpected pleasures are the best kind.
Near Flatrock, NC., just driving around looking for something to do, we passed a sign that said the home of poet Carl Sandburg was up ahead. It’s a national park, now, so the signs had the brown backgrounds and white lettering. He, his wife, daughters and granddaughter, lived there for nearly 21 years, until his death in 1967. The anniversary of that was just ten days away when we visited, actually.
He’s probably my favorite American writer, and I didn’t know he lived in the South. So we stopped and spent several hours wandering the grounds. It’s a lovely place, full of charm and history and serenity now. The house was built in 1838 and was at one point owned by the treasurer of the Confederate States of America, a slaveholder. Sandburg, a committed socialist and Unionist, was terribly embarrassed by the presence of slave cabins out back, but also believed in preserving historical things. So he had them renovated and painted, and just lived with the moral quandary they represented as he worked on his Lincoln and Civil War books. The house sits on a hill overlooking a pasture and a lake full of fish.
I took the tour of the house, and have a picture of the writing room on the 3rd floor where he wrote big chunks of his Lincoln biography and much of his Civil War history, below. And most of the extensive library of children’s stories he wrote. It’s just as it was when he and his wife lived there, just as it was on the day he died, July 22, 1967.
After he died, his wife of nearly 60 years just lost heart and moved out, giving the land to the Interior Department to make the national park. She and her daughters took just their clothes. If you ever are in the vicinity and want to stop by to touch a piece of literary history, please do.
This is the poet in his own voice, reading a short poem he published in 1918.
To add to the day’s flood of Shakespeare news stories….
From “The Writer’s Almanac”, by Garison Keilor
It’s the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, who is traditionally believed to have been born on this date in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He left behind no personal papers, so our knowledge of his life comes to us from public and court documents. His father, John, was a glove-maker and alderman, and his mother, Mary Arden, was a landed heiress. The baptismal register of the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Shakespeares’ parish shows an entry on Wednesday, April 26, that reads, “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare.” Babies were traditionally baptized on the first Sunday or holy feast day after their birth. The Feast of St. Mark was on April 25, and although normally that would have been Shakespeare’s baptismal day, it was also considered an unlucky day, and that may be why the child was baptized the following day instead.
Shakespeare studied at the well-respected local grammar school, and married the older — and pregnant — Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26. She gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed two years after that. Shakespeare was no doubt deeply affected by the death of son Hamnet at age 11; he began to write his tragedy Hamlet soon afterward.
He moved to London around 1588 and began a career as an actor and a playwright. By 1594, he was also managing partner of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a popular London theater troupe. The 1590s saw the production of his plays Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, to name but a few. His greatest tragedies — like Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear — were all written after 1600. He wrote his last few plays back in Stratford, where he retired after an outbreak of the bubonic plague caused the London theaters to be closed for long stretches. He was popular during his lifetime, but it wasn’t until after his death that his collected works were published in print form. That volume has come to be known as the First Folio, and it was published in 1623.
In 1611, he made out his will, leaving most of his estate to his daughter Susanna, and bequeathing to his wife, Anne, his “second-best bed.” He died on or around his birthday in 1616 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, leaving a last verse behind as his epitaph: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare / to dig the dust encloséd here. / Blessed be the man who spares these stones, / and cursed by he who moves my bones.”
Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and a couple of epic narrative poems. He created some of the most unforgettable characters ever written for the stage, and was a master of the language of various social classes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined 3,000 new words, and he has contributed more phrases and sayings to the English language than any other individual. Shakespeare gave us such commonly used phrases as “a fool’s paradise,” “dead as a doornail,” “Greek to me,” “come what may,” “eaten out of house and home,” “forever and a day,” “heart’s content,” “love is blind,” “night owl,” “wild goose chase,” and “into thin air.”
For those of us in the States, today is the anniversary of one of the more important historical dates on the calendar.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12 — it was a Friday–in 1861, a shell from a 10-inch rebel militia mortar burst 100 feet over Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., beginning a bombardment that lasted nearly 34 hours. The Union commander of the fort, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered at 4:30 p.m. the next day. No one on either side died during the battle.
That could not be said of what came next.
Between 1861 and 1865, at least 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War. These casualties exceed the nation’s loss in all its other wars combined, from the Revolution through Vietnam. As a percentage of today’s population, the death toll equates to 6.2 million.