Cape Girardeau

Today was sunny and in the 60’s (that’s ‘warm’ in Celsius). Since issues are still open on the book I am foot loose and loosed my feet to Cape Girardeau today.

Cape Girardeau is a Lovely little town on the Mississippi, with a smaller college (Southeastern), some great architecture, and about the friendliest people I’ve met in Missouri. I ended up chatting my way through town.

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First off, Cape Girardeau is the world’s only inland cape, originally built on a rocky promontory on the Mississippi. There’s a park by the water you can walk along, watching the barges float past a rather pretty bridge.

Today the wind was blowing so strong it formed white caps on the river, and a mist, like fog, in the distance. I kept getting sand in my eyes, and spent most of my walk crying, which somewhat fits a lonely river walk. Thankfully I wasn’t seen or there might be concern I was going to throw myself into the river in despair. The need not have feared, though — a person would not commit suicide by jumping in a river with three cameras.

Unless they were weights.

Didn’t stay too long by the water.

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Since Old Muddy can be a wild beast at times, there are canals through the town to help with water overflow. In addition, there’s a huge flood wall built between the town and the river. By the height of that wall, that town must have faced some serious flooding.

The buildings in town were interesting. Several vintage civil war era buildings, some in good repair, some with just enough weathering to make them interesting. And because of the college, you have a mix of old and new, including beautiful old buildings with wrought iron trim, and beer cans in the grass surrounding. It is not your ordinary waterfront, tourist town.

Additionally, it has a thing for murals. There are murals everywhere. The nicest of the bunch was the mural pained on the river wall–The Missouri Wall of Fame. It features famous people who have been born in Missouri. Among them are Mark Twain, of course, Walter Cronkite, Betty Grable, George Washington Carver, President Truman, General Omar Bradley, Josephine Baker, and several others.

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Today was a quiet day — too quiet in some ways, because I think my picture taking generated interest in its own right. However, that led to fun conversations. For instance, I was taking pictures through a closed antique shop window when the owner came up and we started chatting about the sewing machine in the window. He said that the machine was actually listed on eBay under his username (which I will post as soon as I find the piece of paper he gave me).

His shop, A-1 Consignment was great; just a jumble of stuff, and I do mean jumble (that will make the collectors drool). The business is a part-time job for him, so it’s not always open; he supplements his income selling stuff on eBay, which I thought was an interesting story to pursue (putting into my future story to-do list).

He also had a terrific story to tell about Rush Limbaugh, as well as an old Post Office letter cancelling machine but I’m fading fast, so I’m forced into being a tease, and leaving these stories for tomorrow. In the meantime, the rest of the photos.

(And its Mardi Gras this next week — I have to be healthy for the parades and the King Cake.)

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Me and Emily: Getting to know you

Today I packed my trunks with borrowed books and made my way through the gray and thoughtful day to fulfill my duty returning my overdue books to the library.

The library is my main charity because I am almost always late returning books and consequently pay nice fat fines. We have a very good deal worked out between us: I check out books whose yellowed pages crack with unused age; and in exchange give them money they can use to buy bright, eye-catching masterpieces of the moment, such as Who Moved my Cheese.

Still, my room has taken on a slightly acidic smell from failing books and my cat can’t lie in the sun on my desk, and it’s time to return my library and begin anew.

Among the books I returned today were Emily Dickinson books: the spine stretched Complete Poems of Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson: Woman Poet, the book that roared; Portrait of Emily Dickinson by Higgens with is mention of Emily like bits of candied pineapple among the cake of others faces.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

There was the enigmatic Open me Carefully with letters from Emily to her sister-in-law with little interpretation, which was remarkably refreshing. Fisher’s We Dickinsons was an easy read, a fanciful tale of Emily told from the perspective of her brother and geared for young high school eyes and ears — all goodness and humor with nary a dark spot to spoil the white pages. It’s badly out of print, having scrubbed all the parts suited to the macabre nature of youth.

There was Habegger’s My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickson, with a minimum of all that sentimental rubbish about the poet. There was another book, and now I can’t even remember the name but it had a green cover, an author whose name began with ‘H’ and repeated bits and pieces from most of what the other books said, which is probably why I can’t remember it and didn’t bother to write down the title. I am not a biographer or responsible historian. I am only a curious person.

If you search for books on Emily Dickinson at Amazon or some other online books store you’ll literally find thousands about her, covering every aspect of her life from sex to prayer:

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, by Roger Lundin

My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, by Genevieve Taggard

Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul’s Society, by Barton Levi St. Armand

Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge, by Daneen Wardrop

Feminists Critics read Emily Dickinson, by Suzanne Juhasz (ed)

Visiting Emily, The Diary of Emily Dickinson, Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, A Vice for Voices, Emily Dickinson the Metaphysical Tradition…

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After a while, though, the books begin to blur together, differing only in their amazing variation of interpretation of a single word or simple act.

There are online sources devoted to Emily, too. One only has to search on Emily Dickinson to return hundreds of thousands of pages, including complete collections of her poems — in two different spots. Considering the number of poems in question, that’s a lot of poetry. Emily Dickinson wrote close to 2000 poems, and over 1000 of her letters to friends and family have survived, though not always unedited.

And the conjecture about her life! There is much fascination with the fact that she only wore white later in life, but if she had just chosen to wear black, nothing would have been said about the sameness of her dress. Her letters and poems are pulled and used as proof of her erotic love for both man and woman, so much so that it began to irritate me greatly, the historians can become so self-sure about their interpretations. I have to think that if she had truly loved as many people as has been claimed, there would have been no room left for writing — all her time would have been spent in a tizzy of frustrated longing with swirls of faces floating about.

Then there are the bees. She wrote passionately several times about the bees. I am sure there was something kinky about that.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

We hear stories about her reclusiveness, but facts surface and we find out that she actually attended church from time to time, or would visit a friend, and see people who visited. In truth, if she weren’t Emily Dickinson we would look at her life and not see anything more than an affluent, educated woman with a small circle of friends and family who liked to write a lot, was generous with those in need, but reserved and even shy around strangers and larger crowds, liked to cook and garden, didn’t like to travel, and didn’t go out very much.

There are facts we know: Emily Dickinson was the middle child of three children, born to affluent parents in a town, Amherst, Massachusetts, steeped in family history. An Older brother named William Austen, a younger sister named Lavinia. Mother ill much of her life, father domineering, but not punitive, and brother leading an interesting but not outstanding life. She and her sister were educated, and were encouraged in their education but not to the point of independence; neither married, both lived at home, took care of their mother, and then their father and then each other.

They had a considerable number of friends who held them in respect and affection, and both were regular correspondents, even with those who lived in town. Both did travel some, but not much and primarily to visit family, or in Emily’s case, to get care for her eyes, which troubled her most of her life.

Emily was interested in books and magazines and journals and was very well read; she loved her dictionary and liked to spend time just reading its pages, discovering new words. To some extent she was interested in the politics of the time, being for the freeing of slaves, but resisting the popular call to join the Christian revolution sweeping New England when she was younger. In fact, if she stood out for any one thing more than another, it was her ambivalent feelings about religion.

“Heavenly Father” — take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband –
Though to trust us — seems to us
More respectful — “We are Dust” –
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity –

Emily was a good cook and had a passion for gardening but was indifferent to most other housework. She would make care baskets for those ill, worry about those in trouble, mourn, greatly, friends and family who died, and liked to tease those she cherished. She was friendly with neighborhood children, but didn’t attend many functions, nor did she see many people. One can sense in her letters and in letters about her, that she lived the life she wanted, not one forced on her, by either family or circumstances. In my favorite letter to her sister-in-law Sue, Emily wrote:

We go out very little – once in a month or two, we both set sail in silks – touch at the principal points, and then put into port again – Vinnie cruises about some to transact the commerce, but coming to anchor is most that I can do. Mr. and Mrs. Dwight are a sunlight to me, which no night can shade, and I shall perform weekly journeys there, much to Austin’s dudgeon and my sister’s rage.

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I could go on and doing so repeat other facts easily found online (thus forcing that student coming here to seek answers for their paper, “Who is Emily Dickinson” to give up in frustration at this point and move on…). I think the important thing to remember, though, is that Emily Dickinson wasn’t that different from many unmarried, affluent, strong-minded, white women of the time except for two important things: she loved to write, and she could write. Whether you like her writing or not, it was and is powerful and complex, and I think that’s why so much conjecture happens — how could someone who writes like this lead such a simple life?

The answer is in her work. Emily saw the richness, the nuances in everyday life — of simple likes and dislikes, bees in the spring, autumn leaves, books, family and friends, dictionaries and words, questions of God, slavery, and dying.

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears –
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –

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I started this quest trying to better understand Emily Dickinson but after reading page after page about her life, I find myself no closer to understanding what she was like, fully, as a person. All we know about her is through her writing: her poetry and her letters. Unfortunately, writing allows the writer to hide in plain view.

The funny thing about this research is that I am not, or was not, a fan of Dickinson poetry. Oh, there were some poems that I liked, but for the most part, I found her work to be cryptic: too verbally rich with too many impressions compressed into too few words. I could not find the key that would open her poetry to me and allow to read poem after poem without feeling an ache in my neck, product of restlessness that lets me know that no matter how much I try to discipline my mind, what I am reading is not connecting with me.

It was a chance remark that sent me on this quest: about Emily Dickinson being unpublished except for a few friends and family while she was alive. I had not studied about Emily Dickinson in school and didn’t know about her obscurity in her lifetime. It amazed me that she wrote thousands and thousands of words that went unpublished during a time when all intellectuals — male and female — aspired to appear in print in one way or another.

I wondered, did she mind?

He scanned it-staggered-
Dropped the Loop
To Past or Period-
Caught helpless at a sense as if
His Mind were going blind-

Groped up, to see if God was there-
Groped backward at Himself
Caressed a Trigger absently
And wandered out of Life.

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Did she mind that she was unknown? Did she mind that her works weren’t being read by many others? We talk about the writer who loves to write regardless of the audience but scratch this insouciance ever so slightly, and you’ll find that there is a drive within most of us to be read. I am not so ‘pure’ as a writer as to be indifferent whether my writing is read or not.

Was Emily indifferent? This sent me to the library and the Internet, and eventually, to a deeper look at her work. In them, over time, I found a connection to Emily Dickinson and her work, and I wonder if that is the strength of her longevity and the root of her popularity — she articulates our formless thoughts and that’s why her writing is so unique, and sometimes so difficult.

Before my readings, I found Emily’s poems difficult to read, and could count on two hands ones that I liked; now, I find I can read all of her work and it means something to me and I can’t bear to choose between the writings to find favorites.

I found the key to Emily Dickinson’s poems — it was within me all along. But it was in her letters and in the words of those who discussed her after death that I found the answer to the question, “Did she mind?”

You cannot make Remembrance grow
When it has lost its Root –
The tightening the Soil around
And setting it upright
Deceives perhaps the Universe
But not retrieves the Plant –
Real Memory, like Cedar Feet
Is shod with Adamant –
Nor can you cut Remembrance down
When it shall once have grown –
Its Iron Buds will sprout anew
However overthrown –

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Houses Dark and Shuttered

Out on errands tonight I noticed how few homes decorated for Christmas this year. Last year at this time, you would know you were in the midst of a town that took Christmas seriously. This year, most of the homes seem dark and shuttered.

Rather than going straight home after shopping I decided to visit some of the neighborhoods I know to be good Christmas decorators, looking for a little Christmas color.

Several families in St. Louis have members who are serving overseas, some in Iraq, others in Afghanistan. There is usually a story in the news once per week or so about another Missouri or Kansas or Iowa or Kentucky youth killed overseas and honored with a military funeral.

One of the neighborhoods on the other side of the Seminary from us is an old established neighborhood, filled for the most part with working families who are moderately comfortable income-wise. Most also have kids and this is a prime incentive to decorate—for the children, if no one else.

But I would go for blocks with at most a small strand of lights around a bush here and there, some lights around the roofs. Passing tree lots along the way, I was surprised at how full they were. A week before Christmas, they should be half empty.

Missouri and Kansas layoff rates have been less in 2003 than in 2002 — only 12 mass layoffs this year compared to 24 mass layoffs last year. The report is that the unemployment claims are down, too.

But then, the joke goes, 50,000 people have left the area in the last year.

I went to the library to re-check out some books I’ve had for a long time — Let Us Now Praise Famous Men among them, and until someone reserves it from the Stacks, I’ll just keep it. It’s not in general circulation anyway, only available to those people who specifically request it. I’m not depriving a casual wanderer through the aisles.

Across the street I was attracted by a bit of bright color. It was the house with the lady that has three dogs, all of whom bark at one when one goes to the library. All of whom sound fierce, but are friendly buggers; except on Friday, which is bath day.

I think I spend a lot of time at the Library.

Today’s newspaper headline read that the President’s approval rating is at a six-month high. This following on weeks of petty, back-handed squabbling among the Democratic candidates that more closely resembles a pack of junk yard dogs fighting over a bone that’s been picked too clean in previous fights.

One block did have three homes, one after the other, quite nicely decorated and I stopped in the street to appreciate the color and the light against the darkness.

In times past, though, the effort on these three homes would barely have rated a second look. This year, they rated a good long stare. When I saw the headlights of another car in my rearview mirror, I reluctantly moved along; then I noticed that the driver of the other car also stopped in front of the three houses.

When I visited my father last week, I asked him what happened with his bird, Mrs. Murgatroid. He didn’t remember ever having a bird, and became confused at the question. I asked my brother about the bird and he said that before Dad moved in with him, he’d let the bird out of the cage and it flew out the door.

Now, he doesn’t remember a bird he had for twenty years. But he does remember me — he calls me Rae. That’s my mother’s name.

My father served in World War II, then as a State Patrolman for twenty years, followed by being an advisor for the military police in Vietnam, and finally an investigator for Welfare fraud. He was injured in war, had best friends killed in the line of duty, and was poisoned by Agent Orange, suffering cancer after cancer — and he doesn’t have enough money to cover the cost of assisted living so he lives with my brother. My brother is afraid to leave him alone because he forgets things, like turning off burners.

I picked up one prescription for my Dad while I was there. It cost $127.00. He has six of these that need filling every month, and his supplemental medical insurance plan was just cancelled because the “Prescription costs were too high”.

Okay, I was now very determined to find some serious Christmas action, so I pulled out the big guns, driving over to Webster Groves. This college town has Money — if they didn’t have a load of lights, no one would.

Lights I found, but they were subdued: mainly some white lights around the eaves, a few around the bushes by the front door. Elegant little expensive wreathes with big red bows covered the doors and everything was tasteful and restrained on the big white houses with the Mercedes and Audi cars out front.

The little kid in me doesn’t like tasteful and restrained. I want gaudy and blinking and mismatched and yes, even cheesy cardboard cutouts in the yard. This is what I grew up with, where we would have a tradition every year of going for a ride to look at the lights and then come home to have cocoa and pretty decorated sugar cookies.

Where are the young and young at heart?

A very big financial corporation with offices in St. Louis sent out a company memo to its employees. ‘Great news’, it read. ‘This year was the best ever for the company!’

The company then gave the employees, those not impacted by the wholesale move of the company’s call center to India, a $50.00 gift certificate to local grocery stores, and a 2% raise for the year.

The Cost of Living increase nationally for 2003 was 3%.

I stopped by the drugstore on the way back home. Coming out, I put a dollar in the bell ringer’s bright red pail.

“I used to know a bell ringer that would get so cold, he’d hold the bell between his teeth”, he said.

I stopped, surprised, because the bell ringers normally only say Thank You and Merry Christmas.

“Yes,” he continued. “I can’t remember his name, but his face sure rings a bell.”

He then gave me a huge smile, winked, and said “Merry Christmas!”

I love the people of this country.

Merry Christmas, and see you when your journey meets up with mine, again, underneath the mistletoe.

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