Quote of the Week

FuzzyMy quote this week comes from a book I recently started called Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede–a favorite author of mine in my younger days.  This is a fun story about an impressionable young girl and her family set in a kind of magical alternate version of the American West.  The quote is an exchange that happens when the local teacher meets her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rothmer, and a portion of their fourteen children for the first time.

“Pleased to meet you,” Miss Ochiba said.  She and Mama looked at each other long and hard, and then they each gave a little nod, as if they’d had a whole conversation and both had come away satisfied. “These will be your children,” Miss Ochiba went on as if there’d been no slightest pause. “They’ve been saying you have a good-sized family.”

“Any size that’s wanted is good,” Mama said, and then told her our names.”

This is a pretty simple quote, but stood out to me for a few reasons.  One is–I can’t help but gush–we had our third child, a baby girl (pictured) a couple months ago!  She came seven weeks early, but is doing really well, and we are very pleased with her.  Because she spent a couple weeks in the hospital, I spent a certain amount of time talking about her and our family to others, and fielded a lot of questions about why her brothers are so much older than she is (six and eight).  The questions were kindly meant, and sometimes I gave short answers, and other times explained that she was born after a series of losses for our family.

Either way, it has occurred to me over the years that there just isn’t one perfect mold–one exact formula for what makes a good family.  Good is, as Mrs. Rothmer points out, entirely a matter of choice, and, I would add, situation.

I also like this quote, and this book in general, because it deals with the varied effects of what “they’ve been saying,” or the words and opinions, often unwanted and unsolicited, of others. The main character, Eff, spends her life dealing with and being affected by what others say and how they treat her because of what they believe it means to be a thirteenth child.  Her experiences seem to negate the old adage about sticks and stones, and affirm that words can indeed hurt.

Coming from a social media world, where opinions are readily expressed and spread, I liked this reminder that no matter how many children you have, whether or not you have any, or are even married, or whether or not your family fits the “mold.” What you’ve got can still be good–and the only opinions on the subject that really matter are your own.

Luna

One morning about a month ago as my Nielsen men were headed out the door for work/school, my husband called me to the door to see a “surprise” waiting there for me.  What I found was this graceful creature:

LunaWhile anyone might find this a pleasing sight, I should, perhaps, explain why it is of particular interest to me. I may have mentioned that I am a Gene Stratton Porter fan, and along with being a novelist Porter was also something of an amateur naturalist.  Her appreciation for the natural world appears even in her fiction.  In perhaps her most well-known (and my personal favorite) novel, A Girl of the Limberlost, Porter’s heroine earns her way through an education by collecting and selling natural specimens, particularly moths, from the Indiana Limberlost swamp where she lives.  So, while I have had an affinity for creeping things since childhood, my acquaintance with Porter’s novels has romanticized them for me.

I spent a certain amount of time that particular morning, even after the boys had gone, studying and photographing my visitor, expecting that when I opened the door again it would be gone.  I was wrong, however, for when I next left the house, I found the moth remained.  The boys and I continued what became a hobby in the next few days–this constant checking to see if our moth was still in residence.  It had occasionally moved a few inches, but for about five days it stayed on our porch.  The day we came out to find it finally missing left us with a real, but fleeting disappointment.  It didn’t take us long to forget about our visitor altogether.

Yesterday, in a moment of random thought I remembered our moth, and developed a sudden curiosity to identify it.  One brief online search led me to discover that our friend was, in fact, a Luna Moth.  The name alone was an exciting one to me, as it is one of the moths featured in A Girl of the Limberlost, but as I began to read the fine print my interest grew.

Apparently, Lunas are one of the largest moths in North America.  They are not necessarily uncommon, but seeing one is very rare as the creatures generally only live for up to 7 days.  They do not have mouths or eat, they simply emerge from the cocoon, reproduce, and die.

My seven-year-old has a recent interest in unusual animal facts.  A couple of weeks ago while he was astounding us with strange and amazing tidbits of information he was finding in an animal book, he shared that may-flies, similarly, do not eat, but merely live to reproduce and die–their lifespans sometimes being as short as a few minutes.  This spurred me into some thinking and raised a number of questions in my mind (and not just questions of the validity of a life with out eating–although that was definitely among them).  I wondered what function could this creature possibly serve?  What was the point of a life so brief, that was bound to go unmarked.  What was the purpose of a creature that lived merely to create more useless creatures before passing into oblivion.

Yet, here, as if in some kind of answer was the Luna Moth on my porch.  Here was this beautiful, unique, delicate creature that spent what was probably the majority of its life resting at my door.  This visitor in its still, quiet way made me think, and brought me a measure of simple joy. And while I recognize the arrogance in the thought that any of God’s creatures exists merely to give me pleasure, I can say that this creature’s life, however brief, meant something to me.  I don’t intend to forget it.

Some Sandburg

19624868_sRecently, I came home with several books picked from a local rummage sale, including some selected poems by Carl Sandburg.

My previous exposure to Sandburg was limited to the bits and pieces included in various anthologies and literature textbooks, and I don’t believe I ever gave them much thought or credit.  This time, however, I was drawn in, eating up every word.  I’m not sure what made the difference–whether it was reading so many of his poems consecutively, or maybe I feel more of a connection having lived in the Chicago area for a while–but I basically devoured the whole book in one sitting.

I found the writing to be honest, human, occasionally gritty, deliberate without feeling contrived, relevant, and just fun to read.

This one was a favorite:

WORKING GIRLS

The working girls in the morning are going to work–
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
walks.
Green and gray streams run side by side in a river and
so here are always the others, those who have been
over the way, the women who know each one the
end of life’s gamble for her, the meaning and the
clew, the how and the why of the dances and the
arms that passed around their waists and the fingers
that played in their hair.
Faces go by written over: “I know it all, I know where
the bloom and the laughter go and I have memories,”
and the feet of these move slower and they
have wisdom where the others have beauty.
So the green and the gray move in the early morning
on the downtown streets.

I love the contrasting descriptions of the two groups of people, the “green and the grey”: the young working girls living in the present, marching forward in the morning–and the “others” who have been “over the way” and have the answers, the memories, the wisdom.

I also thought that while Sandburg’s poems are not necessarily “pretty” (they were, at the time, a departure from the “elevated” themes and forms of contemporaries) his writing is not without grace.

UNDER THE HARVEST MOON

     Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

     Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Needless to say, I am glad I grabbed the book, and am once again reminded that most things deserve a second look.

Another DC Post…

MandelaThe list of “sights seen” on my recent trip to Washington DC includes a substantial number of important texts, ranging from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, to the first map to actually call this part of the world “America,” to one of the original Gutenberg bibles.  However, the text that made the greatest impression on me during our visit was much less notable, and certainly less known than the others.

I came across this text, called the Robben Island Bible (or Robben Island Shakespeare) at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  I became familiar with Folger during my undergraduate studies, and was therefore interested in visiting the research library, located near the US Captiol on Capitol Hill.  When my entrance into the building one morning, followed by two other college-aged girls provoked the woman at the desk to exclaim “Wow, this is a busy day,” I deduced that this research library was not exactly a highly-frequented tourist destination.

The woman then went on to describe some of the more notable holdings of the library, finishing with what she called “our treasure,” or the Robben Island Shakespeare, on loan from the British Museum.   Apparently, Robben Island is a small Island off the coast of South Africa that has historically been used to imprison political and other prisoners.  One of the apartheid-era prisoners of the 1970s, named Sonny Venkatrathnam, apparently had his wife send him this Shakespeare’s collected works disguised as a religious text during a brief period when prisoners were allowed one book.  Venkatrathnam read and shared his collection with his fellow prisoners, more than thirty of whom signed the book next to their favorite passage.

Among the signatures is Nelson Mandela’s, who signed next to the passage in Julius Caesar which says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

I found the story inspiring, both as a testament to the lasting and varied relevance of Shakespeare’s words, but also as another piece of evidence of people persisting in maintaining their humanity in situations meant to strip them of it.   Definitely a sight worth seeing.

Happy Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

Pride and Prejudice turned 200 years old this week. So, although this novel is perhaps not my preferred Austen (that would be Persuasion), it was the first of her novels I read, and is still a favorite.  I specifically remember sitting on my bed on quiet seventh-grade afternoons and reading through this story for the first time…and realizing there was a whole world of great books out there of which I had only just scratched the surface.

It is not a perfect novel, nor perhaps is it very weighty or profound, but there is something universal enough about the characters and issues that have “stood the test of time,” even so much as to become (I believe) part of our Western collective subconscious.  It has certainly become part of mine.

I chose this particular scene because (unlike some of you) I actually really liked the 2005 version.  I thought it transferred the story into digestible cinema (Austen fans probably find the miniseries digestible as well–but we’d be the minority) while retaining a central loyalty to the novel.  My contemporary self liked the everyday-life feeling of this version, and although Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth took some getting used to, she grew on me.  This particular scene, also, is really well-done (hardly cut!), and I like the contrast between the harmony of the dance and the conflict in the dialogue.

 

Welcome

Yes, the official author page for Kelli Swofford Nielsen is finally launched!

Actually, my excellent web designer, Chad Lanenga, has had this ready for weeks, and I, realizing that I would finally need to have some text on this lovely website…have been dragging my feet.  What should I say?  What could I write that readers would possibly want to hear?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard a broadcast of a radio program on my Chicago public radio station, WBEZ called “This American Life.”  You can find the transcript here, although listening is recommended (see Act One: South of the Unicorns).  I listened, drawn in by the account of magazine editor Logan Hill, who shared his youthful idolization of fantasy author Piers Anthony.  He talks about devouring the works of this prolific author of magical stories.  However, to him what was more remarkable than the stories were the lengthy “authors notes” Anthony would include at the end of his novels.  They were usually unrelated to the book and were more like a personal diary about his daily life and his “farm” in Florida.  Hill talked about being drawn into these notes that felt more like a personal conversation with the author than a formal postscript.

Later in life, Hill met and befriended another Anthony fan who had been similarly influenced by the author notes.  In fact, in the midst of his difficult childhood this man, Andy, had been so enchanted by the pleasant-sounding normalcy of Anthony’s life in Florida that, at age fifteen, he actually ran away from home to join it.  What follows is an extraordinary story of a young boy who, using Anthony’s maps of his fantastical land, Xanth, and their similarity to Florida topography, was able to pinpoint the unknown location of Piers Anthony’s farm, and managing to secure money, airplane passage, hotel room, and transportation, traveled across the country to wind up on the doorstep of his author hero.

Moved by this broadcast, I recalled a surely less tumultuous, but nonetheless challenging time in my adolescence when I escaped happily into my favorite fiction.  Amidst the throng of light-hearted classics, and various fantasy novels, I became acquainted with the works of Gene Stratton Porter.  Porter wrote mostly out-of-print, old-fashioned stories of humble lives touched by friendship and love.  And although the stories did tend to present a somewhat overly romanticized life view with truer than true characters, I loved the gentle journeys of sincere emotion amidst the beauties of nature—in particular the grand Indiana Limberlost Swamp.

Having spent my entire life in the west, imagine my delight when my first departure to live elsewhere took me to Indiana some years ago.  I admit my first thought was that I would be able to visit the Limberlost.  I located the Gene Stratton Porter Historic Site a couple of hours from my home.  Here, visitors could tour the cabin built on the brink of the swamp, where Porter had written many of her novels, including my favorite, A Girl of the Limberlost.  One weekend, my obliging visiting mother-in-law in tow, I made my pilgrimage to the place.

The cabin was merely a roadside stop on a long stretch of Indiana farmland.  The once 13,000 acre swamp (that got its name when “Limber Jim” Corbus, went hunting in the swamp and never returned) had long since been cleared.   However, once I entered the actual home of my writing hero, I was taken back to the world of my favorite stories.  The kind woman giving the tour was just so enthused that I had heard of Porter, let alone read nearly everything she wrote, that she pulled out all the stops (or at least I like to think she did). I saw every room, got all the stories, and even got to sit and play “The Song of the Limberlost” on Porter’s now-antique organ and sit at her desk.

As I learned more about the woman who preferred to spend her time outdoors, who collected wildlife, who was something of an oddity in her small town, who couldn’t cook to save her life, who had a special loving relationship with her husband and daughter, and who sat at a little desk by the windows, where the most light would touch her to think and write, I felt a closeness to this woman.  I had to drive down the road to one of the remaining swatches of swamp, and sit in the trees and take pictures of the moths and butterflies in her honor.

Clearly, as Journey to the Fringe is my first novel, I am far from being a Piers Anthony or a Gene Stratton Porter.  However, I do know that when we read something that we love, that captures or entertains us—imperfect as the text may be, a connection forms between author and reader.  So, if some time in your journey you stumble accidentally upon me, or even more surprisingly you come in search of me the way Andy and I journeyed forth to meet the originators of our favorite stories, perhaps it will be the simple details—like a farm in Florida, or a sunlit writing desk, or one of my nonessential personal ramblings in the vast sea of authors and writers that will make us feel connected in a sometimes disjointed world.