Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Drop Everything and Read! (or listen to a podcast)

Today is the 95th birthday of Beverly Cleary.  Yes, she's still alive.  Around the nation, communities will celebrate D.E.A.R (Drop Everything and Read) Day, which encourages deep, silent reading--so, at some point today, take a break, turn off the electronics, and read for 30 minutes.

I'd be tempted to return to the books of Beverly Cleary, although I confess I haven't read them as a grown up.  I bet they'd hold up well.  At some point, PBS did a multi-show series based on the Ramona Quimby novels, and my spouse and I loved them.

When I was young, Beverly Cleary was one of my FAVORITE writers, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder and whoever was writing the Trixie Beldon series at the time.  I loved Beverly Cleary long before I loved Judy Blume.  And even now, I have a fondness for those Cleary characters that I don't necessarily have for the Blume characters.  That mouse on the toy motorcycle who lives in a hotel!  Ramona, who has the normal problems of childhood (being the youngest, oh, how unfair!), not the scoliosis and larger social problems of the Judy Blume novels.

So, thank you Beverly Cleary, for writing the kinds of books that teach children to love to read.  Now, to find a quiet half hour to sink into reading.

Today is also the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  If you've always wondered about the role of Ft. Sumter, and how the events unfolded, The Washington Post has a great story here.  Actually, I'll have to link to it later--that website seems to be having issues.

I am one of those people who get used to a website and get weary of changes.  The Washington Post just did a major overhaul, and for two weeks, nothing has been working properly.  I get enough glimmers of what it might be eventually to make me see why they're attempting this change, but right now, it's simply frustrating.  Add to that The New York Times' new policy attempting to get big bucks for what had once been free, and it's enough to drive me back to old-fashioned books, the kind I read when I would dive into Beverly Cleary and saw newspapers as boring things that grown ups read.  Maybe my childhood self was onto something.

Even though I grew up in the U.S. South, the Civil War still seemed a distant event--until I moved to South Carolina for college.  There I met people who called the Civil War "The War of Northern Aggression"--and they were serious.  Here people still argued about the Civil War, and though the events took place 120 years ago, people argued as if it happened in their lifetimes.  I've known Civil War re-enactors and scholars and I've gone to battle sites and read countless books, and I must confess, I still puzzle over the meaning of it all.

I think about the ways that technology meant that slavery would continue--or at least, that's what we were taught when we learned about the cotton gin, which made the harvesting of cotton much more economical, the profit margin larger.  I learned about the cotton gin, and not too far from my school in Montgomery Alabama were fields where people still harvested cotton.  I went to college in a town that had just had two mills shuttered, ending a way of life that had given people a moderate living, along with lung disease from the cotton fuzz.  It was a rather desperate time in Newberry, South Carolina in the early 80's.

You wouldn't know it to look at the town now.  The Opera House has been re-opened and the downtown revitalized.  I think about the whole state, how people come to Charleston and never realize how the Civil War flattened the city.  I remember going to the old slave market, which during the early 90's had a kind of low-rent flea market vibe--I shook my head over the disconnect, but I doubt most people thought about it. 

I think about the South Carolina State House, with its lovely grounds.  The summer between undergraduate school and grad school, I worked for a afterschool program which offered all-day programs in the summer.  We took field trips, and several times we went to the State House; the children loved to try to find all the bronze stars in the walls of the building, and we tried to distract them from the sight of the police on the grounds who shot squirrels.  The stars mark the spots where Union cannonballs hit (fired by Sherman?).  Later, in grad school, I'd walk the grounds.  I loved the statue that was dedicated to spirit of Confederate womanhood.

How lovely it would be to find 30 minutes to read about the war.  I'd return to the journals of the women of that time.  How brave they were in the face of such destruction. 

We may feel like we're living in apocalyptic times, but reading those journals reminds us of how we're not, not really, at least those of us industrialized nations.  Even those of us sliding down the economic ladder are not facing the kind of hard times that the Civil War wrought.

I wrote a series of poems about the South Carolina state house, and I'll post one of them below.  But before I do, I must link to Dave Bonta's podcast.  If you don't have time to read, maybe you can have our discussion to keep you company as you work.  On Saturday, Dave and I talked to Diane Lockward about her latest book Temptation by Water, about the writing life, and about technology.  I listened to the podcast last night, and even though I knew what we'd all said, I still enjoyed it.

But now, to the poem, which won't take half an hour of deep reading, alas.  "Progress" first appeared in Clapboard House.  I wrote this paragraph about the poem much earlier in this post, when the poem first appeared online:  "And in case you're wondering about the poem "Progress," let me just give some background. Until 1989 or so, it was legal in South Carolina for a man to rape his wife. I was part of a campaign to change that law. I remember heading over to the State House after my graduate school classes at USC (an easy walk) and watching the proceedings. I didn't testify, since I wasn't married and had no horrifying stories, but I like to think that the fact that so many women jammed the meeting halls led to the change in that law."


The statue, a tribute to Confederate
Womanhood, keeps her bronze eyes fixed
on the statehouse, while her metal
children clutch her skirts. Inside,
women throng into the chambers, this once male
bastion of legislative power.
The current law states a husband
cannot be charged with the rape of his wife;
a wife is property, to do with as a man pleases.
Females of all ages bear witness, testify
to the violated sanctity of home and hearth.
Only one senator remains unswayed
by their pleas for a twentieth century view.
He doesn’t approve of racial integration either.

If you liked this poem, you might enjoy "Modern Abolitionist," over here at my theology blog. 


Kathleen said...

Oh, wow, powerful poem! And I love "her metal children" as a wonderful detail. Oh, my.

I will D.E.A.R. later today--but probably Cather instead of Cleary, as it happens.

Big Civil War celebrations this year in my town. My dad was in one Sat. night, and I am writing two scripts to be performed in the local cemetery in October, about Civil War era people now buried there.

Kristin said...

One of my Newberry, SC friends wrote a similar sounding project: "Ladies of Rosemount," about the imagined lives of women buried in a local cemetary. Lots of powerful dramatic monologues--and it stages well too.

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

i must STOP reading and get on with my day, really. but seriously, though, i will DEAR today; i am planning on an early night anyways. i enjoyed the poem too, of course!

Kay said...

I grew up in and around Manassas until about 5 years ago, and I got the impression that it's now a place that doesn't know if it's southern or not. (Just don't try telling my family that!) I've been to the battlefield before but don't really remember it. It's as if that part of history - both battles - are easily forgotten too.