What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

sounds like birds

Instead of trying to bang out a well-supported thesis-driven argument in half an hour like I normally do (it’s hard, by the way), today I’m going to write a not quite stream-of-consciousness, loosely poetic series of observations. Let’s see how it goes.

One good thing about having the windows open in the house is that I can hear the high, one-note call of the red-winged blackbird currently enjoying our bird feeder. I don’t remember seeing these birds until I moved to the Midwest, and I am still startled when I’m looking at a drab roadside field or that patch of wilderness behind our neighbor’s house and I see that yellow-outlined dab of red on a shiny black wing.

Another good thing about having the windows open is that when I’m listening to my record of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” in the middle of the afternoon, I can share it with my neighbors if they choose to listen. I’m not sure if the little girls giggling on the trampoline in the other neighbors’ backyard really care, but as I’m sitting cross-legged on our bedroom floor doing yoga and enjoying the record, I can imagine one of the girls whispering, “That sounds pretty.”

One good thing about taking a walk toward sunset is that we might hear a mourning dove coo and then look up at our neighbor’s roof and see it outlined against the glowing clouds. The mourning dove’s song is the earliest bird call I can remember recognizing and, I’ll be honest, still one of the only ones I can actually recognize. The sound takes me back to a summer night in my childhood home, where through my open window I might hear a mourning dove or I might hear my dad listening to a baseball game out on the deck.

One good thing about birds is that they remind me to pray. Today I learned about prayer triggers, sounds that remind us to stop for a moment and talk with God. Some people, apparently, pray whenever they hear a siren. I get it, but I don’t want to associate prayer with panic. So I wrote in my journal that whenever I see a bird at our feeder, I will try to remember to pray. There are two reasons for this. One is that ever since we put up this new feeder last week, birds have been flocking to it consistently. So, they will help me to pray without ceasing. The other reason is that Jesus once said, “Look at the birds.” He was teaching his disciples not to worry. He asked them to think about how the Father makes sure the birds get fed–even the ones that don’t live near a well-stocked platform feeder–and how much more precious each of them, the disciples, was in the Father’s eyes. So when my eye is on a sparrow–or when I hear a blackbird sing–I will think about how God watches me.

Another time, Jesus said to his disciples, “Fear not, little flock.” I always picture a flock of sheep there because of that automatic association most of us make between the Bible and sheep, but I don’t know, maybe Jesus was thinking of a flock of purple finches too. One good thing about birds is that they’re always handy for a metaphor.

Wall-E: Pixar’s apocalyptic romance

Last week, I watched Wall-E for the first time in years, and wow, does it ever hold up. Its cultural criticism is sometimes hard to watch, but it’s ultimately a story of hope–though not a cheap one. It’s also not a children’s movie, I would argue, even though it has an adorable protagonist: it’s too slow, too subtle (there’s almost no dialogue until halfway through the movie), and too bleak. It’s also a romance, which makes it unusual if not entirely unique among the Pixar filmography.

Let me take a little detour to make this point. I’m probably forgetting about a few movies, so please feel free to critique my analysis. Pixar is good at making films about the crucial relationships in life: with oneself (Inside Out), one’s friends (Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc.), and one’s family (Onward, Coco, Brave, Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, The Incredibles…I think it’s safe to say that this is Pixar’s wheelhouse). But, perhaps for obvious reasons involving its target audiencePixar doesn’t really do romances. Up, despite its famous tearjerker opening sequence, is not primarily the story of a marriage but the story of an unlikely friendship between a crotchety old man and a quirky little boy. Ratatouille is basically a romantic comedy, but like many rom-coms, it’s more about the protagonist’s development as an individual than about the romantic relationship.

So Wall-E is unusual, because cultural criticism aside, it’s a love story. Wall-E and EVE progress from infatuation to companionship (where many romantic movies stop) to self-sacrifice. Each becomes the other’s mission in life, or “directive,” to use EVE’s term. But their relationship looks outward, too; instead of losing themselves in love, they draw strength from it that allows them to help save the world (and the human race, to which they don’t even belong) in a very literal way. Watching this film with my fiance roughly one week before our wedding, I was profoundly moved by its depiction of a love that actually changes the world.

There’s also another love story in Wall-E, between the humans John and Mary. Though this story gets about five minutes of screen time, it’s important to one of the film’s main themes, the survival of the human race. Wall-E and EVE are almost an apocalyptic Adam and Eve, but they can’t quite fulfill that role because they’re robots (a fact that makes the brilliant depiction of their love an even more stunning achievement). John and Mary, though, can actually carry on the human race, a truth that is not very subtly hinted at when they rescue a whole nursery full of babies. Their relationship, too, is built on selflessness: their meet-cute occurs when they literally bump into each other and are forced out of the insular, self-absorbed life their culture has lulled them into.

There’s so much more I could say about Wall-E, from the apocalyptic landscapes as startling as anything in The Road or The Walking Dead to the beautiful score by MY BOYYYYYY Thomas Newman. (The track “Define Dancing” ranks among his greatest hits in my opinion–plus, that’s a beautiful scene overall.) But I’ll stop here and implore you to go watch Wall-E. Maybe not with your kids. And let me know what you think.

emerging from a tunnel

I’m in one of those seasons (and I mean that in the currently trendy in “inspirational” women’s writing sense, though I’m going to talk about the revolution of the earth around the sun sense later in this post)…Let me start over. I’m in one of those seasons in which I’m having a hard time coming up with wise or even coherent things to say on my blog. (You may have noticed that I didn’t post last week.) I promise I’m having smart ideas right now; I’m just wasting them all on my students. (Just kidding about the “wasting” part, students!) I’m having a ball teaching three literature classes this semester: children’s, dystopian, and my usual intro to lit with a little bit of composition thrown in. The fun part about teaching multiple back-to-back classes in a day is that a topic from an earlier class might lead to an apt illustration coming to my mind in a later class. Yesterday, the sinking of the Titanic came up in both of my classes, both times as an oddball illustration that nevertheless seemed to resonate with my students. And I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about World War One in all three of my classes. And I haven’t even seen 1917 yet!

Oh, that reminds me–I was going to say something about the Oscars. I’m mad at 1917, actually, because I picked it to win Best Picture, and it let me down. I’m not ignorant of the historical significance of Parasite‘s win, and I’m mostly pleased that it did, except that it busted my bracket, to borrow a March Madness metaphor. I believe I would have won my family’s prediction competition had I gotten this category correct; as it was, I came in third out of seven (not bad, I guess. *eye-roll*).

Unlike last year, when I very deliberately watched all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, I had only seen one of them this year, Little Women (which I greatly enjoyed, except that I was a bit troubled by the implication that the whole Jo/Bhaer romance was a fabrication added to please the publisher. Did anyone else notice that?). So I’m going to confine myself to making two comments.

  1. I have to say something about my fave category, Best Original Score. Although I would have liked to see my guy Thomas Newman win, I was happy to see the award go to another young composer (and a woman at that), Hildur Gudnadottir, who composed the haunting (yes, I looked it up on Spotify and listened to it in full, along with all the other nominees) score to Joker. I say “another” because last year’s Oscar went to Ludwig Goransson, another member of what I see as the upcoming generation of composers, for his epic and experimental Black Panther score. By the way, if you haven’t seen The Mandalorian yet, Goransson’s very cool score is one reason to check it out.
  2. I have a crush on Adam Driver. I mention this because he was sitting in the front row and they kept showing him. But you know what? I have an even bigger crush on my fiance, Jordan Martinus. And do you know what Adam and Jordan have in common? They have both lived in Mishawaka, Indiana. True story!

Okay, now that I’ve exhausted most of your patience on preliminary stuff, here is what I actually sat down to write. I went for a walk in the park this morning, and although there was snow everywhere and I didn’t see or hear a single bird, I started to have that feeling I get this time of year when spring is juuuuuuust visible on the horizon. It’s like emerging from a tunnel. Some of my usual reliable signs of winter’s approaching end have occurred: the Super Bowl and the Oscars are over (though the Oscars were early this year–did anyone else notice that?); The Walking Dead is coming back soon; it’s still light outside when I sit down at my computer to work for an hour at 5:00 pm. In a month, my students and I will already be back from spring break, and I’ll probably start making more sense in class because I find my brain is generally clearer in the spring. Oh, and there are just over 100 days left until I marry a guy from Mishawaka. (Jordan, in case you were wondering.) Next time I write to you, we’ll be a little closer to the tunnel’s edge.

 

Ebenezer and the Jordan

I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just taken a break from my blog that lasted a little longer than I had planned. I am still figuring out how writing fits into my priorities during this busy, exciting year, but at present, I have no plans to put the blog on a longer-term hiatus.

Today, I want to share an observation that some of you might, rightly, find a little cheesy. All I can say in my defense is that I value symbolism because it helps me begin to grasp the abstract, something that does not come naturally to me.

Let me back up. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Old Testament account of Ebenezer, the stone that the prophet Samuel set up to commemorate God’s leading of the Israelites. (I recently wrote a short story about this, which I hope to see in print soon–stay tuned.) The word “Ebenezer” is an important symbol for me; I have it engraved on a necklace, and I love its odd, archaic appearance in verse two of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” If one can have a favorite biblical memorial stone, Ebenezer is mine.

But there are other memorial stones in scripture, and the speaker in a webinar I was listening to this past weekend reminded me of the memorial pile of stones (which doesn’t share a name with a Dickens character) that the children of Israel set up in the middle of the Jordan River after God miraculously allowed them to cross it on dry land. And then I thought about how God has led me to a Jordan of my own–my fiance, whose first name is Jordan. (I told you this would be cheesy.) When I moved out here to Michigan in August 2018, I was excited about my new job and ready for a reboot of my life, but the question remained in my mind–why Michigan, in particular? (No offense, by the way. Honestly, you can read here and here about how much I like Michigan.) And now I know why: so that I would be in the same eHarmony orbit as this wonderful man I’m going to marry in May.

Hither by God’s help I am come.

Georgie plants a garden

Good morning to those of you in the US–I’m in Knutsford, Chesire, UK, and it’s afternoon here, but since most of my readers are five hours behind, I’ll accommodate your greeting preferences.

I am here to tell you a short story today. I heard this story while on a Beatles-themed electric bike tour in Liverpool on Sunday. I have not checked the veracity of this story, and I’m not sure if I will–I have no reason to distrust the tour guide who told it, and besides, I like the story, even if there should turn out to be an element of urban myth to it. The story goes as follows: In Sefton Park, one of Liverpool’s many green spaces, there is a lovely Victorian conservatory called the Palm House. It took a beating during the bombings of World War II, and when the future Beatles were growing up, though it was forlorn, dilapidated structure, plants still grew in it, and young George Harrison used to sneak in through the broken glass and look at the plants. (There’s a lot of trespassing in Beatles childhood lore.) It was here that he developed his alleged lifelong love of gardening, which, as a contemplative practice, makes perfect sense to me as a George Harrison pastime.

Many years later, in the late 1990s, a fund drive was undertaken to restore the Palm House. When the fundraisers approached Harrison to ask for a sizeable donation, he wrote a check to cover the entire amount. And today, the Palm House is restored to its former splendor and the site of city events like the choral concert we heard a bit of on Sunday.

I love this story, I love plants, and I love George Harrison. That’s all for today.

stuff I’m enjoying right now

It’s time for one of those posts I do every once in a while about things I’m into, from no particular category, in no particular order.

1. The Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The book club I was part of in Virginia (I keep in touch with these friends and try to read the books when I can) chose book one, The Bear and the Nightingale, as this month’s pick. I voraciously consumed it in a little less than a week, and now I’m on book two, The Girl in the Tower. (I decided to buy the whole trilogy yesterday in book form yesterday even though I already have two on my Kindle. They’ll look nice on my shelf.) I’m loving this historical fantasy about pre-tsar era Russia, with its beautiful descriptions, nuanced and mostly likeable characters, and a fairy-tale quality that comes through in unexpected ways.

2. Audm. This subscription app allows me to listen to long-form journalism pieces from some of America’s most respected publications. It entertained me (and provoked thought) throughout most of my drive from Michigan to Pennsylvania on Friday. I’ve listened to articles (just to name a few) about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, why most Americans don’t cheat on their taxes, and a man who got out of a white supremacist group in Britain and started working against them at risk of his life. I also listened to a profile of folk singer Rhiannon Giddens, which alerted me to her new album there is no Other, which I then looked up and listened to for the rest of my drive. (item 2.5) It’s a haunting, minimalist album that I’m not going to try to describe because I’m already using pretentious music review cliches. Two thumbs up.

3. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)My mom is working her way through all of Adam Sandler’s movies because she and I are going to see him live next week–another story for another time–and I joined her for this 2017 Netflix original featuring Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Emma Thompson, among others. It’s about an ageing artist who has a chip on his shoulder about his declining reputation and, more importantly, who’s made a mess of his relationships with his children. Then he collapses and ends up in a coma, and the kids and his flighty current wife have to figure out what to do. That sounds unpleasant, but the dialogue is fascinating. It’s how real people talk. I aspire to write dialogue like that. There were many moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And the ending was pretty hopeful, believe it or not. Two more thumbs up.

4. Dirty Turtle at The Meadows Frozen Custard. Last night I made my mom go with me on a sort of summer-kickoff mini-adventure. I wanted to watch the sun set from a spot where I’d never seen it before, visit a war memorial (in honor of Memorial Day), drive with the windows down, and eat ice cream. It was a cloudy evening, so we didn’t see much of a dramatic sunset–plus we were nervous that the community park was serious about closing at sunset and that we would get stuck in there overnight, so we just did a driveby of the war memorial and then drove to a nearby housing development where we parked by a vacant lot on top of a hill and watched what was left of the sunset. But we did get a delicious frozen dairy treat, even though I was envisioning hand-dipped ice cream rather than the soft-serve custard that The Meadows dishes out. That’s okay, though–I ended up really enjoying the Dirty Turtle my mom recommended: chocolate custard with walnuts and salted caramel. I’m not sure why places like this think it’s cute to put “dirty” in the title of their food and drink items; I think in this case it just meant that the ice cream was chocolate? I don’t know. But I could definitely eat one of those again. FYI, The Meadows is a chain of custard parlors (? is that a thing?) in Pennsylvania and Maryland only (I think); perhaps those of you in other locations can suggest this flavor combination to your favorite local ice cream joint.

Let me know what you’re enjoying in the comments!

 

 

 

I figured out why women (still) love Elvis.

I’ve never given much thought to Elvis Presley. I guess I’ve just pictured him hanging out somewhere near the top of a list of “most overrated musical artists of all time.” But I recently acquired a three-disc record album called Elvis: 50 Years, 50 Hits (I got it for free) and have listened to it twice now, and I’ve come to a better-informed opinion. I still think that for someone called “the king of rock and roll,” he has a pretty poor output of actual rock and roll songs. I’ll give him “Hound Dog.” That’s a rock and roll song, and a good one. And he’s got a few others along the same lines, though not quite as good. But his repertoire largely consists of excruciatingly maudlin ballads and swoony doo-wop numbers. It’s the latter category I want to focus on in this post because in listening to them, I think I’ve discovered why Elvis makes women…well, swoon.

It’s the lyrics, first of all. The aforementioned “Hound Dog” has this wonderfully bitter refrain (“well, they said you was high-class/but that was just a lie”) that puts in it the same category as Bob Dylan’s triumphs of nasty schadenfreude (OMG, I just spelled that word without looking it up–high five to me), “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Idiot Wind.” But that song is an exception in more ways than one. Most of Elvis’s songs have a tone not of ill will but of a plea for good will. He creates this persona of a heart-bruised lover who’s been hurt in the past and who is now turning to the unnamed female addressee of the song (with whom many female listeners identify, not by accident) and asking her to be gentle. You don’t have to go any further than the titles of some of the songs to see this persona: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “One Broken Heart for Sale,” “I Beg of You.” It’s as if he says to each fan, “I’ve been hurt in the past, honey, but I know you won’t do that to me.” (I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual Elvis lyric, but it could be.)

And there’s something incredibly endearing about that. I won’t make an overgeneralization and say all women, but many women are attracted to a man who is hurt, whether physically or emotionally, and needs our help. The cynical interpretation of this phenomenon would be that we like the power this gives us over a man; the more generous interpretation would be that we (everybody, but especially women) have an innate desire to nurture and care for people. The truth is that it’s probably a combination of the two. I have no idea whether Elvis Presley gave conscious thought to the psychology of all this, but I think he instinctively knew these things.

There’s an implied subtext in most of this songs–occasionally made explicit, as in “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”–that goes something like this: “If you treat me gentle, baby, I’ll treat you gentle too.” (Shoot, I think I missed my calling as a songwriter.) And this message, I would add, is not only sweet but also essential in a culture like ours in which masculinity is often portrayed as mutually exclusive with kindness and tenderness. If that message is sentimental, maybe we need a little sentimentality.

more musical observations

My posts have been taking a musical turn of late, not necessarily by design. Here are two more semi-profound musings I had about songs this past weekend.

  1. In a post several years ago, I grouped together three movies that came out in 1999 and summarized them all with the famous line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (1998): “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” I found myself thinking about this lyric again while listening to a song from just two years later, “Pinch Me” by the Barenaked Ladies (2000). I realize now that I’ve typed it out that this is a really unfortunate convergence of song title and band name (well, let’s just say a really unfortunate band name, period), but the title simply refers to the song protagonist’s feeling that he is asleep and needs to be (but is not sure if he wants to be) awakened in order to face the real world. (By the way, you may know this song better as the one with the line, “I could hide out under there/I just made you say ‘underwear.’”) The song could be read as a plea from a depressed person who can’t muster the courage to even go outside his door. I have a feeling that many cultural critics read it, along with “Iris,” as an anthem of the malaise of late Gen X-ers and early Millennials—people my own age, who grew up hearing these songs as background music—and perhaps some of them connect this malaise with the sense of entitlement that they are so fond of attributing to people in that age range. I prefer to think of true interpretation of these songs as somewhere in between: they’re not only about people with diagnosable mental health conditions, but neither should they be dismissed as the whines of bored young people who have to manufacture problems in order to help themselves feel validated. I would submit that the world has gotten more overwhelming and that people my age and younger are less equipped to deal with it than those who came before us, and these songs are just evidence of that. I’ll leave you with that to ponder.
  2. Now, something more uplifting. While running on Saturday, I listened to one of my favorite songs of all time, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and maybe it was all the adrenaline or the fact that my institution has graduation in less than two weeks, but in any case, I came up with a brief commencement address on the theme of this song. Here it is: Have you ever wondered why we use the term “commencement” for something that we usually talk about as an ending? Also, have you ever wondered why the song says, “We are the champions,” implying that we’ve already won, but then goes on to say, “We’ll keep on fighting to the end?” The answer to both these questions is the same: it’s that the struggle is never over in this life, is it? You’re celebrating the end of college, and indeed you should. You are a champion. But you still face the fight of career, relationships, and just getting through life. You can “go the distance” like Rocky, but then you still have Rocky II, II, IV, IV, and Rocky Balboa and Creed and Creed II—you see what I mean. The Queen song goes on to include several more of these “already and not yet” constructions (to borrow a term from theology): for example, the speaker of the song talks about taking his bows and his curtain calls, but just a few lines later he uses future tense: “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race/And I ain’t gonna lose.” So remember, the fight goes on. But don’t let that discourage you. [And I teach at a Christian college, so this next part applies to my students and is crucial.] Remember that you serve a God who does have time for losers. He gave his life for losers like us, and he makes us champions. The End.

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”

I’ll go ahead and warn you that I’m not totally sure what direction this post is going to take–whether it’s going to turn out profound like last week’s post or be a stream-of-consciousness reflection on how Simon and Garfunkel lyrics have kept coming to my attention over the past week, which is all that I have in mind right now. Just letting you know.

So, yes, last night while I was making a tuna layered salad to chill for tonight’s meeting of my creative writing group, I listened to my Simon and Garfunkel greatest hits record because for days, I had been coming across direct and indirect references to their songs, from a former grad student telling me that “Bridge over Troubled Water” played an instrumental role in the conversion of Christian singer Jason Gray (shout out to you, Kandy, if you’re reading this!), to Max Lucado’s odd but appropriate mention of “The Boxer” in his early book No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, to the Michigan place-name Saginaw, which always makes me think of the song “America” (which, since that’s the most generic song title ever, most people probably think of as “All Gone to Look for America”). (“It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.”) By the way, I haven’t been to the city of Saginaw, but the reason I fairly often think of the name and hence the song is that there’s a thoroughfare called Saginaw (Street? Avenue? It’s just called Saginaw, apparently. They do that a lot around here) in Lansing where the American Red Cross platelet donation center is. Yes, I do drive an hour to Lansing to donate platelets when I could donate here in Grand Rapids with Michigan Blood Services. I’m loyal to the Red Cross, and I don’t mind making the drive once or twice a month, especially now that I have a new Mazda CX-5 that I really enjoy spending time in.

Okay. Rambling. Focus.

There’s a line in “America”–near the Saginaw line, of course–that I never really paid attention to or possibly even heard until last night. (I recently got a new turntable and speakers, and I’m having all these revelations because I can now hear my records properly for the first time.) It says, “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” This line brought a bemused smile to my face as I was chopping cucumbers or whatever I was doing at that moment. Michigan does seem like a dream to me now, not because–like the protagonist of that song–I have passed through it quickly and left it behind, but because I am still here after seven months and yet it sometimes doesn’t seem real that I live here. And I don’t mean “dream” in the sense of “beyond my wildest dreams”; after all, if you told me I could live anywhere in the world, no restrictions, I’d probably pick Italy or somewhere else more temperate in climate and with better food than Michigan (no offense intended). But I’m awed, blessed, and kinda proud of myself that I am not only living in a state that a year ago I’d never remotely considered living in, but also working at a university that a year ago I’d never heard of (but only because it’s a hidden gem)–and I own a house in that state and just a few blocks from that university. I even have a Michigan license plate on the four-wheel-drive vehicle I probably would not have bought in Virginia. But it all feels a little surreal, like an unusually long vacation.

That’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump says. I hope it was sufficiently profound for you. Go listen to some Simon and Garfunkel.