Friday, March 23, 2012

Into the Deep: Spring Cleaning and Moby-Dick

I really don't like to clean house. It feels like such a waste of time -- like when I was a kid, my grandma used to give me a bucket of water and a paint brush and send me out to "paint" her driveway on a hot summer day. I would work diligently to finish a square of concrete just in time for the water to begin evaporating...

I have the same sensation now as a homemaker: Didn't I just wash these dishes...sweep this floor...sort these socks? Again and again and again like I'm stuck in a time-warp.
Happy Easter!
"For heaven's sake," I say to my kids, "WHERE'S THE MAID?"
"Mommy, you are the maid!" they giggle.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
A few days ago, I was closing in on the half-way point of Moby-Dick. I had completed chapter 42, which is considered to be the "visionary center" of the novel. It was an unforgettable, amazingly cool chapter. Up to that point, I had been clipping along at a nice pace of seven to nine chapters per day. The problem was, my eldest son suddenly had no clean socks for school (I let him wear a pair of mine.), my daughter couldn't find a t-shirt to match the shorts she wanted to wear (We settled on something that was close enough.), and anytime someone walked through the kitchen, a comment was made that the floor felt sticky.

I took a walk through my house and observed this:
Happy Valentine's Day!
and this:
Merry Christmas!
Time for spring cleaning!

Mom agreed to take my little boys overnight, so this morning after my oldest two left for school, I had the house to myself -- well almost -- my precious new baby girl stayed with me of course!

An entire day stretched out before me! I felt very optimistic about what I would accomplish. My goal was to organize the rooms upstairs until around noon and then clean those rooms until four o'clock or so. Afterwards, I would enjoy a leisurely dinner with (part of) my family and indulge in some uninterrupted reading until bedtime. I figured tomorrow I could handle the downstairs portion.

But it didn't work out that way. 
At all. 
I gutted and sorted five closets all day. It felt like gutting a whale. I just kept pulling stuff out. Pulling and pulling. Each of the beds were heaped with clothes -- winter clothes, summer clothes, stuff too small, stuff too large, a few things were even dirty.
It took more than ten hours to organize the bedrooms and closets of my five children. 
I didn't get to the actual cleaning. That part has been re-scheduled for tomorrow. (Before my little boys return!)

It would have been a perfect day for reading. The house was so quiet, a gentle rain came down for hours. I was tempted, but I did not cave. 

Next week will be better. My house will be orderly and clean. People here will be able to find the clothes they want to wear. Moby-Dick is not going anywhere. No, The Whale awaits me!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sea Fever?

I confess when I switched over from the WEM autobiography list to join some others who are reading the novel list, there was one book I was not looking forward to: Moby-Dick. If I had continued on this journey by myself I might have skipped it.

But I'm not going to skip it. I'm going to read it. And unlike Susan Wise Bauer, my revered guide, I intend on reading all of it.

I would be happy to keep my feet planted firmly on dry land. Don't get me wrong -- I love the ocean as much as the next person, but I'm quite happy to enjoy it from the beach. If I am able to keep up with my normal reading pace, I will be on the Pequod for three weeks. 
I've really pulled out all the stops for this one. I mean I am prepared. I read the new "appetizer", Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick over the weekend. My Penguin deluxe paperback edition of Moby-Dick arrived a few days ago. I even loaded the unabridged Audible version, read by Frank Muller, onto my Kindle. 
The plan is to read the printed text while listening to the audio version so I can experience the "poetry"  everyone is talking about read aloud. I chose the Frank Muller version because he talks fast. It should take just over 21 hours.
Also I have my friends at A Classic Case of Madness who will be suffering from sea-sickness along with me. Misery loves company, right?
Here they are: Appetizer and Main Course

What have I got myself into?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wondrous Heart of a Woman

Pondering Hester Prynne While at my Needle

Before I read The Scarlet Letter, I made assumptions about it. First, I assumed that it was a novel designed to draw the reader into a position of sympathy for adultery. Second, I thought that if a woman was condemned to wear a letter "A" sewn to the bodice of her gown and made to live as an outcast for the rest of her life, it would make no sense for her to stay around town.

As for my first assumption -- well, I needn't have worried. Regardless of whatever liberties screenwriters may have taken in depicting this American classic for the masses, there is not a hint of impropriety to be found in Hawthorne's words. It was also a relief to note that Hester Prynne was not quite the blatant adulteress that I expected her to be -- her husband was presumed dead when her indiscretion occurred.

And for my second assumption -- the question keeps coming up among my blog-friends, "Why did Hester stay?" Jeannette, at A Classic Case of Madness, wrote a thought-provoking post on it. You can read it here. I think it is a very good question. If you can't answer that question, The Scarlet Letter would be pointless. The plot would dissolve the instant she walked away.

Of course, she didn't walk away. She stayed.

I came to The Scarlet Letter expecting a novel about shame or "ignominy" as Hawthorne liked to call it; what I got was a novel about fortitude. Hester Prynne was the kind of woman who could have taken lemons and made lemonade. She took that letter "A" which was supposed to stand for "adultery" and over time, turned it into "A" for "able."

In chapter three, "The Recognition," we find a scene rife with conflict. The tension is coming from every direction: the sanctimonious townspeople, stern officials, the "figure on the outskirts of town," the crying baby, the "unadulterated sunshine," the ambivalent minister, and Hester's own conscience. 

Suddenly Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale is the one questioning Hester about the identity of the baby's father. (The reader already knows -- he is the father!) It's a tangled web. I was wondering, What in the world is this man going to say? Yet Hawthorne pulls the scene off brilliantly.

I'm not going to disclose all of the dialogue that ensues. It's the one scene in the book that brought me to tears. (Perhaps it was also all that tension mounting; I was bound to cry at some point.) He ends his interrogation of Hester with this:

Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!

After pondering the novel for a few days, what I keep coming back to is this: "She will not speak!"  Perhaps she would not speak for the same reason that she would not leave: love

Yes I know that in our culture we've got love and lust all mixed up, saying "love" when we really mean "lust." And yes, some lust did occur in this tale about twelve months before the novel begins. But the fact is: I read a novel about adultery and it didn't make me feel dirty. Somewhere along the way -- perhaps in the prison cell where one would expect the seeds of bitterness to grow -- at some point she began to love him. Understand I mean agape love and not eros. Agape expects nothing in return:

My child must seek a Heavenly father, for she will not know an earthly one!

She expected nothing from Arthur, yet she chose to remain near him.
I remember something my aunt once said to me when I was in my teens: "When you become physically intimate with someone, you create a bond --  a rope-- that's very difficult to break; when you have a child with someone, the rope becomes an iron chain." It's interesting that Hawthorne used this same metaphor:

The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.
-spoiler alert-

Hester does eventually leave. But not until after Arthur has died. Several times in the novel she asserts that she has remained true to him.  

And as for her scarlet letter -- she wore it as proudly as a bride would have worn her wedding band.

Have you ever come to a novel with preconceived ideas which turned out to be false?

Do you have another opinion of Hester Prynne? Why do you think she stayed?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Old/New Ticonderoga

Our honeymoon in 2001. Fort Ticonderoga is in the distance.

Finished reading The Scarlet Letter yesterday and started skimming over my notes. In the introduction, Hawthorne wrote several sketches of characters he observed while working in the Salem Custom House. 

One of these sketches was of the Collector, a "gallant old General":
To observe and define his character...was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from a view of its grey and broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain almost complete; but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass and alien weeds.

So of course I had to get out our honeymoon album and revisit my 
happy memories of Fort Ticonderoga.

Inside the fort -- an amazing restoration.

To prove we were there.