Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dinosaur Nests! South Africa

Dear Helen, Dear John,

In South Africa's Golden Gate National Park erosion has helped reveal the oldest known dinosaur nesting site in the world. While everything we think we know about dinosaurs is based on theory and conjecture, this site gives many clues into the development of baby Massospondylus in embryo and beyond. It appears that like Antarctic penguins, these dinosaurs returned repeatedly to the same nesting site where they nested as a community, which I think is pretty fascinating.

I think part of what makes the study of dinosaurs exciting is that it is one of the ultimate treasure hunts. The sheer scale of these animals, coupled with how little we really know about them, lends itself to imaginative play- even for adults with fancy degrees attached to their names. I spent many hours in sandboxes dreaming of dinosaurs. In fact, my brothers and I sometimes buried dinosaur figurines in our backyard for the express pleasure and delight of discovering and digging them up again.

I haven't thought about those times in ages. It's brought back good memories for me over the past few days and a reminder that at one time, I was,

Your backyard paleontologist,

Melanie

Monday, January 30, 2012

Troilus and Cressida

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Everything I've been reading for Shakespeare Reading Month has been taking me longer than I expected. This hasn't been a bad thing because the primary reason for it has been that so much of what I've been reading has set me thinking, and thinking takes time.

A Shakespearean Actor Prepares by Adrian Brine and Michael York has a multitude of paragraphs that have had me thinking and exploring for days afterwards. This insight from page 79 helped me enormously in appreciating my first reading of Troilus and Cressida:
(speaking of Shakespeare) ... But he was a visual writer- he needed to write about things he, and his audience- could see. A ladder, a bucket, an oil-lamp, a river in flood, a flash of lightning- these are visible things. 
     But Ambition? Guilt? Sorrow? Kingship? 
     Abstract words. 
     Invisible things needed to be made visible. He could not let an abstract word slip from his pen without straightaway linking it with a concrete image.
Invisible things needed to be made visible- I love that. Isn't that what all great teachers, leaders, and artists strive to do- help invisible things become visible to us?

It was being prepared to look for these "invisible things made visible" in his writing that helped open Troilus and Cressida to me. Gems like this one from Act III, Scene 2: "When time is old and hath forgot itself." I love the beauty and simplicity of that line. It makes visible something inherently abstract to us, that, like the wind, we cannot catch or keep, but can only see and feel in its passing.

Shakespeare didn't use this technique to make only words visible, he also used it to reveal character: "...he hath the joints of everything; but everything so out of joint that he is a gouty Briareus, many hands and no use; or purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight." (Act I, Scene 2)

I enjoyed how Pandarus taught Troilus about the need for diligence and patience through the imagery of making a cake:
Pandarus: ... He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding. 
Troilus: Have I not tarried? 
Pandarus: Ay, the grinding; but you must tarry the bolting. 
Troilus: Have I not tarried? 
Pandarus: Ay, the bolting; but you must tarry the leavening. 
Troilus: Still have I tarried. 
Pandarus: Ay, to the leavening; but here's yet in the word hereafter, the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven, and the baking; nay you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips. (Act I, Scene 1)
Portions of Troilus and Cressida deal with people failing to be patient and diligent in purpose, love, and battle; while others show people who pursue a particular course of action at all costs. Both extremes lead  to suffering.
O, then, beware;
Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves;
Omission to do what is necessary
Seals a commission to a blank of danger;
And danger, like an ague, subtly taints
Even then when we sit idly in the sun. (Act III, Scene 3)
It can be painful to stop pursuing a course of action we have chosen for ourselves even after we have been given warnings and indications that, enticing and worthy though it may seem, it is not the right path for us. Hector's words from Act II Scene 2 and his subsequent actions make the consequences of such decisions both tangible and poignant: "...thus to persist In doing wrong extenuates not wrong, But makes it much more heavy."

For me, Hector's story is the most compelling of the entire play. It is one of the few times I've wanted to shout caution to a character in a book or play knowing full well that he wouldn't hear me and that he wouldn't listen to me if he did.

I enjoyed Troilus and Cressida far more than I thought I would. It shows war as complicated not simply between the warring factions but between, and within, those behind each line. All of the characters felt real and believable to me. I definitely want to read it again because as Hector said to Achilles in Act IV, Scene 5: "O, like a book of sport thou'lt read me o'er; But there's more in me than thou understand'st."

Reading to understand better,

Melanie

Peru, Popcorn, and Chocolate

Dear Helen, Dear John,

You've gotta love a country who makes it into the news because they popped corn anciently and have a surprising variety of chocolate flavors that we will have to wait years to taste (longer if we're cheap). What I want to know is how they popped their corn because before the arrival of the air popper my family got for Christmas, the odds were about 50-50 that I was opening windows and doors frantically in an attempt not to set the smoke detectors off while burning mine.

What did I learn about cocoa beans by looking into Peru? I learned that the flavors of cacao beans are influenced by the region where they are grown, so certain types of cacao beans will only possess their distinctive flavors when grown in these regions. This is similar to how Vidalia onions are only really Vidalia onions when grown in specific counties in Georgia. This discovery has the potential to be a wonderful boost to the farmers who live in Peru, which, to my mind, is high on the scale of awesome.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy playing mad scientist-chef in my kitchen, altering the taste of my popcorn and hot chocolate by experimenting with the contents of my spice cabinet (because almond extract + dark chocolate cocoa powder + hot chocolate = five minutes of heaven in a cup and adding a little ground pepper to slightly buttered popcorn really makes it *pop*- a trick a Tennessee friend taught me).

Buen provecho,

Melanie  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Playing Shakespeare

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I have been developing an appreciation of Shakespeare for many years, but it wasn't until I started playing with him that I really came to like him. Something special happens once Shakespeare finally gets inside of you- in your heart and in your head. Daniel McCall touches on this process with a Shakespearean sonnet he memorized as a child in the clip I posted on Why Memorize Poetry?

My first Shakespearean breakthrough came when a high school production of Romeo and Juliet at my sister's school spoke to me- not an easy task. I had not enjoyed my previous exposure to this play in high school at all. Realizing that I had experienced something extraordinary and that here, locally was someone who could give me sound and practical advice, I wrote the theater director at the school within a week of the performance and asked him for suggestions on how to start getting into Shakespeare the way his students obviously did. I included a self addressed, stamped envelope with my letter and he very kindly and generously replied. He encouraged me to watch as many performances of Shakespeare as I could and to watch Playing Shakespeare if I could track down a copy. Years ago this was difficult (though through diligent searching and a thoughtful Brit I managed). Now that it is on DVD, it is easy. This clip with Ian McKellen from the series was eye opening for me:


How a line is read makes such a difference in feeling and understanding. One way of having Shakespeare come to life for me has been being willing to take the time to read a line, a sonnet, or a speech in many different ways- not being afraid to be silly or to exaggerate- trying it in different accents and with different emphases, whether on a particular word or by stressing particular sounds, such as all the s's or w's in a passage. With all of the repetition, that wasn't monotonous because each reading was different, and with the freedom that playing with the words and the meaning that experience gives, Shakespeare not only started to make sense to me, it became meaningful and fun.

Once I got comfortable hamming by myself, I started practicing with my sister while she brushed her teeth, having her give me an adverb or a way of saying the lines that I was trying to memorize. Olivia's plea to Cesario (Viola) in Act 3 Scene 1 of Twelfth Night is particularly fun to recite with a French or Southern Belle accent. And reciting it while acting like an inept and melodramatic spy making contact and delivering secret documents for the first time? Read the following and imagine it yourself and perhaps you'll see what I mean:
O what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In the contempt and anger of his lip!
A murd'rous guilt shows not itself more soon,
Than love that would seem hid. Love's night is noon.
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth, and everything,
I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause;
But rather reason thus with reason fetter:
Love sought is good, but giv'n unsought is better.
It was hilarious.

I've found that while it's fine to look up vocabulary in Shakespeare you don't know, when I read the passage in several different ways, the meaning tends to slip into me somehow without much strain through context. This makes sense actually, because as an audience member, perhaps especially in Elizabethan times, it would have been fairly easy to miss individual words here and there. Shakespeare writes in such a way that you can usually manage to capture the meaning without hearing every. single. word. Once I realized that, I stopped feeling like an idiot about it and I stopped stressing.

After all of the goofing I did with Olivia's speech, I did what John Barton advised in the clip above, and I thought about Olivia's intention. What did she want from Cesario? Reciting it from that perspective, I was able to recite it with genuine feeling for the first time. It can happen, even when you are not an "actor". After all: "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances / And one man in his time plays many parts," (As You Like It Act II Scene VII).

*bow and smile*

Exit Mel.

This post is part of Shakespeare Reading Month.

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: Papua New Guinea

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I've held on to Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop for as long as my library will allow. It's time to give someone else the chance to explore Papua New Guinea through Sy's writing and Nic's pictures. This book made me wish I was an enthusiastic camper because if I was, and if my health was better, the cloud forest of New Guinea would definitely be a must-see for me.

According to the book, 60% of New Guinea's 11,000 kinds of plants, 400+ species of birds, and 60 species of mammals are only found in New Guinea and they haven't discovered and identified every species yet. If that's not reason enough to go, approximately 1/3 of the world's indigenous languages are spoken in New Guinea. Thatched houses, being called to classes by your teacher blowing a triton shell... if I had known about this place as a seven-year-old, I would have been seriously obsessed with this country.

As it is I have been having fun at one of the sites recommended in the book that has video of tree kangaroos in action as well as the opportunity to see and hear from some of the researchers and members of the local population. I've enjoyed this clip by National Geographic and the interactive web documentary on that page especially.



Exploration and discovery are important because they help keep precious qualities alive within us. They are reminders that there is more to life than what we know. When life is bleak or blah or both, there are so many ways the earth has of showing us that there is a great deal out there beyond our present situations and suffering- exhilerating and glorious things- sights and sounds and tastes and touches that can teach us and lift us if we are willing to keep living and keep looking.  Because of that, I believe that there is a bit of the explorer in all of us. Thankfully, not all forms of exploration require camping and encounters with leaches while trekking our way across distant mountains, oceans, and continents; but they do require noticing, and being willing to stub intellectual toes and mindsets while taking steps into unfamiliar realms, sometimes in dim light, armed primarily with a curious mind and a quiverful of question marks and exclamation points.

?!?!?!?! + love =

Your Melanie

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Road Home: China

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Studying in China I had the opportunity to mingle with a great many people and learn a bewildering number of things. I remember discovering that my brain, when confronted with too much information in too little time to fully assimilate it, actually shuts some of my other senses down. Like the day I had two incredibly friendly people speaking Mandarin to me nonstop for many hours: at one point in the evening, completely exhausted, I realized that while I could see their mouths moving, I wasn't hearing anything that was being said by them in Chinese, or by my roommates in English, anymore. That night, still on language overload, I called out in Chinese in my sleep. One of my roommates answered me back in Chinese in her sleep, startling me awake because I had understood her, and what she had said was in keeping with my dream and had made sense. The next day, mind fresh, I could once again hear what my Chinese friends were saying. Hearing, alas! still not being equivalent to understanding.

The fact that I am baffled when confronted with Chinese written in my own handwriting is extremely annoying to me. All that work, all those hours, all that feeling like a complete idiot for several years so that I can look back at my old notebooks, understand next to nothing, and continue to feel like an idiot... Aggravating! Aggravating! I vow that I will reclaim some of my Mandarin skills before I die, but that is several years ahead in my future for me. I have too many books in French and German stacked precariously in my bedroom daring me to finally become fluent in something, instead of dabbling like a linguistics major in everything. I will joust with them first and if I come out the conquerer with them, which I fully intend to within these next two years, perhaps meeting with some success in exploring a few languages closely related to them along the way, I think I will be equipped with the confidence and energy to attempt to scale Mount Mandarin again.

In the meantime I can still enjoy Zhang Yimou's The Road Home, a gentle gem of a movie that I can't recommend highly enough. It's a beautiful love story, subtly and delicately portrayed, with incredible cinematography and a hauntingly beautiful score. It's about deep things, lasting things. It's about patience. It's about the impact of a good teacher. It's about the love of parents. It's about the love of a son. Because it unfolds slowly, opens in black and white, and requires subtitles for most people to understand it, it can be challenging for some people to get into at first, but I've rarely encountered another movie that touches people of such diverse ages and backgrounds on such a deep emotional level.

The first time I saw it in the theater, by the end of the movie, the entire audience was sobbing. We're not talking about discreet and intermittent sniffles here- we are talking about big, burly men bawling. I didn't mention that last detail to my brother Derrick when I recommended it to him so I wasn't surprised when the first words out of his mouth when he called to talk about it with me afterwards were: "I hate you!" quickly followed by sobs and broken sentences about how good it was.

The Road Home is an excellent introduction to Chinese traditions, history, and culture. It's also a
terrific film about what it is to love and what it is to be human.

Maybe I won't wait a few years to dip back into Mandarin... This Olympic Challenge is going to get me into trouble with my to-do list- again! (As if this surprises you.)

Yours the same yesterday, today, and forever (but with a slightly larger vocabulary),

Melanie

Monday, January 23, 2012

Owen and Mzee: Kenya

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The true story of Owen, a baby hippo separated from his family by a tsunami, becoming best friends with a 130 year old tortoise, Mzee, in Kenya, is one of my favorites. Marion Dane Bauer and John Butler teamed up to create a beautiful picture book, A Mama for Owen, celebrating the remarkable bond between them.

For me, the people who rescued and who continue to care for these two are just as interesting. Wise, brave, and compassionate- I'd love to spend a day with each of them; listening to their stories and soaking up some of their knowledge that they have acquired through passionate study and experience. But more especially, I would like to be transformed simply by being in their presence. I don't believe you can be around people of that caliber without having something wonderful in them tendril out and take root in you. It is the very nature of living, growing things- animal, botanical, and human.

Love and joy from one of the human ones,

Melanie

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Memorize Poetry?

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I read Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle" for the first time yesterday for Shakespeare Reading Month and I confess that that one is going to require several more readings for me to a) understand it and b) decide how I feel about it. I looked up what other people had to say about it and discovered that with this particular poem, I am not alone. Consider it the literary equivalent of math problems, second language learning, and other puzzles that help keep your brain vibrant, strong, and functioning properly. This makes me feel very thirteen in a graduate level literature class... huh? I suppose it's one way to battle the blues that usually accompany my birthdays, helping me to realize I'm not as old as I sometimes think.

And since we're on that topic, I realize that I am not the only one who struggles with the digits brought on by birthdays. Helen, the ONLY way I was able to ascertain your true age was because I happened to know the birth order of your family and your parents obligingly kept all of their children close! I won't tell you how many documents and papers I went through to get that right- government documents- Helen! I bet you are grinning yourself silly about this as I write. I remember that you and Grandma both told me (often) that a woman's age was nobody's business but her own, and that it was impolite to ask. Thanks to you both, it irks me when people, especially strangers, ask about mine, but unlike you and Grandma, if I do divulge my age and year of birth, it is the right one!

I've been watching others share poetry through the Favorite Poem Project. I've seen several of the videos before but I am currently watching the entire collection on a dvd I borrowed from the library. I've been drawn to Daniel McCall's reading of Shakespeare's 29th Sonnet since I first happened across it several years ago. His story reminds me of Joe being put into an orphanage after the death of his father, and of your nights in the Navy, John. It also reminds me of the counsel that John Adams gave to his son, "You will never be alone, with a Poet in your Poket. You will never have an idle Hour." I find Mr. McCall's story and his recitation of this poem moving:


I also enjoy the way my favorite Mr. Darcy does it:


But I must confess that it was due in large part to Jimmy Stewart reciting Christopher Marlowe in the movie Come Live with Me that made me want to memorize poetry myself:


When we have poetry within us and the belief that someone, even someone no longer with us, loves us, no matter where we are or how we feel, we aren't really alone.
For thy sweet love remember'd such love brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Thank you for that love,

Melanie

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Singing Revolution: Estonia

Dear Helen, Dear John,

When I was in college I met one of the people involved in the Singing Revolution that brought about Estonia's independence from the Soviet Union. His passionate love for his country and desire to make things better there had a profound effect on me. It was because of him that over a decade later, when I found a copy of The Singing Revolution in a local library, I checked it out. The courage of the every day citizens shown in that documentary moved me to such a degree that my sister bought me a copy of it for my birthday a few months later.

This particular documentary is my top recommendation for those too young to remember or know what being a part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War was really like. This is the one documentary I pressured my entire family into watching no matter their personal interest level or where they were living at the time. To me, this story is that important.

Having grown up in Los Angeles County during a period of time when the joke was that the four seasons of the region consisted of floods, fires, riots, and earthquakes, the restraint and steadfastness shown by the Estonian people when emotions and fears were near the breaking point is almost incomprehensible to me.

It's a tremendous lesson worth learning and sharing.

Still in awe,

Melanie

The American by Henry James

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Have you ever noticed that losses tend to come in clusters? There's something very Job about the way life works (or doesn't) sometimes. Maybe that's why we have that story- for those times in our lives when we feel like we've lost almost everything- but haven't quite- and we're tempted to go down routes that can only hurt, but since our only other options are going to hurt as well, it becomes a decision of how many people we are willing to hurt and bring down with us in the process...

This is where The Count of Monte Cristo was an epic fail for me. On a less dramatic scale, it is also where The American, by Henry James, is a success. One can easily argue that Edmond Dantes was injured far more than Christopher Newman was- all those years spent unjustly imprisoned- but Christopher Newman hardly came into adulthood swaddled in bubble wrap:
Newman had come out of the war with a brevet of brigadier-general, an honour which in this case- without invidious comparisons- had lighted upon shoulders amply competent to bear it. But though he could manage a fight, when need was, Newman heartily disliked the business; his four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things- life and time and money and "smartness" and the early freshness of purpose; and he had addressed himself to the pursuits of peace with passionate zest and energy. He was of course as penniless when he plucked off his shoulder-straps as when he put them on, and the only capital at his disposal was his dogged resolution and his lively perception of ends and means. Exertion and action were as natural to him as respiration; a more completely healthy mortal had never trod the elastic soil of the West. His experience, moreover, was as wide as his capacity; when he was fourteen years old, necessity had taken him by his slim young shoulders and pushed him into the street, to earn that night's supper. He had not earned it; but he had earned the next night's, and afterwards, whenever he had had none, it was because he had gone without it to use the money for  something else, a keener pleasure or a finer profit. (The American, Chapter 2)
How we face adversity in life makes such a difference. In The American, Monsieur Nioche lives in stark contrast to Newman:
He was an exquisite image of shabby gentility. His little ill-made coat, desperately brushed, his darned gloves, his highly-polished boots, his rusty, shapely hat, told the story of a person who had "had losses," and who clung to the spirit of nice habits, though the letter had been hopelessly effaced. Among other things M. Nioche had lost courage. Adversity had not only ruined him, it had frightened him, and he was evidently going through his remnant of life on tiptoe, for fear of waking up the hostile fates. (Chapter 1)
Choices Newman made as a young man gave him the foundation to make a very difficult decision later on, even while being emotionally involved in ways that make reasoned and wise decision making horribly, wretchedly hard.

Newman's honesty and integrity are rare in life and in literature, and while the majority of this story takes place in Paris during the nineteenth century, it could easily be timely and relevant transplanted to a major city in the United States, today.

I hadn't intended to read The American. After all, I have an ambitious amount of reading ahead of me as it is. I can't even tell you why I chose to read this book in the first place. I have never read Henry James' work before, but I suddenly had a tremendous desire to, and this was one of two books by him that happened to be on my library's shelf. As what usually happens to me in such cases, this book turned out to be the right book at the right time for me. I rejoiced and ached with Newman. His words in Chapter 25 gave voice to suffering I was desperately trying to silence at the time within myself:
In vain Mrs. Tristram begged him to cheer up; she assured him that the sight of his countenance made her miserable.
"How can I help it?" he demanded with a trembling voice. "I feel like a widower- and a widower who has not even the consolation of going to stand beside the grave of his wife- who has not the right to wear so much mourning as a weed on his hat."  
Many of our deepest hurts cannot be mourned at grave sites. Unfortunately, these deaths- of innocence, of relationships, of "early freshness of purpose", of cherished and diligently sought-after dreams- have few safe places for grieving. Often the world scarcely acknowledges or respects such losses even when those losses effectively bury particularly tender and precious parts of us. Trapped beneath the rubble, wondering if we will ever be able to dig ourselves out, the impatient feet of those around us knowingly, or unknowingly, tap the ashes and shards of happier times down upon our heads and call it helping.

Throughout this book Christopher Newman demonstrates the hazards and benefits of being true to oneself in all circumstances. He doesn't always succeed, but when he fails, he regroups and tries more earnestly. As I neared the end of the book, I hoped he was the man I believed him to be, but suffered from a significant number of uncomfortable misgivings as the pages, and his life, turned.

The American reminded me that I need to keep trying to be true to my best and truest self, in the sorrows as well as in the happy bits, regardless of my circumstances or the actions and reactions of those around me.

After I began this book, I chanced upon Library Challenge. Since this book happened to fit January's Challenge I decided to take it and continue on by pursuing the first mini-challenge. I checked out David McCullough's The Greater Journey Americans in Paris from the library which is already tying in with Henry James' book as well as my other reading- always exciting when it happens! I love listening to Mr. McCullough talk about anything- I always learn so much from him and it's like learning history from you again.

Because I will be brushing up on French and reading several books in the language (hopefully within the next few months) I'll be participating in the second mini-challenge too. Whether I'll finish the mini-challenges before the end of January remains to be seen. I'm in the middle of loads of Shakespeare at the moment, but I've made a promise to myself that even if it takes me a few extra weeks, I will finish the work this month that I've begun.

I wanted to say how grateful I am that you both shared your life and times with me. Thank you for the letters, Helen. Thank you for the dances to Glenn Miller, John. And because we all love Jimmy, here he is, as Glenn Miller, performing our favorite song:


With love,

Melanie

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Morning with Shakespeare and Szymborska

Dear Helen, Dear John,

"What's past is prologue..." That bit from Shakespeare's The Tempest Act II, Scene 1 that is engraved beneath the statue of "The Future" outside of the National Archives, has been on my mind all morning since reading Wislawa Szymborska's "Love at First Sight".
[...] They think, that as they didn't know each other earlier,
nothing ever happened between them.
But what would they say: those streets, stairways, and corridors
where they could have been passing each other for a long time? 
[...] maybe face to face once
in a revolving door?
an "excuse me" in a tight crowd?
a "wrong number" heard over the phone [...] 
[...] There were doorknobs and doorbells,
where touch lay on touch
beforehand.
Suitcases next to one another in the baggage check.
Maybe one night the same dream,
blurred upon awakening.
Every beginning, after all,
is nothing but a sequel [...]
These pieces of this poem remind me why I enjoy decharging with Wislawa's poetry. Her poems- spare, pedestrian, and insightful- become monument markers in my soul: love lost here ("Parting with a View"), childhood delights recovered here ("A Little Girl Tugs at a Tablecloth").

Szymborska led me to thoughts on prologues, beginnings, and Shakespeare; and from there my thoughts drifted to Poland and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, one of my favorite role models. He used his hardships and disappointments to spur him on to excellence and to compassion. His memoirs in which he discussed what had hurt him and the choices he had made in those moments because of it- to use those hurts and injustices to benefit others- had a profound effect on my life. One of the great surprises and delights of my book collecting life was unknowingly purchasing his memoirs from someone who had also admired him very much, and who had slipped contemporary newspaper clippings of Paderewski's life and death between its pages and left them there for me.

Paderewski's Nocturne Op 16 no. 4 is perhaps my favorite piece that he composed and Jonathan Plowright plays it brilliantly with tremendous delicacy.


This is one of the pieces I want to learn and memorize so that it is with me always.

There are many other reasons and people who make Poland a special country to me. Commanding Heights, which I watched with my mother (it was a college assignment for one of her classes), opened my eyes to the world in so many ways. It made economics relevant to me. It also introduced me to Lech Walesa, and showed him and Margaret Thatcher in action, something I will never forget. Reading Mary Craig's biography of him introduced me to KOR, a brave group of people who reminded me of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, putting their lives on the line for their beliefs.

I get to learn a great deal about Poland every time I talk with my brother. Something I learned about through him, and absolutely love about Poland, are the models they made of historic buildings for blind tourists that can be touched. What a FABULOUS idea!

I love this country and hope to be able to visit it someday, preferably while Ryan is still there. In the meantime I get to enjoy some of its music and poetry whenever I choose, half a world away.

Mnóstwo buziaków,

Melanie

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Victor Hugo: Classics Challenge, January Prompt

Dear Helen, Dear John,

With the New Year comes the beginning of A Classics Challenge with the first prompt being about the author.

Victor Hugo was born February 26, 1802 in Besançon, France but actually wrote some of his most famous novels (including parts of Les Miserables, one of the books I'll be reading for this challenge) while in exile on the island of Guernsey in Hauteville House

Can I say I am so glad I can read Les Miserables in a typed font in a bound book for the readalong rather than from the manuscript in his handwriting? My brain hurts just thinking about it!

Something I discovered today is that Victor Hugo wrote an entire book on Shakespeare. Seeing as this is Shakespeare Reading Month I may take a reading detour and peruse it for awhile. (This is why it takes me forever to finish reading any book- the tangent possibilities are endless!)

I really need to get away from the computer and into a book before my to-be-read stack doubles.

Curious as ever,

Melanie

Steel Pan: Trinidad and Tobago

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I've read a great deal about Trinidad and Tobago over the past two weeks for my Olympic project. The first word that comes to my mind when I think of these islands is color. In clothes and in food, in the animals and plants, the birds, the coral, the sea and sky- bold colors are everywhere.

I was surprised to find that Trinidad and Tobago have a large Indian population. It turns out that many people came to these islands as indentured servants from India with the ending of slavery. Even though a significant amount of time has passed since then, the African, Muslim, Indian, and European populations seem to stay fairly distinct and separate from one another, but apparently they do celebrate holidays that are important to each group as a country. The language spoken formally is English, with Trini, a creole, used in casual conversations. Hindi is also spoken within the Indian community.

Cricket and football (as in soccer) are popular in Trinidad and Tobago, as is goat racing (with the jockeys running alongside their goats), which actually looks like a lot of fun.

Trinidad, and Tobago in particular, seem like great places to study nature- birds especially. But what interested me most was that Trinidad is the birthplace of the steel pan. The ingenuity that brought this instrument into being, and the process of how steel pans are made is fascinating. It began with discarded oil drums during World War II that were beaten, pounded, cut, and fired into instruments that eventually covered several octaves. As far as I'm concerned, this is recycling at its best!

Humming and drumming against my desktop,

Melanie

Monday, January 2, 2012

Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Dear Helen, Dear John,

BBC Radio has a special program that can be listened to freely for a short time on Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It goes into the poet, the poem, the setting, how poetry is written, how poetry is received- all in thirty minutes. It was brilliant and I really enjoyed listening to it, closing my eyes for a few minutes to black the rest of life out so that I could absorb and concentrate.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year. 
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake. 
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I first encountered this poem while following an exercise program years ago. During the final series of reps one morning, the instructor recited the last few lines against a backdrop of blue skies and summery flora. The words struck me at the time with a force that led me to read a complete compilation of Frost's poems that my father had. Ironically, as I write this, a sportscaster just recited those same lines to highlight a touchdown at the bowl game my stepdad is watching. Perhaps it's a sports thing, or perhaps it is a sign of this particular poem's accessibility.

Either way, I've always liked it. There's a push and a pull in this poem that verbalizes the tugs I feel inside when woulds, shoulds, and oughts dominate my thinking. Amidst all of those tugs and tensions, there is a stillness and quiet, a refreshing coolness that I feel as I read these brief, unpretentious lines. My breathing eases, my mind calms, and afterwards, my heart urges and pulses me forward along my own journey, towards keeping my own promises.

Wandering my way through a worded wood,

Melanie