Showing posts with label love for stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label love for stories. Show all posts

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Lamp Lighter

Growing up I remember having a vague confidence in my ancestors.  Vague because they were reduced to neat little facts in my mind, like one or two signs of visible fruit - apples or pears - on the family tree.  My mother had a copy of one branch of the family that her uncle compiled, a zigzagging course of names and dashes that had my name clear at the bottom.  I'd been told we could trace our family back to the 1500s somewhere in England, that we had ancestors on the Mayflower (possibly William Bradford himself), and that one of our forefathers lit the lantern in the Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston on the night of Paul Revere's ride.

Vintage Photograph of Christ Church, or the Old North Church, in Boston, Salem St.
My mother has been delving more and more into our family histories of late, and has opened for me a compelling story about our lamp-lighter ancestors.  John Pulling Jr is my seventh great-grandfather.  He is indeed mentioned on the Old North Church websiteOn 18 April 1775, vestryman (a leading member of the church body) John Pulling and sexton (caretaker) Robert Newman hung lamps in the steeple window of the church to warn colonial citizens that the British were on their way to Lexington and Concord. Revere rode on across the harbor, spreading the word in person. H.W. Longfellow, who wrote the poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" honoring his ancestor, does not mention John Pulling.  If you look up the story on Wikipedia, the grand bastion of drive-through history, John Pulling is absent and the credit for lighting the lamps goes to Robert Newman. 

(As a side note, Michelle and I walked the Freedom Trail a few years ago and our Yankee-garbed guide gleefully told us that Revere was drunk that night.  I sincerely doubt this - it would be a gargantuan effort for a man to ride a horse through the dark, over the Boston Harbor while evading British troops and successfully warn the colonists for what would be the battle of Lexington in a state of intoxication.  The idea sullies the efforts of these men.) 

John Pulling Jr, a Mason and a merchant, was married to Sarah Thaxter McBean.  This was the second marriage for both.  She was first married to Duncan McBean, a landowner/businessman, who died shortly after their return voyage (presumably) from the Caribbean.  Their infant child also died on that journey.  John's had two children from his first marriage to Annis Lee, John and Annis. Together, John and Sarah had two more children, Martha and Sarah, called Sallie.  Sallie is my sixth great-grandmother. 

John and Sarah both strike me as strong, passionate people.  John, a vestryman (leading member of the church), was part of the Sons of Liberty with Revere.  On 16 December 1773, John was one of a group of men who, protesting the British tax on tea, went to Boston Harbor and threw an entire shipment of tea into the water - the incident was later dubbed the Boston Tea Party.  John Pulling stashed tea in secret compartments in his writing desk.  That desk has since gone to another branch of the family - but it most certainly does exist. 

Paul Revere and his fellow Sons of Liberty were doing everything they could to thwart British advances by hiding munitions and arming themselves, as tensions grew and battles erupted in the colonies.  They had a simple code planned for a lantern-signal: one by land, and two by sea.  On this particularly night, the British troops moved faster than predicted, and Revere borrowed a horse and ran west to warn the colonists while Newman and Pulling ran up to the steeple and briefly flashed two lanterns in the window.  This alerted the colonists, but also alerted the British, who converged on Christ Church.  

The Old North Church looking toward Boston Harbor.  by Chris2fer

They apprehended Newman who had climbed out of a window.  During the subsequent - and no doubt unpleasant - interrogation, Newman gave up John Pulling's name.  Now indicated in the treasonous act, the British searched John's home, which was in the neighborhood but did not find him or his family.  John was actually hiding in a wine cask in the cellar.  Sarah, having sewn the family's silver and strips of tea into her petticoats to get it passed the British, had fled with the children to Cohasset, Mass. to hide in a cooper's shop (that's a maker of barrels and casks).  According to our sources, the shop was little more than a shack.  Sarah would later give Martha in this hiding place.

John, disguised as a fisherman, rowed a skiff to Nantasket (up the beach from Cohasset).  He joined Sarah and the children in Cohasset where they hid until the British left Boston later in the war. The family had fled with very little in the way of belongings, and had only each other.  John was never caught, but his life was changed.  A traitor to the Crown, his property was seized and he lived as a fugitive, in hiding and suffering, until his death nearly twelve years later.  He died at age 51 and is buried in Boston. 

After John Pulling died, Sarah took the children to live in the town of Abington. There Sallie would marry Isaac Reed.  Their daughter Lucy would eventually marry her second cousin, Jesse Reed.  To make the situation even more confusing, Sarah herself married (for the third time) another Thomas Reed, Isaac's father.  And the rest is history.  (My great-grandmother was a Reed who married a Poland.  My grandmother married a Pike.  My mother married a Boston.  From Sarah and Sallie on down we have a history of strong women in our family.  Not to cast all of my fathers and grandfathers aside...)

But it isn't "just" history.  I am connected to a family legacy - not of famous poems and bronze busts in museums, ballads and paintings and statues - of sacrifice and loyalty to family.  John Pulling Jr in every way exemplifies what it means to be an American and a Christian.  He committed treason; had he been caught, he most likely would have been executed.  Dying an early death, leaving his family destitute and exiled from home, is not a pretty story.  But what is beautiful about it is its plainness, its honesty, and its hope in something beyond the reach of the British Empire, beyond the grave. 

The next time I am in Boston, I will definitely visit the Old North Church, find the pew that bears my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather's name (if there is one), and thank him for being there all those years ago to strike a match and light a lantern, knowing full well what would happen next.  I can only imagine what that felt like.

Old North Church #3 by Tim Sackton

Monday, July 29, 2013

Thoughts on Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Once in a while, I stumble upon a work of prose that turns out to be a breath of fresh air and a genuine comfort to me.  I've recently discovered Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, subtitled "Some Instructions on Writing and Life."  If you've not read this wise and funny little book, I recommend it. 

Bird in hand
Bird in hand by jcandeli 

It is always a great relief to discover someone who has also struggled with writing anxiety and has learned to thrive in spite of it.  It's also a comfort to know that I'm not the only one plagued now and again by the strange terror of dying suddenly before I can fix things in my work-in-progress. Bird By Bird is very much a conversation between Ms. Lamott and her readers about the process and perseverance of the writing life with an electric sense of humor.  Most of what she has to say I'd absorbed before in writing classes and workshops, but it was oh so good to read it again in her voice.  "We are just going to take this bird by bird," she says (p 20), in other words step by step.

One ray of sunshine that she offers us is the concept of the "shitty first draft."  In fact, it's not a concept - it's a fact.  "All good writers write them.  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts... I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. (p 21)"  I need to pin this to my board (or my forehead), because I have do have a wild tendency to fantasize about published writers and the apparent ease with which they "should" be working.  But art isn't easy.  It's really hard, and yet really good.

Perfectionism messes us up and keeps us from completing anything: "the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and your shitty first draft" (p 28). Lamott emphasizes the beauty of sheer effort, perseverance, writing for the sake of the story, silencing the voices in our heads that tend to lead us off course.  Trust your intuition - the creative, irrational part of you, she says, "but be careful: if your intuition says that your story sucks, make sure it's your intuition and not your mother. (113)" 

We should be focused on story and conveying truth through our characters, getting to know them instead of forcing them to conform to some preset notion of what a story is. The thing is, we won't know what the story will be, what will happen unless we follow our instincts and continue unconsciously down the path of discovery. Ms. Lamott reminds us that we shouldn't write solely for publication, but to write to give something back to others, to let something out of ourselves.  "I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy" (214.) In other words: aim for the joy of story, not publication.

The over all message from this book that I intercepted was that the rest of the world will think I'm crazy, but that's okay.  It struck me that I should be writing a wider variety of things - bits and bobs, journals, bloggings, stories - persevering in them and pushing back the road blocks to enjoying the writing life.  I do have days when sitting down to my awful first draft (or any draft, if we want to be honest) feels like climbing Mt. Everest in 4 inch heels with a broken toe.  I'll just take a couple of deep breaths, put the nagging overly-rational voices aside and tackle the story - whatever it is - bird by bird.  Thank you, Anne Lamott. If we should chance to meet sometime I will greet you with a big hug.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 30: Anthropomorphic (jillian)

Today's word is...


Try saying that three times fast!  Anthropomorphic (an adjective and proof that if you force yourself to write it out several times you will eventually learn to spell it properly) simply is an act of attributing human qualities to non-humans. 

No one was better at this than Beatrix Potter.  I grew up with tales of Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin - speaking, getting into trouble, trying to run away from home (and sometimes winding up victim to a family of kitten-hungry rats... roly poly roly...).  It filled me with such joy when I heard Emma Thompson, actress and writer, came to write the further adventures of Peter Rabbit.  On NPR today, there is an excerpt with illustrations of the new book, and it seems to be as charming as its predecessors.  Please take a look!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Thoughts on Ms. Rowling (Jillian)

Today is the day J.K. Rowling's first novel since Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy, is/will be released to the public.  As a writer about to enter into the publishing world, my little novel clutched hopefully to my chest, I can't help but admire Ms. Rowling's quest to continuing writing in spite of all the mounting pressure.  Will it be as good as Harry Potter? Will she be able to successfully separate herself from the wizarding world?  Can she handle it?  I don't have the answers to those questions, because I'm not her, but I believe she is doing a very brave, intrepid thing, breaking herself away from the creative world that brought her so much success and trying her hand at something new, a totally different kind of story.  I wish her the absolute best.

Allan Massie of the Daily Telegraph has an interesting blogpost this morning on Ms. Rowling, asking: how do you deal with a book by an author who has achieved such a phenomenal success as Harry Potter?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Six Hundred Years Ago... (Jillian)

Today is a phenomenal, once-in-a-century occasion. Today, the 6th of January 2012, is the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc. Born in 1412, she would die at nineteen, burned at the stake by her English enemies. Hers is a story that has endured the centuries, one that had inexplicably become personal to this humble writer. Despite the ways in which we have misconstrued and misunderstood her, we still remember her better than many figures of our own more "enlightened" age.

I could write (and probably should) write a book about her. As far as stories go, hers is both history and legend. She has become a symbol beyond a saintly martyr to represent feminism, French nationalism and even new age groups. Questions abound. Was she crazy or did she actually hear the voices of saints? Was she a witch as the English claimed her to be? Did she actually lead the ragtag French army to victory, crown a king and pave the way for a stronger, united France?

In the midst of our questions, the facts remain fascinating to me. We don't know the nature of her voices - but Joan had faith that they were real, that they were from God, and that their counsel was the only path to her rescue... even if that rescue happened to be through fire. Hers ultimately is a story of that awesome faith. She did not aspire to be a saint. She wore masculine clothing to protect herself. Somehow, against all odds, she rose from humble obscurity to meet the king, and he believed in her mission - so much so that he commissioned armor for her and gave her command of his army (even if the generals didn't much like her). This is HUGE. Why? Women in battle, much less leading battles from horse back in expensive armor was UNHEARD of in the Middle Ages.

At the start of her mission, she sent a request to the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois to unearth an ancient sword that had been buried and forgotten behind the altar there since the 700s. The monks did as they were told, dug it up, wiped the rust off and presented it to her. There is also speculation that said sword was used by French hero Charles Martel in the 700s to drive the Saracens from France.

She chased prostitutes away from the army camp. Legend has it that she broke the above mentioned sword doing so.

She was injured in the Battle at Orleans in 1429. An arrow pierced her left shoulder, just an inch or two above the heart. The English were ecstatic. "We killed the witch!" they shouted. Joan was actually very much alive. She pulled the arrow out of her chest with her bare hands, mounted her horse and rejoined the battle. The French won their first major victory.

She reported that her voices told her sometime around the battle of Orleans, that she would have "a year and little more" before her mission would end in her capture. She was right. She was pulled backwards off her horse by Burgundian soldiers in that period of time, and sold to the English for a sum of 10,000 francs.

While imprisoned in the town of Beaurevoir, she disobeyed her voices and dared to jump from the tower in which she was held. She sustained few injuries and almost, almost escaped.

She was tried by the English Church, holding fort in Rouen, Normandy. They were determined to see her tried and killed as a heretic. To do so, they bombarded her with interrogations to confuse her answers, but she did not give into them. Their main argument (shoddy at best) was her use of men's clothes. They forced her into submission with the promise that if she wore a dress she could hear Mass and take the Eucharist. She recanted later on, on counsel of her voices, sensing a deception.

They burned her at the stake on 30 May 1431. The wood was wet, so the fire smoldered and she burned slowly and painfully. When she cried for a crucifix to be brought before her, one of the priests, taken by pity, complied. Her ashes were gathered up and thrown into the muddy Seine River, but it was reported that her heart did not burn. Whether or not it did, witnesses - monks and priests alike - murmured remorsefully that they'd just burned a saint. This is a recorded fact.

I know that she is with me today in her enduring story - though colored by legend and rumor of six hundred years it may be. She is strong enough to with stand that.


For a thoughtful article on her 600th birthday, read what Christopher Howse of the Daily Telegraph had to say.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book to Film (Jillian)

Still from The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman. Due out next year.

As a writer, I have a great (perhaps natural) interest in books that grow up to be made into films. I do get a little queasy, however, when such a film deviates from its original material to the extent that it is an entirely different story. But I always come back to my philosophy: a novel and a film are two completely different art forms - words and images - therefore, they cannot and will not be able to convey a story in the exact same way.

Twilight and Harry Potter aside, the biggest discussions I've heard (and perhaps been a part of) in the last several years, have inv0lved the innumerable film adaptations of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte's novels, new television and film revivals of Sherlock Holmes, an Oscar-contending remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and excitement over The Hunger Games, which hits theaters in March. The Hunger Games, by the way, looks exactly the way I envisioned it. I'll have a quiver in my spine till I can go see it!

There is an unconscious desire among fans for a perfect film version of Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Many cite the 1995 "Colin Firth" version of Pride & Prejudice as "the best", whereas others appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the 2005 film. For Jane Eyre, the debate has recently been strung between the 2006 BBC version starring Ruth Wilson, and last year's film starring Mia Wasikowska. There are as many opinions as there are films. One thing it does show us is that these stories resonate strongly... that we want to see it retold again and again, from different camera angles, with different faces, with new music, in new colors. This kaleidoscope of story is an incredibly beautiful thing!

What prompted my thoughts today is a quiver of excitement about The Hobbit. A trailer was released this week, a year in advance. I have to say I was skeptical about The Hobbit being brought to film (actually two), as the story, frankly, is a bit of a hiccup of events prior to The Lord of the Rings. Knowing Peter Jackson, I am well aware that liberties will be taken, that story lines may be embellished, and the final product will be spectacular.

Having seen the trailer, I am excited - not because this is a translation of a beloved story into film, but because it looks as good as The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings, books and films, has an incredibly special place in my heart. I will see The Hobbit next year knowing 1.) this is a mixture of Jackson's storytelling with Tolkein's storytelling; 2.) it will have a lot more in it than the book did; 3.) I may not agree with some of these creative changes, but; 4.) I will enjoy it very much.

In other words, to boycott a film because it isn't exactly like the book is silly. In some ways, perhaps the film of The Hobbit will delve deeper into plots and journeys (and not just because this story happens to feature a company of dwarves). That's possible, isn't it? But even if it is "better" or least "flashier" than the book, the film can in no way replace the book. A film is only a retelling.

One more example of novel-into-film is Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Book and film do not match because the story is told in different ways: the book is far more mysterious, magical and shadowy than the film; the film is faster, more adventurous and more perilous than the book. I love them both, just as I love the original and retold versions of The Lord of the Rings, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.


As a side note, I am a little curious about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, mostly as a study in character. What I've read of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander intrigues me, but I am not sure I'd want to be witness to the violence and brutality that inevitably comes with the story. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stories That Still Haunt Me (Jillian)

Walking by my favorite local used-and-rare-books shop this week, I noticed a chillingly familiar title on display in the window. Timely, as All Hallows fast approacheth, the book is Scary Stories To Read In The Dark, one of three in a series by Alvin Schwartz, that I devoured as a fourth grader. These stories were read aloud in class around Halloween , and then my curiosity lead me to read them all. Though why, I can't hardly tell you... except that mine was the generation of Bonechillers (also gave me nightmares), Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Scary Stories was by far the most frightening. And yet I did read them. And remember them. And can't forget them. Yes, I am haunted.

Among my chilling recollections of these stories are a creeping thing that rises out of the local graveyard (visible only by its glowing green eyes) to devour other bodies and attack a girl in the town, a man who eats his neighbor's liver, a ghost family, baby spiders emerging en masse from a girl's face, dead people in a church...

I'm pretty sure I had nightmares about these stories, especially the thing-with-the-green-eyes story because I lived two blocks away from a cemetery, and could see it from my bedroom window. What amazes me, especially looking on the particularly grotesque artwork (see above... althought believe me, the original image I included here was worse), is that I kept reading them. And that years later, I would get a chill down my spine when I catch a glimpse of those books in a shop window.

The power of scary words is long-lasting - it lies dormant until something awakens it, that fear of the unknown, or what should never be... or a current obsession with the X-Files. Whatever it is, I am easily ensnared by the power of words. I am the cat Curiosity didn't kill but definitely did tease.

I won't be reliving the horror of the Scary Stories, anytime soon, mind - though I wonder if they are actually as malign as I remember. I'm not willing to resurrect the bad dreams of yesteryear. Instead, I will listen to my Autumn Playlist, write about an English autumn, and become Dana Scully for one night of mayhem.


I heard JS Bach's Toccata in Fugue in D Minor this afternoon (the Stokowski arrangement for full orchestra), and had chills. It is such a masterpiece. It is odd how it's opening notes, duh-uh-uh-DUH-uh-nuh-nuh-uhhh, have become synonymous with Halloween, haunted houses, and a vampire playing an organ. The entirety of the piece is so transcendent and hardly sepulchral.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dilemma of the Hood (Jillian)

There are a few stories of which I am vehemently protective. These range from depictions of Joan of Arc (don't mess with her!) to George Lucas' mishandling of his Star Wars saga to the utter joy of watching Jane Eyre beautifully captured by Masterpiece Theatre. Inevitably, as the summer movie season draws ever nearer, I go into that guardian-mode, growling like a Twilight-vampire about to strike... in defense of Robin Hood.

One reason I love this story - and will always love this story - is that it is a legend that has vined up through the ages and has been passed from folk ballad to poem to theatre to film. People are still drawn to the subliminal magic of the outlaw in the woods standing up for the oppressed and defending his beloved England. There have been countless interpretations. Robin and Marian and the Merry Men have been captured in varying shades of light, color, texture and shadow. It is organic and uncontainable. It will continue to evolve, thrive and vine until the end of time, because it reflects the determination of the human spirit and the prevailing power of faith, loyalty and love in the midst of darkness.

I am, however, very, very skeptical of Ridley Scott's version, due to arrive in theatres this summer. As a general rule, I try to refrain from passing judgment on art until I have seen and experienced it; and I endeavor to be positive. But there are exceptions to this rule. I grow queasy when I see the trailers showing big, muscle-bound Russell Crowe leaping into battle on a horse - mud and blood flying everywhere. To paraphrase my sister, it looks way more like The Gladiator than a retelling of the spritely, elusive legend. Of course, because it's Scott, it is going to look that way. It is going to be wrought with war and shadow and grit and agony, etc. But that is not the story I know.

"A retelling! A retelling!" you might exclaim, pointing to a previous paragraph. Sometimes, I admit, there have to be new verses that don't necessarily reflect the original strain of the song we've heard before. But in this case, if the song, the ballad changes too much, is it the same story? Is Robin Hood still Robin Hood if Ridley Scott retells his story as a brutual, hopeless bloodbath?

I don't know. I can only say that previous retellings including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the BBC television series starring Jonas Armstrong are closer to my heart (particularly the latter). They achieve the right balance of wit, energy, cleverness and bravery. They are not devoid of blood, but they aren't saturated in it, either. Particularly when it comes to the BBC series, there is a brilliant balance of newness and traditional elements to make it fresh and exciting... and to keep me guessing, crying and laughing. It paints the picture of a legend of an outlaw sacrificing himself for the good of his people, his king and the woman he loves, rather than an epic on the scale of the Iliad.

That said, I dread Ridley Scott's Robin Hood as an excuse to create yet another money-grabbing blockbuster with big names and little semblence of the original spirit of the story. Quite frankly, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, while they are excellent actors, are a little too old and a little too well-known to make me comfortable. I see only Crowe and Blanchett, not Robin and Maid Marian.

I've heard other whispers that this film might "change" other things as well: that Robin isn't battling the Sheriff of Nottingham so much as the French, which may seem historically accurate, but in the grand scheme of things is more irrelevant. (Why? If we're looking Robin Hood from a more historical perspective, if it is set in the 1109s, France was still under control of England, and King Richard I spent most of his reign, when not crusading, in France.) So the Sheriff and Prince John aren't the primary villians, but the French are. Eh?

Thankfully we are spared Scott's experimental idea of making Robin and the Sheriff two sides of the same character. Bleh!

In conclusion to this long rant of disconcert, I am a proponent of retelling stories - of making them eternal and forever blooming with human hope. But stories deserve to be respected and preserved as well. Just because one can retell it a certain way, doesn't mean one should... just because one can envision Robin Hood as a solemn, dirty warrior, doesn't mean he reflects the heart of his story.

Perhaps I am blowing this out of proportion. But I worry when critics and film fans interpret such films as "the most accurate" or "the best version"... when every version of the story is inevitably (and thankfully) different.

For a nice article on the origins of the Robin Hood legend, read this Telegraph article. Ridley Scott thinks his film is the most realistic, but I wonder: "In what sense?"

Monday, November 24, 2008

Words of Wisdom on Narrative (Jillian)

Hello. I return, having read another article from the Daily Telegraph... discussing the timeless power of stories, despite the sad occurrence of library-closings and the increase of use of the internet... and the overflow of "junk" that is messing with the English language. It is a hopeful article written by Sam Leith, called "Grand Theft Auto, Twitter and Beowulf all demonstrate that stories never die."

Some wonderful tidbits I must share:

"...reading fiction is not a trivial activity. Not only does narrative pleasure sugar the pill of learning in all sorts of areas, it is a good in and of itself."

It is goodness! It really does bash that notion that stories are "just" stories, those fringes of the human experience when they are really far more that!

"Reading a full-length novel on a screen is next to impossible. Your back aches. Your mouth parches. Your eyes fall out. For portability, browsability and ease of annotation the book is the best form of technology we have; and has been since its invention."

I think to how books first began to be assembled... way before the printing press came into use via vellum and inks, and sewn together by diligent monks in monasteries. Over a thousand years later, the book really hasn't changed much at all. They are so timeless... and human!

Stories are central to how we think about the world: from the individual to the wide sweep of history. The ability to put yourself in another's shoes is the foundation-stone of all morality...
And what is that but an imaginative process? Where do we learn it but in stories? ... "In dreams begins responsibility," said W B Yeats. He wasn't kidding."

I love that quote! Can you see the story-threads binding together all humanity? I can!


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