“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” —the first sentence of Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre." She then describes the cold wind and penetrating rain that inhibit further exercise. It sets the tone for the novel’s exploration of the restraints placed on women in society. Jane’s bold assertion of selfhood and independence is nothing short of heroic.
Were it not for a period of forced seclusion, however, would Brontë’s keen perceptions and feelings have found expression?
It was while she was cooped up in a hotel room nursing her father after eye surgery that she penned her masterpiece. No possibility for a walk—but plenty for writing. In fact, not a few books owe their existence to a writer’s isolation.
In the case of Mary Shelley, she, along with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were forced indoors by fierce summer storms while vacationing in Switzerland. To entertain themselves, Lord Byron pr...
To travel to Australia has been on my bucket list ever since I was a kid and didn’t know what a bucket list was. One look at a magazine photograph of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) and I burned with a fever to know everything about the place that possessed a monumental, Martian-colored rock formation right smack dab in the middle of miles (excuse me, kilometers) from nowhere. As a Charles Dickens devotee, I was curious about the convict country of Magwitch in "Great Expectations." And what’s not to like about the Aussies’ broad vowels and their delightful vocabulary that includes words like billabong and fair dinkum? Even the fauna have names to make you smile: wallaby, koala, kookaburra.
An entire section of my library is devoted to Australian writers. Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Evie Wyld, David Malouf and others have taken me on many an unusual and fascinating journey. And I’ve seen just about every Austr...
When I completed my master’s degree in British and American literature (which culminated in a six-hour written exam), my brain was a toasted English muffin, its nooks and crannies saturated with melted words like a Salvador Dali painting. For the first time in my life the thought of reading made me want to lie down in a dark room or—the horror—watch daytime television. Clearly a remedy was in order. And it came in the form of a drawing class.
I’d never exercised the part of my brain that translated an image onto paper via a pencil. I felt like a toddler learning to walk—totter forward eagerly, stumble, fall, heave myself up, totter again (with varying degrees of enthusiasm). After about two months, I’d advanced to a reasonable level of dexterity, emboldening me to progress to oil painting. And that’s when the fun really started.
Oil paints are a merciful media. As Bob Ross used to say, “There are no mistak...
Stories, be they novels, movies, or cartoons, pivot upon the actions of the principal characters, referred to as "hero" and "heroine." For the purposes of dramatic effect, the characters' behavior and circumstances are often extraordinary, larger than life. By contrast, heroism in real life, like that of the caretaker who wakes every day to the responsibility of a sick child or parent, is usually private, silent, anonymous. True, firefighters and police demonstrate public bravery in their handling of critical situations. But most professions, however striking the uniform, come with little glory.
Doubtless few children want to dress up as teachers for Halloween. Too bad. In my opinion, educators are unsung, underpaid heroes, the pivot upon which all our lives turn - for the better. Oh, I've had my share of bad teachers. The nun, complete with mustache and scowl who made sixth grade a living hell. My high school history te...
Not counting the dozen or so Victorian boot ornaments that hang on my tree every Christmas.
When I studied anthropology in college, I learned about a tribe who collected yams as a sign of wealth. The bigger your pile of yams, including those rotting at the bottom, the higher your social status. The equivalent of my rotting yams are the shoes in my closet I've never worn. Somehow I convinced myself my wardrobe would not be complete without a pair of ankle boots. Even though the boots came in one color, a peculiar shade of taupe grey. They'll go with everything, I assured myself. But the truth is, the only thing they go with is my fantasy of who I'd be when I wore them. A kick-ass confident woman who doesn't walk, she strides, and...
I love everything about bacon, including Francis, Roger, and the twentieth-century painter Francis (whose models look like they ate a lot of bacon). I drool like a dog at Beggin Strips commercials. I once bought a wallet that looked like it was made out of bacon. I've come dangerously close to joining the Bacon of the Month Club. That's how much I love the greasy, salty, crispy meat I'd put on everything if I could. So when I found out Iowa hosted an annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival (this year it's held on Feb. 17), I decided right then and there that, goshdarnit, DesMoines has never gotten its due respect. And then I consulted Google Earth to find out exactly where this illustrious city was located.
The festival features bacon recipes that would never occur to you: bacon gumbo, bacon-flavored cupcakes and gelato, chocolate bacon bourbon tarts. There's an eating contest (sign me up!), a bacon queen pageant (I'll p...
I keep hoping I'll win a contest where the prize is to live in an art museum for as long as I want. You can keep the Grand Canyon or views from the Empire State Building. When it comes to experiencing awe, Sir Thomas More's beard stubble in Hans Holbein's portrait,
the eerie shade of blue in Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert"
blow me away.
The centuries-old universal impulse to create, to attend to the finest details of craftsmanship, to pursue an obsession (think Claude Monet and his water lilies) never fail to intrigue me.
What inspired the Peruvian artist to gather, dye, and arrange feathers for a purely aesthetic purpose?
Who fashioned this exquisite fan, turning a practical item into an object of beauty?
Whatever possessed Marcel Duchamp to cover a cup, saucer, and spoon with fur?
I maintain a number of feeders and birdbaths and, in return, my avian visitors repay me with a glimpse into their lives. Playing, talking, mating, fighting - sometimes all at the same time! To contribute to their survival in this small way feels right and good.
So why, when a hawk swoops in to prey on them, am I rooting for the hawk?
This past summer, two juvenile Cooper's hawks learned to hunt in my backyard. Their mother would glide in, quiet as a whisper, and perch, invisible, in a tree. Her offspring, on the other hand, would announce their presence with excited squawks and a noisy flapping of wings before taking their position on the fence. The birds, of course, scattered to the four winds, laughing their heads off.
I was laughing too - at the same time that I was urging them to "Be quiet!" "Get in a tree!" "For Pete's sake, be a hawk!"
I was fortunate to be in New York City when the Morgan Library and Museum held its exhibit on Charlotte Bronte. How thrilling it was to see the original manuscript of "Jane Eyre." What exquisitely neat handwriting for such a passionate spirit! And while I've read many biographies describing how thin and small in stature she was, seeing her size 0 dress and doll-sized shoes was still startling.
The manuscripts and drawings of the other members of the Bronte family were well-represented. Particularly effecting was the card announcing Emily's death "aged twenty-nine years." The famous "pillar portrait" of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, painted by their brother Branwell, held pride of place. This exhibit marked the first time it, as well as the chalk portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, has ever been seen outside of England.
Charlotte's writing desk is a work of art in itself. A wood...
While searching my dictionary for the correct spelling of wildebeest, I came across the word "willie-waught." Willie-waught! Such whimsy and playfulness, I actually smiled when I read it.
My dictionary is bound with duct tape, its torn pages taped. My kids' dictionaries languish on bookshelves, spines barely creased. The computer has spellcheck, they remind me. I can find any fact I need on the Internet. I agree wholeheartedly we live in a glorious age of information and innovation. But still, I worry. For every technological gain, something is irretrievably lost. In the case of language, can we afford the loss?
Using the example of an excursion through a dictionary, I suggest the joy of random discovery is greatly diminished. While a computer search would have retrieved everything I ever wanted to know about wildebeests, I'd never have learned of the existence of willie-waught. Or "hogfish," for that matt...