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Archive for November, 2010

One of four pair of Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland
in the Wizard of Oz.

When I was teenager, a cousin in Buffalo discovered a woman in Memphis owned a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. When he and his family visited at Easter, a phone call was made to the owner, Roberta Bauman, to see if we could look at the shoes. She’d won them in a contest in 1970.

When we arrived at her house, she opened the door and asked us to wait a moment. She turned to her coat closet and pulled a shoe box off the top shelf. I hadn’t been too excited to see the shoes and didn’t know what to expect, but the moment she opened the box is one I’ll never forget.

It was a sunny day outside, and each shoe has 2,300 red sequins sewn on. When she opened the box, the 4,600 sequins lit up in the sun like thousands of small stars. In comparison to Bauman’s drab neighborhood, her old wood-frame house and the stench of cats coming through her front door, the contrast was startling.

My cousins Carl and Kylie are fraternal twins, but both wanted to try on the shoes. The shoes were a size 6B, and I could just fit my feet in. Kylie was also able to slip her feet in, but Carl’s big feet were too big. When it was my turn, I clicked my heels and said, There’s no place like home.

L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful
Wizard of Oz was published
in 1900 and was followed
by 15 novel sequels.

Recently Kylie visited me in Colorado. We hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. She and her brother were adopted by my aunt and uncle the year I was born. They are a year younger than I am, but we were all born in June. When she was here, I told her something about the adoption my mother told me.

My aunt loved babies, and when my mother had a little girl, my aunt also wanted a little girl. She and my uncle didn’t want a boy because they already had two teenage sons. My mother said to my aunt, “You can’t do that to those two kids. You can’t separate them. If you take one, you have to take the other.” So, they did.

The twins’ biological parents are artists, and Kylie and Carl are also artists. Kylie makes jewelry, and Carl is the finest drawer I’ve ever known. He would sit for hours when we were kids drawing faces. By the time he was in college, he could draw a face so realistically it looked like a photograph. My uncle, however, was a high school football coach and didn’t understand his adopted son. After Carl graduated from art school, he went through a series of failed relationships and later became a crack addict.

The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Toto, Dorothy and Scarecrow

But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin man
that he didn’t, didn’t already have

I’ve always believed people can do or be whatever they want in life. I’m not sure why I believe this. I don’t believe my parents told me that. They had a more practical approach to life, but I know my brother said that often when we were kids.

In my English comp class recently, a student wrote an essay comparing Dorothy of Oz with Alice in Wonderland. She said, “In both the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, the main characters wake up and find they’ve been living a dream. Dorothy and Alice have outstanding imaginations and an overwhelming sense of creativity and use their dreams to escape their lives when obstacles come their way.”

When I think of Judy Garland, two things come to mind, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow and her later addiction to drugs and alcohol. As a young performer, she was given amphetamines to keep her moving on stage during the day and barbiturates to help her sleep at night. The regular dose led to her addiction.

Her erratic life is much like my cousin Carl’s. The last time we spoke, he could no longer remember these stories from our childhood. When I asked if he still drew, he said he couldn’t focus on it long enough anymore. On Kylie’s visit she said about her brother, “Every time I talk to him he says, ‘I’ve been clean for over a month,’ but he says that every month of the year.”

It’s odd to say, but I’ve often wondered if wearing the Ruby Slippers had some effect on our lives. Judy Garland is one of the only people I know born the same day of the year I was. I remember reading once that people born on June 10 are never at ease with who they are. They have big goals and dreams but don’t feel they have what it takes to bring them about.

Dorothy is given the shoes to help her find her way home. I’ve heard it said, To handle carefully what we hold in our hands is to come to terms with ourselves. It is to accept ourselves. All four of us — all Geminis, all born under the sign of the twins — have tried to use our creativity to come to terms with our lives. Maybe those magic shoes helped us feel more beautiful for a moment, and perhaps feeling that, if only briefly, is the only way any of us ever find our way home.

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Kurt Brown
Road Trip
 

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The new road runs along the old road. I can see it
still imprinted on the earth, not twenty feet away
as I drive west past silos and farmsteads, fruit stands and hogs.
Once in Kansas, I stood in a field and watched
the stars on the horizon revolve around my ankles.
People are always moving, even those standing still
because the world keeps changing around them, changing them.
When will the cities meet? When will they spread until
there is a single city — avenue to avenue, coast to coast?
What we call “the country” is an undeveloped area
by the side of the road. There is no “country,” there is no “road.”
It’s one big National Park, no longer the wilderness it was.
But the old world exists under the present world
the way an original painting exists under a newer one.
The animals know: their ancient, invisible trails cross
and re-cross our own like scars that have healed long ago.
Their country is not our country but another place altogether.
Anything of importance there comes out of the sky.
In Amarillo the wind tries to erase everything, even the future.
It swoops down to scrape the desert clean as a scapula.
Here among bones and bleached arroyos the sun leans
through my window at dawn to let me know
I’m not going anywhere. There’s no more anywhere to go.
……………………………….
by Kurt Brown

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As far as I know, the nuns don’t watch movies or television often. On Sunday evenings they set aside time for recreation or entertainment. This includes board games, readings or skits they write and act out themselves or those written by others. Recently, I was washing dishes next to a nun who was trying to remember her lines from a play by Shakespeare they’d performed. She laughed as she described her costume.

Years ago, I gave them a copy of the movie The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the 1905 novel by Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947). I’ve seen two versions of the movie, a 1935 version with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon and a 1982 version with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. To my surprise, they liked it. For weeks they walked around repeating lines from a satirical poem about the story’s main character:

They seek him here,
they seek him there,
those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel.

In the bakery one afternoon, I received a note from one of the nuns with the lines written on the back of a gift shop leaflet.

I think about all this again because of small flowers I found outside yesterday, not flowers I’m familiar with but that remind me of the small wayside flower that are the emblem of the fictional hero in the book, Sir Percy Blakeney.

Sir Percy pretends to be a fop, a man who hasn’t a care in the world, who overdresses, puts on airs, is witty and somewhat effeminate. He is disguising his identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel, a swordsman and hero who is rescuing members of the French aristocracy from the guillotine during the French revolution. Sir Percy’s wife, Marguerite, doesn’t know the true identity of her husband and realizes it only when she discovers the insignia on his ring and on the family crest.

As I think about this story again, I wonder what inspired me to give the nuns a copy of the movie and why it captured their imaginations. Perhaps they understand the nature of living dual lives, the necessity of forming a public persona to preserve a private one.

I think of that young nun standing there giggling about her costume and trying to act out the grandiose lines of a Shakespearean play in the kitchen then composing herself before she walked through the double doors into the main dining room to serve a retreat group lunch.

The outfits the nuns wear make them seem stern and unapproachable, black and white, inflexible and formal, but behind the costumes are women who like to laugh and lean in doorways. They wear black and white robes to appear uniform but also as a reminder of identities the dress represents, a life of a time gone by. How many people write plays and act them out at home anymore?

At a business event recently, a woman discovered I did volunteer work at the Abbey and pulled me aside. As she drank glass after glass of wine, she started telling me about her life. I didn’t understand why at first. She told me about her college days and a man she fell in love with, how they used a system of coded telephone rings at his apartment to prevent his mother from discovering they lived together. They were both from large Catholic families, and she’d gotten pregnant and had an abortion.

One day she went to the Abbey to find a priest and make confession but found the main entrance locked. As she came to this part of the story, she started crying and told me she’d never been able to tell her mother or daughter about the abortion. The main entrance of the Abbey was locked that day because the nuns were out in the fields playing softball. She stood at a distance watching them as they ran from base to base with their habits flying behind them.

That moment always remained with her — perhaps because the nuns weren’t monitoring their behavior or perhaps because they were no longer symbols of purity and poverty and obedience but just women laughing and having a good time. She walked away in the woods behind the monastery toward her car, not feeling as alone. I’m reminded of the lines from Rilke, Look at them standing about — like wildflowers, which have nowhere else to grow.

http://d.yimg.com/static.video.yahoo.com/yep/YV_YEP.swf?ver=2.2.46
Sir Percy – Scarlet Pimpernel @ Yahoo! Video

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Pastel of Langston Hughes by Winold Reiss.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?

Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri.
He was a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist
and one of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance
in the 1920s and 1930s.

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.
……………………………………………….
by Langston Hughes

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Pastel of Langston Hughes by Winold Reiss.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?

Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri.
He was a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist
and one of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance
in the 1920s and 1930s.

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.
……………………………………………….
by Langston Hughes

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Elie Wiesel (born 1928) was born in Sighet, Romania
and is the author of more than 57 books.
He is a Holocaust survivor and was a prisoner
in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration
camps in 1944 and 1945. He won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1986.

Below is an excerpt from Wiesel’s novel The Time of the Uprooted, published in 2005.

I’m four years old, or maybe five. It’s a Sabbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I’d asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there’s a knock at the door. “Go see who it is,” says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he’s keeping. A stranger is at the door.
“May I come in,” he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes — there’s something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
“Who’s there?” my father asks, and I reply, “I don’t know.”
“Call me a wanderer,” the stranger says, “a wandering man who’s worn-out and hungry.”
“Who do you want to see?” I ask, and he says to me, “You.”

Wiesel at age 15, just before deportation.

Who is it, a beggar?” my father asks. “Tell him to come in.” No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night’s shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah [stew and bread]. But the stranger doesn’t touch it. “You’re not hungry?” my father says.
“Oh yes, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty, but not for food.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want words and I want faces,” says the stranger. “I travel the world and look for people’s stories.” I’m enchanted by a stranger’s voice. It is the storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: “I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I’ve seen pleases me.” With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
“Don’t tell me you are the prophet Elijah,” says my father.
“No, I’m not a prophet.” The stranger smiles down at me. “I told you, I’m just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer.”

Photo taken at Buchenwald liberation. Wiesel is in the
second row of bunks, seventh from the
left, next to the vertical beam.

Ever since that encounter, I’ve loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it’s not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities — and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It’s second nature with me. Some collect paintings; other love horses. Me, I’m attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God’s. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.

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Elie Wiesel (born 1928) was born in Sighet, Romania
and is the author of more than 57 books.
He is a Holocaust survivor and was a prisoner
in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration
camps in 1944 and 1945. He won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1986.

When I asked my students the other night how many faces were in the classroom, they hesitated to answer. One man said, “Do you mean we wear one face for the world but carry many other faces inside us?” I said that was a good answer but not what I was looking for. Then an Oh of understanding came from the back of the room, and a student pointed to the posters on the wall.

Here’s an excerpt from Wiesel’s novel The Time of the Uprooted, published in 2005.

I’m four years old, or maybe five. It’s a Sabbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I’d asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there’s a knock at the door. “Go see who it is,” says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he’s keeping. A stranger is at the door.
“May I come in,” he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes — there’s something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
“Who’s there?” my father asks, and I reply, “I don’t know.”
“Call me a wanderer,” the stranger says, “a wandering man who’s worn-out and hungry.”
“Who do you want to see?” I ask, and he says to me, “You.”

Wiesel at age 15, just before deportation.

Who is it, a beggar?” my father asks. “Tell him to come in.” No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night’s shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah [stew and bread]. But the stranger doesn’t touch it. “You’re not hungry?” my father says.
“Oh yes, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty, but not for food.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want words and I want faces,” says the stranger. “I travel the world and look for people’s stories.” I’m enchanted by a stranger’s voice. It is the storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: “I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I’ve seen pleases me.” With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
“Don’t tell me you are the prophet Elijah,” says my father.
“No, I’m not a prophet.” The stranger smiles down at me. “I told you, I’m just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer.”

Photo taken at Buchenwald liberation. Wiesel is in the
second row of bunks, seventh from the
left, next to the vertical beam.

Ever since that encounter, I’ve loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it’s not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities — and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It’s second nature with me. Some collect paintings; other love horses. Me, I’m attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God’s. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.

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