Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Cold season

There is a nasty Two Week Cold that is making the rounds in England.  And it's really cold here, too; unseasonably, record-breakingly cold.  The one thing is not supposed to have anything to do with the other, and yet why did ancient language-makers decide that the one word would suffice for both conditions?

More than two weeks ago, when I first got sick, I was reading a charming book called Period Piece -- written by Gwen Raverat, who was Charles Darwin's granddaughter.  One of my favourite chapters is called Aunt Etty, and it covers, among other topics, the Darwinian tendency to the "cult of bad health."  Raverat describes how a young Aunt Etty, who was suffering from a "low fever," is advised to take her breakfast in bed.  As a precautionary measure, perhaps, she never got up to breakfast again in all her life.  Aunt Etty's attention to health, both her own and that of everyone in her orbit, is scientifically precise.   Raverat remembers how her aunt's personal maid would put a silk handkerchief over one foot if it felt slightly colder than the other. 

Truly, it made me feel that hypochondria (not to mention persistent ill health) was a luxury of a bygone age and class -- one that enjoyed the ministrations of lots of servants.  Certainly we have the Internet now, which contributes greatly to the pleasures of self-diagnosis, but for sheer wallowing in illness there is nothing like the Victorian Age in which Aunt Etty lived.  Whether slightly sick, or well and truly sick, most of us just have to soldier through these days.  But if you have the chance, and are feeling slightly off-colour, do read Period Piece and see how illness used to be done.

As my Two Week Cold persists into a third week, I sorrowfully acknowledge that I could have been a bit more Aunt Etty-like in my dedication to my own health.   There should have been more cups of warm broth, more shawls, and definitely more mornings in bed -- and far fewer shopping trips, houseguests, long sweaty walks, transatlantic flights, temperature extremes and opportunities for sleep deprivation.  I'm sure it doesn't do the sinuses (not to mention one's ears) any good to be assaulted by 87 degrees in Texas on one day -- and freezing temperatures in England on the next.  And as I can't seem to stop coughing, I'm sure the person next to me on the plane would have appreciated if I had been wearing the Aunt Etty patented anti-cold mask.

And when there colds about she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. 
It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool,
and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. 
 In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice
 out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion,
oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.
(from Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat)

Friday, 12 November 2010


Several afternoons a week, I tutor struggling readers.

I’ve worked with one little boy for three years now – and in a progress that has been halting, and at times excruciatingly frustrating, he has slowly, slowly learned the alphabet and basic phonics and a small memory store of “sight” words. Just in the last month or so, he has come close to being able to string enough words together that it is almost reading. (Lots of qualifiers here, still.) Every week, his painful efforts force me to really notice and think about what a mysterious and huge undertaking it is to learn the English written language.

I can’t really remember that lightbulb moment when letters became sounds and sounds became words . . . because for such a very long time, reading has been as natural as breathing to me. And yet, when I am in the act of explaining reading strategies – and okay, that’s another word which doesn’t follow the rule or the pattern – I have to acknowledge that reading is nothing if not laboured.

For instance:

Ow sounds like mouse, but not like flow – which has the same spelling pattern.
Through sounds the same as threw and thru – but not a word like trough, which has the same spelling pattern, and hardly looks any different . . . especially for a little guy who likes to look at the first letter and then guess all of the rest (because the letters are dancing around).

For goodness sake, even the word READ has two different pronunciations. You’ve got to know the context first, but you can't rely on it entirely. (Isn’t that true of everything?)

Some of us learn to read quite easily, while others – more than you might think – have to overlearn every little thing to reach that magical mastery called automaticity. Automaticity: where there is no gap between the seeing/recognizing/processing/understanding/doing.

I’ve been thinking about overlearning a lot this week.

What have I had to learn, over and over again, and yet I still don’t have that absolute understanding – that mastery?  I keep coming up short, and making the same mistakes, time after time.

Here’s a few life lessons that come to mind:

Impatience never helps the process.

It is pointless to speculate too much about the future.

Procrastination rarely (if ever) makes the task easier.

It is fruitless to force a conversation with someone when you know he (mostly he) is not in the right frame-of-mind for the conversation.

Emails and phone calls that aren’t answered promptly will probably never be answered at all.

If you go to bed late you are going to be tired and grumpy the next day.

Too much sugar, especially in the form of raw cookie dough, is never a good idea.

It is not necessary to voice every thought that comes into your head.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Is it a sign?

Almost every day, no matter the weather
I walk the same walk
down the busy farm road we live on.
Me -- the trucks, the cars, the horses, and the odd bicycle.
I've had to jump in the hedgerow
more than once.

I can be amazingly, embarrassingly unobservant
but in five years
I've never noticed so much variety
in the hedgerows.
Doesn't lots of berries mean
a harsh winter to come?
Or is that
just another old wive's tale?

Monday, 8 November 2010

A page from the book of autumn

Like discarded pages
from the book
of autumn, the leaves
come trembling down.

Today is the first truly Novemberish day:  wet and wild.
The leaves are surrendering, not just the odd individual flutter
but whole regiments of them, felled by the great gusts of wind.
All of that October gold transmogrified
into sodden piles of brown muck.
I drive gingerly through the forest
that leads to my daughter's school.
Tires slip; windshield wipers scrape.
I take out porridge, still warm, for the chickens
because I feel ridiculously guilty about the discomforts
of their outdoor living space.
There is a great temptation to just go back to bed.
Cheers for hissing radiators, thick duvets
and the cappuccino that my husband
(still in his thick bathrobe)
is making for me right now.

Open your arms
to the dying colors,
to the fragile

of November.
Deep in the heart
of buried acorns,
nothing is lost.

(italicized words belong to Linda Pastan,
from Queen of a Rainy Country;
recommended reading for November.)