The Cure for Mythology

I’ve made valiant efforts to read and appreciate mythology and found no patience for capricious Greek and Roman gods.
One clear night, my husband and I dined outdoors below the Athenian Acropolis. The Parthenon could’ve been romantic alight within its ruins if it were not for its bloody history. Throughout our world’s art museums and public gardens, you cannot avoid paintings and statues of obscenely muscular gods raping women.
When the Michigan Opera Theatre performed Elektra, I was there with my Art Buddy. This detestable story is strung with infanticide and matricide to its end; speaks of humankind’s hubris and bloodlust. I don’t think modern man needs Greek and Roman lore to see what beasts we can be. We have Hollywood and Media.
Many intellectuals and scholars still cling to the primacy of classical mythology as the foundation of a respectable education. Cass Gilbert, architect of the Detroit Public Library, commissioned the building’s brass doors to give homage to our Greek and Roman literary forefathers.
Truly, I adore the artwork of those doors, the inspiration their beauty evokes. I see Homer in the uppermost panel, the personage of Greek epic poetry. His voice says, “Sing in me, Muse.” When I concluded Homer’s Odyssey, I determined his Muse sang enough myth to last my lifetime.  
Yes, in several of his writings, Wendell Berry draws profound meaning from Homer’s Odysseus and his marriage bed hewn from a tree. The tree is a mighty redemptive symbol throughout civilizations, literature, and our holy scriptures. Alas, the reader must endure the wrath of Odysseus’s gods to reach this worthy image of his home and wife’s fidelity.
Edwin Blashfield included Pindar, the Greek poet, in his Poetry Mural of the Detroit Public Library’s magnificent barreled vault. No matter what mood or angle I approach Pindar’s prose, the fog of graphic horror never lifts to reveal a realistic, fine edge of purpose.
For instance, Pindar wrote the Olympian Ode, a legend of cannibalism; Tantalus serving his son, Pelops, to the gods he invited for dinner. Naturally, his deities weren’t happy about that. What was Pindar’s point?
Dear Reader, why waste time deciphering myth? We have The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow and many other remarkable, eloquent books to read, for Heaven’s sake.
 “We have listened long enough to the courtly muses of Europe,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said. I lean toward his opinion rather than Thomas Bulfinch’s. His Age of Fable (1855) claims the study of myth “could promote virtue and happiness even if it was not useful knowledge.”
I prefer not to gamble on that possibility. The most virtuous and happy people I know haven’t read one word of Greek and Roman mythology, and they’re marvelous storytellers. Speaking true and clear, they’ve encouraged my life-long relationship with literature.
If you need a cure for mythology, I prescribe The Lilac Girl by Ralph Henry Barbour, a gift from a friend when I needed it. The characters, entirely believable and charming, live in a place spared angry Greek gods.

Defending Shakespeare's First Folio

I met a young woman last Saturday afternoon, fresh adventure glowing on her face. A new volunteer for the Detroit Institute of Arts, she recently returned home to her family and the employment of her dreams. “Although I love Grand Rapids, it’s good to be back,” she said.
                  “Your parents must be ecstatic.”
                  She smiled.
                  “Your timing is perfect to see Shakespeare’s First Folio."
                  We chatted about her life in Grand Rapids before we parted for our separate galleries. It was our first of three shifts, and my last was the third floor where the Master’s First Folio waited.
                  Surrounded by art and folk strolling the Great Hall, the place seemed a stage where lovers cling to one another’s arms, parents chase toddlers, children spin until they fall down dizzy, and the gray-headed carry and kiss newborn grandchildren. Shakespeare’s seven ages of man unfolded in constant cycles. Life as I like it.
                  Precisely at 3:30, I climbed the marble stairs to the third floor, turned into the gallery where Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare hangs. In the center of the room, there sat a simple glass case with Shakespeare’s First Folio splayed open. People milled about, hovered over the treasure, a security guard poised to say, “Stand back, please.”
                  My duty was to assist her defense of the book Shakespeare gave us, prevent the display’s sensor from tripping the alarm. Giddy, I marveled that I, a girl from Appalachia, stood beside Shakespeare’s folio, and praised my Scot/Irish ancestors for their gift of story, the verse they imparted on midsummer, honeysuckle nights.
                  I praised Ms. Shingler, my tenth grade English teacher, who casted our class to read Romeo and Juliet aloud. The needless tragedy reinforced my teenaged conviction. Life is a miracle to protect, not destroy.
                  A tall man, my contemporary by appearance, bent over Shakespeare’s tome and read “To be or not to be”, one of the most quoted lines of all time. “Two of Shakespeare’s friends who were actors gathered his plays and published them after his death. We may not have Hamlet today otherwise,” he said.
                  Because the bard wrote his plays to be performed and not published, a total of eighteen works would’ve been lost, including As You Like It and Macbeth. The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, including 82 of the known 233 First Folio copies in the world.
                  To commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday this year, the Folger Library is touring Shakespeare’s First Folio across America. Each destination will choose what play and passage they will display to tell the human story as only Shakespeare could and does. From east to west, north to south, we will draw close to one another and share the common themes of our human condition, our affection and distain for his characters.
Dear Reader, I think it beautiful to learn about the two actors who saved William’s works, to read Hamlet’s question again.
To hear the Alpha and Omega answer, “Ever, to be!”

Note: Shakespeare’s First Folio is on exhibit at the DIA only through April 3.

Aunt Sarah's Story

Aunt Sarah’s story came in patches throughout my lifetime. When I was a child, Mom asked Aunt Ada, “Don’t you think Iris looks like sister Sarah did when she was a girl?”
Aunt Ada stalled her cigarette midair between her fingers and glanced to where I sat playing. She stared at me like she was looking way back into a sad memory. “I believe you’re right, Sadie.”
Perhaps that’s when I first overheard Mom say Aunt Sarah died of German measles when she was fourteen. Later, in the midst of family gatherings with Mom’s brothers, they’d speak about their departed sister, drink from the same deep well of grief.
The summer I was nine and visited Granny in Kentucky, she ushered me into the sanctum of her bedroom to gather blue fabric to sew me a skirt and blouse. There, I met Sarah Jane face-to-face in a framed photograph. I didn’t see a resemblance of myself to the pretty, dark headed grown girl.
Regardless, I feared death would snatch me up when I was fourteen. Since vaccines eliminated rubella epidemics by 1956, The Cancer Society of America advertised The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer to haunt me until my fifteenth birthday.
Years later, well into my motherhood, Granny and I at last found precious solitary moments to sit at her kitchen table. I dared tread upon her heartache and asked about Aunt Sarah.
“Brain fever took her,” Granny said. “I looked down from the store up on the hill into the bottom and saw Sarah sleeping outside on the porch glider. She was a burnin’ up.”
Dear Reader, that fall of 1941, Sarah Jane McCoy and twelve other teenaged schoolgirls left Peter Creek for Heaven. A cloudburst of bitter waters snaked from mountaintops down through the hollows and bottoms, eroded joy and hope from those left behind.
                  In her seventies, long after Sarah left, my mother finally spoke of her younger sister’s bright mind and photograph, the pendant she wore on her sweater’s lapel. “Sarah was awarded the pin by her Debate Club just before she died,” Mom said. “I was living in Kansas City then, and remember when Mom called me from the hospital.”
Mom walked away from her independence and up the hill to her sister’s grave. She didn’t leave Peter Creek until Dad drove us into Detroit’s city limits in 1954.
                  When my mother came to live with us, I hung Granny’s frame with Aunt Sarah’s likeness in our guest room where Mom slept. When she left for Heaven, I inherited Aunt Sarah. Almost a decade later, emptiness and time fulfilled my aunt’s residence, so I moved her to my bedroom where she belongs.
                  Now, I wake to the patient, smiling un-parted lips of the aunt I resemble. My companion and blood, she watches over me. Lest we forget, from one generation to another, Sarah Jane still speaks of the fall when the earth opened and swallowed thirteen Appalachian schoolgirls.
                  I listen, wonder what happened to her pendant.  

Build Your Own World

“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven.” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

My friend Stephen phoned on his way to work. A former intern of my lavender farm, he’s my beekeeping buddy. As usual, his voice rang with expectation, stirring another pot of adventure.
“What are your farm plans for this season?” I asked.
           “I’m going to build a fence around my raised beds like the one you built around your vegetable garden.”
            Good idea, I thought. A music teacher and visionary, he built a stage for musical performances, one structure of several he plans to raise for a hands-on agricultural school on his acreage. Admirable.
                  We talked about rental cost for a posthole digger, and to look out for rocks that can lurch the machine in erratic directions.
Resembling a Grange meeting of two, he asked, “Have you bought your seeds yet? Are you planting something new this spring?”
“No, I have enough seeds from last year, but I’m planting blackberries, the big ones, beside the raspberries. The patch needs a new fence around it anyway, so we’ll be digging holes, too.”
                  This winter’s snow and wind destroyed the wimpy posts and bird-proof netting I installed around the raspberries almost three springs ago. I used what I had then, knew the fence was temporary. It served the purpose. Raspberries wait in our freezer for smoothies, pies, and granola.
                  “How are your chickens?” I asked Stephen.
                  “Oh, they’re great!”
                  Going on four years, his hens are the hardiest, most productive girls I know. Stephen built their house, too.
                  We said good-bye and commenced our separate workdays. As the blizzard blew snow upon the farm the past two days, I recalled how this young man walked onto my land when I needed his labor and positive spirit. It was a privilege and joy to hear his vision of farming to educate others.
Stephen was and is my primary bee teacher. His honeybees lived here two years until he moved them to his own farm. There, we extracted and bottled our honey together.
Dear Reader, it is sacred to observe a friend build a house he truly loves. It is a type of heaven to witness his obedience to the raw, pure idea in his mind. The fruit of that spirit unfolds in abundant proportions, like raspberry canes in composted soil.
“As when the summer comes from the south,” Emerson wrote, “the snow banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits, and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts, around its way, until evil is no more seen.”
We may know then, as Emerson declared, the world exists for us to plant, grow, and harvest. This is our dominion; the place our father Adam called his house.