The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To

“nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me.”
Rupi Kaur

The vast voice that rings down from above, enshawling our arms in a cone of auricular safety. The physicality of sound intended to contain and expand simultaneously.

Is there anything better?

My father had a special voice when he read to us. Softer, lighter, a questioning of things. He must have read us hundreds of books, but the ones I remember are by Thornton W. Burgess, a New England author and conservationist who wrote about forest animals with names like ‘Reddy’ Fox and ‘Buster’ Bear. Dad’s voice, usually definitive, became light, tickling the words in wonder and merriment, nurturing our delight in nature. His “reading voice.”

American novelist Marilynne Robinson encapsulates the importance of reading:1

The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitions, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.

Language has tremendous power, doesn’t it? Especially when woven into a narrative and carried to us through voice.

Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur delivers poetry sanded to a remarkable grain. Her words are elegant: nothing is present that isn’t necessary, and nothing necessary is omitted. From Kaur’s “The Perfect Date”:2

nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me

It is safety, isn’t it? Comfort.

Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp once wrote that when preparing a dance, she preferred her studio to be warm. “There’s also a psychological component to hear: It calls up the warmth of the hearth and home.”3

Safety. Comfort. Something we all crave, and something we remember distinctly about our childhood (whether it was true or not). And there is the warmth too—parents hold their children on their laps, in their arms.

Illustration "The Comfort of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Comfort of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

That feeling of being read to is like the feeling of being led into a world and shown all its intimacies and close-kept secrets. Described perfectly by Rachel Carson, a natural teacher and caretaker, in her book The Sense of Wonder:

It is hard to find adults to read to us when we are adults ourselves. But there are exceptions.

Audiobooks, of course. I spent most of my time in graduate school listening to the marvellous Flo Gibson—her voice is like syrup passing through marbles—reading the collected works of Charles Dickens. (British literature has always held some sort of nostalgic escapism for me.) Gibson put dance in the word “Twist” and when she said “Mr. Bumble the Beadle” – as Dickens made her do quite often because he knew how funny it sounded – it was like the name was tumbling downstairs only to arrive fully standing at the bottom.

But my favorite authorial voice is British actor Martin Jarvis reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series. It is wondrous from word one. An English countryside, a different era, the kind of escapism one gets from gardening or petting a purring cat.

I bought a few Wodehouse hardbacks recently at Hatchards Bookshop (they have an entire wall devoted to him), and I was delighted to find a staff member who not only loved Wodehouse but also loved the Jarvis recordings. (The only thing better than reading Wodehouse is finding another person who also reads Wodehouse and then talking about how you both read Wodehouse. I intend to talk about Wodehouse should I ever casually encounter Stephen Fry.)

David Sedaris once noted his favorite “reading” was Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker. Many people have read Dorothy Parker—her words bounce into our ears. Stritch is singularly good at it. Her voice is not dissimilar to that of Flo Gibson.

A woman who has done more to coax poetry in our everyday speech and wit than anyone alive is Maria Popova, writer and creator of Popova hosts the annual Universe in Verse, a celebratory amplification of science through poetry and the spoken word. To those who participate, thank you for reading to us.

Poetry is best when well-read aloud (although it is also enjoyed in quiet) when humans can add a pause, breath, intonation. Human voice turns heavy mist into high cumulus.

Illustration "The Wonder of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Wonder of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

As adults, the joy of being read to expands beyond feeling safe to feeling enlightened, elated, interested. In wonder.

It is not easy to be in wonder these days. Not only do we not have time, but it requires denuding our fragile egos. It is a state of not knowing. Of being affected. Deferring. The older we become, the more threatening this position feels. And with good reason—we’re taught to be in charge, responsible, accountable. We abandon our instinct to listen, learn, and defer. To care.

But we still need to feel comforted. Every human will long for a feeling of comfort at one time or another. Being read to is feeling comforted.

A few years ago, I was caught in a nighttime windstorm in the Virginia woods, the tail end of an off-coast hurricane. Branches, even trees, were falling. It was the closest I’ve been to death. And I walked twelve miles down the mountain to civilization, all the while listening to the great Edward Herrmann reading David McCullough’s book about the building of the Panama Canal.

Falling trees, suffocating darkness, water that wanted into my blood. And Edward Herrmann. I remember nothing about the Panama Canal, but I will never forget that voice. It gave me the illusion of comfort until I found actual comfort.

I cannot express it well, so instead, I’ll pull in Durga Chew-Bose’s simple lines from Too Much and Not the Mood. Her energy and power are infectious.

When I hear a recording of Frank O’Hara recite ‘Having a Coke with You,’ gleefully anticipating him saying yoghurt, saying flu-o-rescent orange tulips.

I listen
to him and I would rather listen to him than all the poets in the world
except possibly for Dorothy Parker occasionally
and anyway she’d hate that.

I wonder if Chew-Bose has heard Elaine Stritch read Dorothy Parker.

I hope so.

The feelings of comfort hold us fast like rotund arms. But comfort doesn’t live our life, it doesn’t extend us into the world. For that, we need wonder. Wonder propels us out into the world and back into forests. We need both comfort and wonder.

My husband reads to my daughter. Inflexion, vocal patterns, tempo, pronunciation. My husband has a “reading voice.” My daughter is so very lucky.

Feel comforted. Be in wonder. Be read to.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners

“I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.”
Gertrude Jekyll

Gardening is the background activity that claps events in the foreground. It’s the thing underneath, behind, outside, apart. It’s a space we enter and leave. And yet, like tilling layers of soil, we mix it with our daily, non-gardening life.

One of my favorite gardeners is Robin Lane Fox, a Classics scholar and (a scholar-friend informs me) the leading expert on Alexander the Great. Lane Fox also manages the gardens at Oxford University’s New College.

I cannot fully express what gardening has added to my life, ever-present in my mind and increasingly in my muscles, and always adding more to what I notice in the daily course of living.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Catmint and tulips growing in the springtime garden of New College, Oxford. Robin Lane Fox is the head gardener. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

For the last forty years, Lane Fox has written a gardening column in the Financial Times. He is – as one might expect of a Classics scholar cum gardener – erudite, informed, relentless, tidy, specific and occasionally susceptible to the beauty that results from the human endeavor of gardening.1

Most of all, Lane Fox is a crusader for “thoughtful gardening” which essentially means: care, notice, learn, fail, improve – be immersed in that which you do and from that focus will come knowledge, even insight.

Winters respond to thoughtful gardening. They have their short, cold spells, which limit choices for gardens outside warmer cities, and there are also those days of dark rain and gale warnings, some of which come true. Their boundaries, however, are advancing with the warmer average temperatures of the past twenty years.

Such thick detail. To be immersed in his writing and the image proffered is deeply rewarding. And yet, isolating, no?

By isolating I mean gardening – like reading and writing – is often best enjoyed alone. Not the physical work but the contemplation, the thoughtfulness, the deliberation.

Gardeners have odd propinquity. There is no collective noun for gardeners. Between the butterscotch earth and ceramic sky there is us and plants and insects and water and it eventually rounds back to us. We are the keystone of the project nature never requested.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Allium bloom in New College Garden. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, we gardeners are quite an interlinked bunch.

We have celebrities. Legend. Annual events. Magazines. We move with the environmental movement and when we hear that “gardeners have reduced CO2 levels” we all pat ourselves on the back for being “part of this great something.” A muddy paw on the back.

I’ve attended the Chelsea Flower Show, my husband received tickets for work. We spent the evening in the insufferable company of people who weren’t gardeners. (Who are lovely people except for this fact). It made me realize, gardeners are indeed a group. An unnamed group. One that has boundaries but also pokes its tendrils throughout time.

The tranquil walks of domestic life are now unfolding to my view: and promise a rich harvest of pleasing contemplation.

U. S. President, John Adams, an avid gardener, wrote this to his wife Abigail. He longed to return to the flowered aisles of his Massachusetts homestead; instead, he was cloistered in Philadelphia, forming the Nation.2

I feel connected to Adams, and yet, his words steep in detachment. Another gardener who must step away to enter the garden.

Maybe it has to do with property, the only place I can really garden without permission, is my space. (I tried weeding in Hyde Park, I was asked to desist. They thought I was going to steal an allium. I might have been trying to steal an allium.)

Is that what makes gardening a thing apart? Property? Should there be public spaces to garden? Gardening cafes? Want to meet up and plant a few bulbs? Perhaps some iris dividing after work?

If we’re with others, would we still feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening? If one cannot feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening, is that still gardening?

From Denise Levertov’s “The Tulips:”3

Red tulips
living into their death
flushed with a wild blue

becoming wings
ears of the wind
jackrabbits rolling their eyes

west wind
shaking the loose pane

some petals fall
with that sound one
listens for

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Oxford’s New College Garden in springtime. The far wall is part of the original city walls dating from the 12th century. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We might not garden together but we can be gardeners together.

Gertrude Jekyll had a profound effect on me as well as thousands of modern gardeners. Jekyll’s use of color, texture, and harmony furthered the garden as a place that draws one in – both visually and physically. Jekyll’s garden was a defined and deliberate place, not just a collection of plants next to a wall.4

Jekyll was primarily influenced by William Robinson, a late-Victorian gardener responsible for what we think of as the English garden: a great, natural flowery mess that is deceptively evolved and deliberate. Waving his trowel at formality and horrid bedding, Robinson opted for natural, gentle, subtle plants.

In 1931, a few years before he died, Robinson gave Jekyll a copy of his influential The Wild Garden. It was inscribed thus:

Gertrude Jekyll

From the author.

Gravetye, New Year 1931.

His gardens were more flowery than his prose. Or, perhaps, the closer people are the less they have to say. Regardless, it nods to a bond. Two who are gardeners together.5

Photos of New College garden, Oxford featured in "Thoughtful Gardening" book entry.
Gardens at New College, Oxford University. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

British novelist Penelope Lively collects gardeners.6

She moves them around like spring bulbs and cobbles a book from the effort, Life in the Garden. Lively discusses literature, style, trends, and those who would be gardeners, like Prince Charles who talks to his plants.

Lively pinpoints the exact benefits of gardening:

In gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. And for me, there is this abiding astonishment at the fury for growth, the tenacity of plant life, at the unstoppable dictation of the seasons.

There is a concept known as runners flow and equally, writers flow. Is there gardening flow? Untethered movement within time, space, ideas, hope?

Lively thinks so. She also, however, uses the familiar language of the detached. She calls gardening an “intimate paradise, intensely personal, with private hiding places.” There is something in her that covets this space, this garden, and despite writing about it to us, won’t invite us in.

Obviously, gardening is and will always be a social activity. As much as it is a solitary activity. I don’t mind either, it’s that I just wonder; is there a way to bring more of the benefits of solitude – of that gardening flow – into a life that comes at us with its busyness and often won’t let us be alone? (Or doesn’t allow us to afford property?)

Does gardening have to be apart? Do all soul-enriching things?

I don’t know. Perhaps it will come to me as I cogitate amongst the crocosmia.

What We Write About When We Write About Our Mothers

“I knew that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore.”
Maya Angelou

I have an unfair advantage over my mother, I write to an audience (though small). She doesn’t. I use words to speak my “truth.” She doesn’t. I can tell her story to people. She can’t and wouldn’t tell mine.

My mother is an intensely private person and a remarkable human being. I have to be careful not to speak for her when I write about her.

Short-story writer Alice Munro said she avoided writing about her mother until her mother died. I find that hard to believe, for we are always writing about our mothers.

'Rembrandt's Mother' by the school of Rembrandt van Rijn for use in post "What We Write About When We Write About Mothers"
Rembrandt (or that of one of his fellows) portrait of Rembrandt’s mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, ca. 1628. Her dark shawl and fur collar depict a respectable person admired by the painter. Learn more.

When American poet Robert Lowell pioneered the confessional poetry movement he wrote about his life and family, his rich Boston heritage, wealthy relatives and his contentious parents. From “91 Revere Street”1

My mother felt horrified giddiness about the adventure of our address. She once said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency.’ We were less than fifty hears from Louisburg Square, the cynosure of old historic Boston’s plain-spoken, cold roast elite – the Hub of the Hub of the Universe. Fifty yards!

In this new form of first-person, autobiographical writing that discussed things traditionally private, Lowell exposed his parents (and their eccentricities, social aspirations, and anger) to the public. The work also advanced Lowell’s career as a major American poet (he would influence writers Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.)

During the weekends I was home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion.

Lowell’s mother appears with depth and personality. A mother longing for social mobility and lost in an unsatisfying marriage. But nevertheless, his depiction of Mrs. Lowell it isn’t a person. It’s Lowell’s memory of a person.

Mothers receive mention in most memoirs, “I associate my mother with a remoteness, which I did not at all resent, and with the smell of eau-de-cologne.” Wrote English novelist Graham Greene.2 With such details, Greene’s mother remains remote to us as well.

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1" by James McNeil Whistler for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
“Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” painted by James McNeil Whistler in 1871. It is more commonly called “Whistler’s Mother.” His mother was made famous by the painter’s critical eye and painterly skill. Her existence is bound to the canvas by the very same. Learn more.

In other writings, the mother plays a primary part. She is blamed or vindicated for crimes only the writer knows, or frankly, cares about.

Although Mother kept her self busy in countless and pointless ways, it did not alleviate her worrying: her pervading sense that she was keeping nameless disasters at bay only by incessantly anticipating them, and that one moment’s lapse in this vigilance would bring them hurtling towards her. I once proposed to Dad that we should purchase a large hamster wheel for her.

The mother of comedian John Cleese was a central character in his autobiography. Without her our hero might not have turned out as he did:3

My ingrained habit of walking on eggshells when coping with my mother dominated my romantic liaisons for many years. Until it began to fade, women found me very dull. My own unique cocktail of over-politeness, unending solicitude and the fear of stirring controversy rendered me utterly unsexy.

Much of Cleese’s early comedy originated from this “infuriating desire to be inoffensive” and later in his career he created Basil Fawlty, a study of ineffective and bemused anger. Cleese’s mother isn’t his villain, she’s his alter-ego. Incurious where he is intelligent, anxious where he is comical, diminutive where he is expansive.

It seems – or maybe this is just me – that we often fail to see our mothers apart from ourselves or as humans in their own right. And equally, we fail to see ourselves apart from their influence. Mothers become a symbol, a theme, even a thesis. An actor, an alter-ego. Not a person. How they act to us and against us is how they are.

Paul Cezanne's "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" used in
“Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” painted by Paul Cezanne in 1867. So many of Cezanne’s portraits were full of brightness, this one is oddly dark. But the close-up reveals how much Cezanne cared for their relationship. His mother was an emotional support throughout his life.

This entwining is perfectly demonstrated in the writing of American activist and essayist Rebecca Solnit. According to Solnit her mother was blind to her daughter’s needs.4

My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.

In Solnit’s free-flowing prose, The Faraway Nearby, about storytelling and narrative she (unwittingly?) narrates her own mother’s story. Solnit reclaims the power – the voice – she was denied. She writes:

She often visited her fury at others or at life upon me. She took pleasure in not giving me things that she gave to others, often in front of me, in finding a way to push me out of the group. She thought she would get something from these acts, and maybe she got a momentary sense of victory and power, and those were rare possessions for her. She didn’t seem to know she had also lost something through this strategy.

As true as any of this might be, and I don’t doubt it is, Solnit doesn’t say ‘I saw my mother as’; no, she writes ‘my mother was.

When we write our mothers they will exist in perpetuity as they were to us.

I’ve written about the burden of bearing witness, telling stories to engender collective memory. As there is variation in the teller, so there will be in the telling. When we talk about our mothers we witness a life, but when we narrow it to our drama, we deliver incomplete portrayals.

Gillian Wearing as her mother, Jean Gregory, 2003 for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
Gillian Wearing as her mother Jean Gregory, 2003. Wearing, famous for dressing in the masks and costumes of family members, makes a brilliant comment on how we inhabit our parents, and they us. Look closely at the eyes, you’ll see Wearing. Learn more.

In a smattering of people writing about their mothers, one stands out. Mom & Me & Mom is the last of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies.

How did I, born black in white country, poor in a society where wealth is adored and sought after at all costs, female in an environment where only large ships and some engines are described favorably by using the female pronoun – how did I get to be Maya Angelou”.

The answer, Angelou tells us, is the grandmother who raised her and the woman who became her mother. Vivian Baxter sent Maya and her brother to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas when they were three and five. Maya lived there for the next ten years until she returned to California to a mother she vaguely knew.

After a few weeks it became clear that I was not using any title when I spoke to her. In fact, I rarely started conversations. […]

She asked me to join her. “Maya, I am your mother. Despite the act that I left you for years. I am your mother. You know that, don’t you?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” I had been answering her briefly with a few words since my arrival in California.

“You don’t have to say ‘ma’am’ to me. You’re not in Arkansas.”

“No, ma’am. I mean no.”

“You don’t want to call me ‘Mother,’ do you?” I remained silent.”

Initially, Angelou was unable to use the word “Mom” because Vivian Baxter, whom Angelou learned to call ‘Lady,’ hadn’t earned the title.

Perhaps because Angelou only lived with her mother from age thirteen, or perhaps because she is such a keen storyteller she gives her mother independence, agency.5 This is the story of how Maya Angelou’s mother became a mother and how her love turned a young girl into a great woman (and mother).

In one glorious scene, Angelou describes her mother as “catching” her baby when Angelou gives birth. Both physically and emotionally. “Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby” Vivian says to her daughter. She caught. It is a wondrous, full word.

I consider my daughter. I catch her. I cradle her, I hold, lift, elevate, rock, sway and am always always there to catch her. And my mother to me. That fierce action. Mothers are action.

And yet we write them still. We paint them sitting.

I consider my own daughter who can nary speak let alone write. How much power she will have to write my story? And how flat or rotund will my persona be? Will I exist apart from how I affected her?

I stopped writing fiction for I found, as Munro did, I always wrote my mother. Whether I wanted to or not. Or maybe I wrote myself because ultimately, I am so much her. Either way. It did not seem fair. Nor accurate.

When Angelou finally left home to live on her own, with her young son and her ferocious power in tow, she finally calls her mother “Mom.”

I walked away and was back in my bedroom before I heard my own words echoing in my mind. I had called Lady “Mother.” I knew she had noticed but we never ever mentioned the incident. I was aware that after the birth of my son and the decision to move and get a place for just the two of us, I thought of Vivian Baxter as my mother.

I like to think that at that moment, both women felt like mothers.

We all tell stories. These days we all tell stories about ourselves. We involve others in our drama. Some echo more strongly than others, some reverberate off the pages, some slink into the margins. But there they remain, contained.

When we write about our mothers – these individuals with whom we’ve shared a body, a name, a home, a day, many days, a space and countless memories which could be summed up with the word “past” – when we write about our mothers more than anything else, we are really writing about ourselves.