Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird and Me

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings

—Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy”

 

I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was thirteen. I discovered the book through an interview with Fiona Apple, one of the many female singer-songwriters whose mournful lyrics poured through my boom box speakers while I slogged my way through the kickboxing routine that, according to Seventeen, would slim my hips.

Thirteen was a difficult year; I was overweight, dorky, sarcastic, and sensitive. I spent my Friday nights eating Tombstone pizza and writing Tolkien fan fiction. And it was the last year my parents, whose marriage darkened our house, would live together under the same roof.

And what Angelou’s work did in my life, in that year, was phenomenal. [Read more...]

Sunday in Sweet Afton

Last Sunday my wife decided to celebrate the end of our semester by taking a drive on a scenic stretch of Route 151, a two-lane road that winds along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Lynchburg and Charlottesville. Often on this road, you find yourself sliding through a flashing green canopy of leaves. More than once, a climbing series of hairpin turns will open onto sweeping green valleys.

The mountains roll soft as the curves of a human body, and surround some valleys on all sides, creating a wide natural bowl protecting small Edens of farmhouses and fertile land. Yesterday, the mountaintops reached almost, but not quite, to the cumulus clouds—fat globs, heavy and motionless, as if they had been hung there by invisible wires and would drop of their own weight otherwise. It was one of those Virginia days in spring when the beauty of it all strikes you dumb but for exclaimed clichés.

Not that you would need more reason to make this drive, but strung along Route 151 are seven wineries, three breweries, one cidery, and one distillery—all do tastings, and some have restaurants. It is dubbed the Brew Ridge Trail, and it travels across Afton Mountain.

I once had a friend who smoked “Sweet Afton” cigarettes. Though they were made in Ireland, the package advertised them as “Virginia Cigarettes,” as this is where they got the tobacco. The name does not come from our Afton however, but from the Robert Burns poem about a river in Scotland. Under Burns’ picture on the pack, are these lines:

[Read more...]

Sleeping Beauty, Part 2

jan vallone

Today’s post, an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering, Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School, is continued from yesterday.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright. [Read more...]

Sleeping Beauty, Part 1

Jan Vallone

Today’s post is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering, Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School.

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

[Read more...]

Beauty Is as Beauty Does

The current issue of Image (#75) is full of rich mini-essays on some of the key words we rely on when we speak about the intersection of faith and the arts. Among these words is beauty, which novelist Erin McGraw chooses to parse.

McGraw’s main point is that beauty is ever-fleeting. We want to get a grip on it; yet by its very (transcendent) nature, we can’t.

I see what she means, and I delight in her brilliant, breezy prose. But I think there’s something important about beauty that McGraw is leaving out.

As her “rough and ready definition of beauty” she offers: “some display of harmony, intelligence, and genius.” I’d go along with this definition as far as it goes—but I don’t think it goes far enough.

Specifically, it leaves out beauty’s moral dimension: goodness. [Read more...]


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