Prunes & store tea

I just returned from an extended family gathering where a conversation or two arose concerning specific, regional, well-known-to-the-family phrases and sayings perhaps invented by some ancestor. These idioms are outdated; the young people often find them hilarious, quaint, or mystifying.

“What does that even mean?” became a common refrain.

I have heard these terms and phrases since I was a very young child, and they usually don’t seem strange to my ears. But a cousin reminded me of the phrase “full of prunes and store tea,” and while I know it means that the person full of said comestibles is lively, wound up, and possibly talking nonsense (in the region where I now reside, the term might be ruchy), I had never really thought about its origin.

Ruchy is a combination of Polish and Pennsylvania German derived from the word ruch (meaning movement or motion). So that new-world regional neologism makes sense. But prunes and store tea?

I did a little hunting around on various etymology and idiom websites (yes, this is part of my job!) and found that being full of beans and being full of prunes are somewhat but not entirely synonymous, depending upon region. Both can mean being wiggly and mobile, and both can mean acting silly. The layperson’s theory is that beans and prunes cause intestinal gas, hence fidgeting about or, alternately, being full of hot air. *

Store tea. Okay, tea purchased at a store? I suppose there was, in the days when the US was thinly populated in many areas, a reason to differentiate that which was made at home from that which was purchased at a store. I remember my great-grandmother saying that someone well-off she knew in her childhood had a house with “boughten rugs” rather than rag, home-woven, or rush rugs.

As for the odd combination of prunes and tea…eventually I found success by changing the and to in.

Prunes can be stewed in tea! This delicacy goes back centuries and is–no surprise here–probably British in origin. If you are curious, here’s one of several recipe sites you can check out for methods of stewing prunes in tea: melecotte. The author provides links to other tea & prune confections.

So it turns out that, all along, the idiom is “You’re full of prunes in store tea!” Though I doubt that will change the way we say it–in the rare times we blurt out an old-fashioned regional phrase at a ruchy child or a bullshitting teenager.

StewedPrunes2

Thanks to Melecotte

* See comment below…

Next door to God

~

I’m currently reading a new Tupelo Press anthology of essays by poets, A God in the House. The essays are based on interviews with poets whose work engages with “the spiritual” or with “faith”–often in similar ways, though attained through widely varying means and experiences.

It’s lovely to savor these thoughtful commentaries on the spiritual. Many of the poets wrestle with the concept of faith, soul, or the spiritual as they try to put into words what that feels like. Poets know better than most people the limits of what we can say in words, and they push at those limits in and through their work.

And this book features some marvelous poets. Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Grace Paley, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, the incomparable Alicia Ostriker, Gregory Orr (one of my long-time favorite living poets), Annie Finch, and many others. Even if you are not interested in poetry all that much, the anthology is valuable if you are interested in the spiritual and how we obtain, understand, incorporate, question, and express it.

Can we attain transcendence? Or immanence, instead? Or are we fooling ourselves altogether?

Good questions.

~

When I was a very young child, my father, a newly-minted Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a small parish in a rural area of New York. We lived in a ranch-style manse across the driveway from the 19th-century shingle-style church. We had a large yard which bordered a large field. There was a post fence along the side of the church yard and a barbed-wire fence in back of our own yard. I liked to sit on the post fence’s wooden stretchers and pretend I was riding a horse. There were tall pine trees at the front of the church and I recall watching birds fly in and out of the trees and also in and out of the eaves of the steeple. All of those memories I now associate with church-going and whatever the spirit is. I always think of that time of my life as the days I lived next door to God.

I was raised in the culture of God-the-Father. My father, my human father, was the man behind the pulpit. He wore flowing robes and he sang beautifully, but what I liked best was watching him as he opened the enormous Bible and read from it.

Yes, I was a bibliophile from the get-go.

~

I suppose the words mattered. Certainly the verses, the language of scripture, its pacing, and the intonation of recitations, creeds, and prayer–not to mention the music–made their way into my forming mind. I learned to read by doodling on church bulletins and pretending to follow along in the hymnals as we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “The Doxology.” But I do not recall ever believing, quite, that the words equaled the spirit, even though I memorized that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.

Now I have come around to words again. (Writers do that.) I am not in the right frame of mind to write eloquently, as the writers in A God in the House have done, about how my poetry, my practice, my beliefs entwine with the spiritual. Perhaps someday I will, inspired by the thoughts and reflections of others. It is a brave thing, to write about one’s faith–so personal. I am grateful to the editors (Illya Kaminsky & Katherine Towler) who envisioned this project and interviewed the poets; and I heartily recommend this book.

Kindred spirits

Kin=One’s family and relations. [Merriam-Webster]

My parents bred, bore, and raised me. That’s true for many of us human beings.

When I ask people about their parents, inevitably I learn that parents are people who are admired, influential, heroic, role models, (or sometimes, the opposite of these ‘ideals’).

My parents are, I have decided, kindred spirits. Kindred in the physical and specific sense, but also kindred in the more metaphorical, spiritual sense.

My dad’s my intellectual kindred spirit, my mother acts more as my artistic and intuitive kindred spirit. Not to put too dualistic a point on it…

The influence they’ve had is behind us now–many years have passed since I relied on them for sustenance and a roof over my head, for discipline and social or academic guidance, or for artistic or other taste.

I admire them for their qualities but have long ceased putting either of them on a pedestal; they are realistic in admitting their failings and flaws–and often accurate because they are wise and smart and reflective and aware. (And so am I, within my specific limits.)

As we age, I cannot help but think of these things more often: what the meaning if inheritance is, really, in terms of the physical (DNA), the cultural, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and emotional realms. Not to mention the philosophical, which is where my dad comes in, though my mother has her own form of philosophy I will probably never be able to explain adequately.

Kindred. A lovely word rich with metaphorical possibilities. And spirit…well, that’s another day’s work to explore.

Texts

“Text” has taken on new meanings during the past 10 years or so, informally and formally. For one thing, in its techno-language sense, it has become a verb: “Text me later today.” It is a word that has likely undergone a huge uptick in frequency of usage in recent years.

Even in the realms of academe, “text” has for some time now been used to refer to things which are not, strictly speaking, texts: movies, advertisements, and art, for example. We can view archeological sites as texts, as palimpsests that layer one era upon another. Derrida offered us a method to using some of these concepts through deconstruction, “an effort to understand a text through its relationships to various contexts” (in a 1988 translation).

This post is not about deconstruction.

~

Context: it contains the word text (from the Latin texere, to weave; context, therefore: to join together, structure). When I tutor students in writing papers, I stress context. What are you writing about, what are your sources, what era, what place, which people or theories or machinations are involved? Give us a structure on which to layer your observations, research, or argument.

This post is not about composition or research papers, either. Well, not exactly.

~

What I want to write about—briefly, and perhaps more another time—is some old-fashioned texts recently unearthed from my parents’ house. My mother handed me a paper bag full of texts that includes letters I sent when I was a young adult living on my own for the first time, letters friends wrote to me and to my sister, high school transcripts, essays written my freshman year at college, poems composed in my junior year at college, as well as—amazingly enough—report cards not only from my childhood but from my parents’ elementary-school years and an essay my father wrote while he was a junior at Wabash College in, as near as I can calculate, 1953.

This last item fills me with a tenderness I find difficult to describe or explain. Typed on a manual typewriter I later used in my college years, on now-yellowed linen-content paper, stapled at the corner with four still-unrusted staples, “Luther’s Concept of Grace” is a 14-page essay for a class entitled Church History 340. The text on which his essay is based was Martin Luther’s A Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians from an anonymous translation into English dated 1575. The copy he read was published in London in 1830.

When my father composed this assignment, he was younger than my son is now. And my son seems so young to me as he wrestles with his own concerns about ethics and law and philosophical matters and moving on into adulthood. I imagine my young dad reading this 19th-century book, Bible beside him for reference (Gal. 2:19, etc.), wrestling with the theology Luther set forth in order to explain the complex relationship(s) Luther sees between faith and grace, or grace and law, or liberty and sin. My father wrote and revised by hand, taking notes, and—though he is an excellent typist—probably had to re-type several pages to be sure the final draft was error-free and that the end-of-page notes all fit. (Today’s students have no idea what a hassle formatting on a typewriter could be). He made one typing error, a stray “the” on page 7; Dr.  Pauck caught it, and also commented that though the paper is “well written and clearly organized…certain points are left ambiguous.”

I value my dad’s ambiguity on those points. Looking at the places in this text where his professor offered minor quibbles, I interpret that the writer was a young person who was eager to please but unwilling to accept doctrinal thinking without examination or, as may be, allowing some reasonable ambiguity. At one point, for example, my dad writes, “Luther has again come close to ascribing to grace a substantial status. But even though it must be felt, it is the feeling of an emotion…it is clear that relationships or states of being are meant, and not something substantial.” The professor faults him: “Is this the correct way of stating the matter?”

My father went on to pursue theology, pastoral care, psychology, and teaching; emotion mattered to him. At 21 years old, and in the context of an examination of Martin Luther, he didn’t know how to phrase the valuable emotional aspect of grace (substantial or not) he intuited as necessary. Perhaps Luther did not possess this characteristic—in fact, from my admittedly limited reading of his work, he seems not to have. My father does possess this trait.

I think what this text evokes in me is the awareness that he was who he is even when he was youthful and inexperienced and hadn’t read or learned a fraction of what he knows now. The context for this 60-year-old text matters to me personally in terms of its relationship to me and to the man who raised me, among other possible relationships tactile, historical, socio-cultural or otherwise, and—richly and often—ambiguous.

Recitations

My brain still hurts, so I have decided to publish a radio commentary I did quite a few years back (for WDIY). If I can locate the mp3 file, I’ll post that, too.

I’ve chosen to post this essay for a number of reasons. The concept of having the time and the motivation to read, recall, and recite poetry seems like heaven to me at the moment. Then there’s the connection to rhythm, to pulse, that operates so fruitfully in metrical poetry. Finally, for sentimental reasons: it’s been ten years since my grandmother’s death, and now my parents have moved into an independent living community, and these events tend to lead to review, reflection, and—in my case—the desire to connect with poetry.

Recitations
to the memory of Lucille Bohnstedt

My grandmother was born in 1909. As a child, she lived on a small farm in the Midwest, rising early to do chores, after which she’d study her homework by kerosene lamp. I once asked her what subjects she most enjoyed in school, and her answers surprised me. “I liked doing sums,” she told me, “And Latin, and poetry—I always liked poetry.”

This was a revelation. My grandma always seemed such a practical person; I wondered what it was she liked about Latin and poetry. I was aware of her devotion to crossword puzzles—caught up in the crossword craze during the 1920s, she never gave up her love of solving word challenges. I’m sure her Latin helped her decipher many an obscure word. But puzzles involve a different part of the brain than poetry.

I love poetry, so I had to probe more, curious about what my grandmother had studied and learned in verse. Did she recall which poets she liked? No, she had pretty well forgotten, but she liked rhyme and recitation. She had been good at memorizing lines—she liked the rhythms. And those old poems, they told such good stories, some of them sad…

Recitations! Such an old-fashioned concept, but still very popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Schoolchildren stood at the head of the class reciting their pieces, and poetic ballads were popular recitations at community gatherings and amateur nights; heart-rending tragedies like Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” (1906) were extremely popular. While most of these poems rhymed, their defining feature is the strong rhythm in the lines which carried listeners —who had never experienced the constant blare of television—into the powerful surge of words. Poems such as Wordsworth’s “Lines”:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs…

Or Sir Henry Wotton’s ecstatic poem “On a Bank as I sat Fishing:”

And now all Nature seemed in love;
The lusty sap began to move;
New juice did stir the embracing vines;
And birds had drawn their Valentines…”

Many a schoolchild recited Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” the fourth line of which has become so famous that few of today’s Americans could tell you its origin—

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The ballads of Edgar Allen Poe—Annabelle Lee was a favorite—and Phoebe Cary’s ballad of the Dutch boy whose finger stemmed a breach in the dike, and Longfellow’s classic poetic stories— “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”—these were my grandmother’s texts, her introduction into poetry. I like to imagine my young grandmother milking cows in the darkness and murmuring “By the shores of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis…” the sound of milk in the bucket echoing the rhythm of her hands as she milks. She earned an A in recitation from this practice. Maybe those resounding rhythms played some part in her steady endurance through a long lifetime that was not always easy.

My grandmother died in March of 2001, one less poetry-lover in the world. At her funeral I read Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell.”  This is the poem’s last verse—

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go.

~Here is a photo that shows Grandma’s less-practical side. She’s on the right (with her sister Faye), dressed in “flapper” style and riding side-saddle on a draft horse! I really ought to write a poem about this image.