Monday, September 30, 2013

September Ends

The first time I connected with the rock band Green Day was way back in 2004. Sure, I had heard a few of their songs before that, but I had been too busy raising young children, playing pirates, and reading William Joyce picture books to listen to much new besides kid tunes.

But that day was different.

Earlier, my oldest had left to start junior high, and I had just dropped my youngest off for his first day of Kindergarden. It was one of those times when you realize everything changes after that day. I was happy for them, of course, and their new adventures, but for me? Well, I really didn’t know how I felt.

Then it happened.

“Wake Me Up When September Ends” came on the radio. Billie Joe Armstrong sang of pain, sadness of time passing, dread, loss of innocence, and wanting to go back to bed and hide beneath the covers. The tears came stronger than I ever imagined.

Oh, September, how you vex me so!

This year, four weeks of such promise withered a little each day, draining my spirit and crushing my verve, and resulted in unfulfilled expectations, disappointment, loss, and failure.

We all have those times, don’t we? Those days when nothing seems to go our way, no matter how hard we work. Well, this September has had thirty of them, and I’m ready to turn the calendar page in hopes of a better October.

September, I gladly bid you farewell. Plague me no more!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Who's Ready for a Little Lit Fun?

This Saturday, September 28, I will be participating in the Glen Ellyn Bookfest, a day-long literary festival filled with author events, book signings, and panel discussions.

The event begins at 9:30 a.m. with PitchFest in the Glen Ellyn Public Library, 400 Duane Street. Participants (including myself) will have only sixty seconds to get the audience interested in our novels. I'll be practicing my best "elevator speech" for Until My Soul Gets It Right all week.

Afterward, attendees will be able to meet their favorite authors at the Trade Show from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the library meeting room.

Other activities for the day include a keynote address by Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a panel discussion with Mathis, Bret Nicholas, literary agent Joe Durepos, and author Amy Sue Nathan, and appearances by children's book authors Matthew Cordell and Judith Fradin.

It sounds like a lot of fun. Besides, who doesn't love a day that is all about books, right?

I'll be at the Trade Show, too, so if you are in the Chicagoland area, please stop by and say hello. I'd love to see you!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoreau, Walden, and Concord

Henry David Thoreau, most famous as the author of Walden and Civil Disobedience, was a naturalist who believed one could achieve a better understanding of life by a greater understanding of nature. Unlike the common caricature of the hermit-like man, shunning society for his tiny cabin in the woods, Thoreau was actually quite social and very much a part of Transcendentalist society in Concord. He escaped to the woods to write his first book, which is something I can very much relate to, although I would need indoor plumbing and Internet connection in my small shelter.

How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural 
phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health! 
— Henry David Thoreau, [Journal, 6 May 1851]

Walden Pond (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

He once spent a night in jail for not paying his poll tax. Fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson bailed him out. According to, he was “a tireless champion of the human spirit against the materialism and conformity that he saw as dominant in American culture, Thoreau's ideas about civil disobedience, as set forth in his 1849 essay, have influenced, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his mastery of prose style has been acknowledged by writers as disparate as Robert Louis Stevenson, Marcel Proust, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Miller.”

Thoreau statue, Walden Woods  (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined,” is actually misquoted. The correct line is from Thoreau’s Walden. It should read as follows.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness."
 — Henry David Thoreau

Walden Pond (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

The small cabin in which Thoreau spent his time in Walden Woods was dismantled long ago for firewood, but my family and I did see a replica when we visited in August.

Replica of Thoreau's cabin, Walden Woods (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

He is buried on Author’s Ridge with his Concord writer friends Emerson, the Alcotts, and Hawthorne. The day we were there, a little pencil was on his tombstone, along with several pine cones. Thoreau worked in his family’s pencil factory for most of his adult life.

Thoreau's grave, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

When Henry David Thoreau died, Louisa May Alcott wrote a poem for him that appeared in The Atlantic during the summer of 1863.

Thoreau's Flute
By Louisa May Alcott

We sighing said, "Our Pan is dead;

His pipe hangs mute beside the river;

Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,

But Music's airy voice is fled.

Spring came to us in guise forlorn;

The bluebird chants a requiem;

The willow-blossom waits for him;—

The Genius of the wood is gone.

Then from the flute, untouched by hands,

There came a low, harmonious breath:

For such as he there is no death;—

His life the eternal life commands;

Above man's aims his nature rose.

The wisdom of a just content

Made one small spot a continent,

And turned to poetry life's prose.

Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,

Swallow and aster, lake and pine,

To him grew human or divine,—

Fit mates for this large-hearted child.

Such homage Nature ne'er forgets,

And yearly on the coverlid
Neath which her darling lieth hid

Will write his name in violets.

To him no vain regrets belong

Whose soul, that finer instrument,

Gave to the world no poor lament,

But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.

O lonely friend! he still will be

A potent presence, though unseen,—

Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;

Seek not for him—he is with thee.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Salem's Favorite Son, Nathaniel Hawthorne

My family’s trip to the Boston area enchanted me in many ways. The rocky Atlantic shore, so different and preferable to the seas of corn we have in the Midwest. The history around every corner. The beautiful colonial and federalist architecture. But the one place that truly touched my core was Salem.

Salem, MA
Salem, Massachusetts, has an interesting feel to it. Part maritime port, part modern-day Wiccan mecca, it operates over an undercurrent of uneasiness. You can feel something terrible happened here. Not everywhere, of course. Larger than I had remembered, the town bustles with every-day activity. Witches dressed in long skirts and pentacles walk the streets alongside tourists, businesspeople, punks, goths, and an occasional local garbed in Puritan attire to add ambiance to The Witch House, the only structure remaining from the times of the Witch Trials.

The Witch House
The Salem Witch Museum reminds visitors of the twenty people that lost their lives in 1692 after being falsely accused of practicing witchcraft. Hundreds more were killed across this county, but the numbers in Europe are estimated at around 100,000. What began as ridiculous teen-aged girls lying to get out of trouble snowballed into hysteria. Alleged witchcraft to so many in Salem also meant an easy way to silence outspoken women or those who would not obey their husbands. Local men saw it as an opportunity to grab more land and power, as well as rid themselves of unnecessary  irritations.

The Salem Witch Museum
It got under my skin, as it most certainly did to Salem’s most famous resident, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born there in 1804. His great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the three witch trial judges. Nathaniel added the “w” in his last name perhaps to distance himself from his notorious ancestor, but unfortunately the letter could not exorcise his belief, which he wrote in the preface of The House of the Seven Gables. It reads “…the truth, namely the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” (Hawthorne: Collected Novels, The Library of America, 1983, 11th edition).

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an interesting sort. He started writing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he met poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. He also spent one year at the experimental transcendentalist community of Bronson Alcott, Brook Farm. He married Sophia Peabody and moved to Concord at the urging of Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he rented the Old Manse. Depending on your perspective, the Hawthornes were either run out of the Old Manse in a dispute or simply left because the owners needed the house. American Bloomsbury alludes to the first explanation.

The Old Manse
Hawthorne’s friendship with Pierce and other members of the Democratic party secured him an appointment as Surveyor in the Salem Customs House, but he lost that post when Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1849. The next year, the family left Salem and moved to Lenox, where they met Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville. Hawthorne and Melville became friends, and the younger author dedicated his greatest work, Moby Dick, to him.

Salem Customs House
The Hawthornes moved back to Concord and purchased the Alcott’s first home there, Wayside. A few years later, he was appointed American Consul at Liverpool by then President Franklin Pierce and moved to England, after which he toured Europe, meeting other artists, including Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

Hawthorne returned to America and to Concord in 1860. His health began deteriorating a few years later, and he died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, during a trip through Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Hawthorne Family Gravesite (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)
His greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, is perhaps the most definitive piece on the effects of adultery and personal desire in American literature.

What’s your favorite Hawthorne piece?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Five Fun Facts About Ralph Waldo Emerson

Continuing our celebration of American Literature, here are some interesting tidbits about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

1. Poet, philosopher, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston. He led the Transcendentalist movement and wrote dozens of published essays, including "Nature" and "Self-Reliance," and delivered more than 1,500 lectures across the U.S.

Emerson's Home in Concord, MA (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

2. After studying at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson entered the ministry, but found himself unable to administer the sacraments in good conciousness after the death of his nineteen-year-old wife, Ellen. He left the church.

(Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

3. Nicknamed "The Sage of Concord," Ralph Waldo Emerson surmised that intuition was the only way to comprehend reality.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned the Walden property upon which Henry David Thoreau built his cabin.

Emerson's grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

5. “My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Dear readers, what is your favorite Emerson quote?