On Visiting the Past

bs-peabody-photo

On Visiting the Past – This weekend we are in Baltimore – a reunion for him, a nostalgic return for me, as are all visits here. So much is gone, disappeared. And I’m not too enamored of the ersatz glitz that has replaced it. Potemkin’s Village, it seems, with $100 plates of spaghetti ordered by those who forget Baltimore’s past as a real city, one with watermelon rinds floating in the harbor, and Norwegian seamen staggering along Pratt Street. Okay, seen through a sepia lens, but it’s my sepia lens.

I drove up Charles Street, a few blocks from Mt. Vernon Place and my memories of Peabody Conservatory, though I only attended the Preparatory Section. And there is was, or rather, it wasn’t. The Peabody Bookshop. Gone. Ah, well.

And I thought of an earlier time – much earlier, when in high school, when I thought that it really was a bookshop, and ventured in. And it was, though one the likes of which I had never encountered before. Dark, smoky, and books, all right. I tried to make myself at home. But the back of the shop, the stube, well, was this a bar, or what? The few patrons there ignored me, as well they should have, I attired in my grey wool uniform skirt and required black-and-white saddle shoes. I had considered myself quite sophisticated – until that visit. Then I realized that I had much to learn, to experience. So I crept out, and breathed a sigh of relief when I was once again heading south to be met by my father who was patiently waiting outside the music school doors.

I returned several times over the years, each time with more experience, or so I thought. But no matter how often I went there, no matter how sophisticated I thought my order, my black turtleneck and tights, I always felt, deep down, that I was a fraud. Somehow everyone else there belonged; somehow everyone else there really had read Dostoevsky and Proust and Marx, and they knew, really knew, the difference between stout and lager.

And now I wonder.

By now I’ve read Crime and Punishment, and Remembrance of Things Past, and The Communist Manifesto, but I still don’t know my beers.

Another Sunday, www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

 

On Writing Rhythm, and Naps

susansontag

On Writing, Rhythm and Naps —

I should be working on my novel-in-progress. That is what I tell myself as I clean the sunporch, change the cat litter, and lie on the sofa for just a twenty-minute nap, which, as everyone knows, is the renowned time for bringing those fuzzy brain cells back into focus.

I’m gradually coming back to my writing rhythm, or at least heading in that direction, as I also recognize that the same excuses for not writing lure me with an ever-stronger pull. Especially naps. And I must say that, when I lie there, allowing my brain to go where it choses, I compose (in my head, of course) some of the most lyrical prose never to be put on a page. I have completed at least three novels, poetry that is so moving that the reader (if it were written, of course) would swoon, or at least stay home from work to think about it. And that is only what I can remember. Now I should clarify that a bit: what I remember is how wonderful my words were. Unfortunately for me and the literary world, I am unable to recall the actual words.

Once or twice I have been so moved as to jump (well, that is an exaggeration – more authentically, I push back the blanket, stand up, and walk) to the computer to get those words down. Alas, in the interim between living room and office, the muse decided to dwell elsewhere. But in these weeks, in my head, I actually have completed my storyline, wept for characters who will face tragedy, and developed understanding, perhaps even compassion, for those characters who I wouldn’t want to meet for coffee.

And somehow, word-by-word, I am making progress. Shitty first drafts, but words on paper, waiting to be reviewed, rewritten, and cried over.

Now, as to the image above, that is Susan Sontag. Surely she napped, and look at how beautifully she wrote. Maybe some of her talent will rub off. At least that’s what I’m thinking as I drift off – for twenty minutes only.

Another Sunday, a novel of historic Baltimore, http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

On Father’s Day

glass baltimore

I had many topics cover this week, but somehow, this poem, written several years ago, on this Father’s Day, seemed to call to me.

 

Dumas, pere

Cognac brown, soft, consoling.

I tilt the decanter to the glass,

the heavy one with the scene

 of downtown Baltimore

etched in black and real gold,

probably 24 carat.

Not to be put into the dishwasher,

though I do.

A golden bourbon in an exquisite glass.

And behind glass, leather-bound books,

a special occasion to touch.

Before I even know the title

I open, smell and riffle the pages,

A sound like bourbon, poured from the decanter.

Alexander Dumas, one of my dad’s favorites,

The Three Musketeers,

Athos, Porthos, not D’Artagnan.

Who is the third?

He would be disappointed

 that I could name

only two.

I return to my chair,

book and bourbon in hand,

to find the third musketeer’s

name.

And remember Fa sitting in our library,

bourbon in hand, reading,

perhaps The Three Musketeers.

Aramis.

 

 

On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

1910 baltimore

I remain in a state of heartbreak after my trip to Baltimore last week. Not for the wonderful, warm reception I received from friends, family and readers, but for the city itself. And I realize that my fantasy, of a Baltimore now long gone, is sepia-toned, all rough edges, cruelties airbrushed away. The Baltimore of the 1910s. For it has to be a fantasy to hold on to a past I never knew.

And I am brought to Alexander McCall Smith’s poetic hymn to Scotland. I could not say it more eloquently. To me, it speaks of Baltimore.

From The Revolving Door of Life
(44 Scotland Street Series                                                                                                     Alexander McCall Smith

When I was a boy, not yesterday of course,

When life, I thought, was a whole lot

More certain than it is today,

I made a list of those I thought

Liked me as much as I liked them –

For at that age we’re loved

By just about everybody

Whom we care to love; how different

It is in later years, when affection

Has no guarantee of reciprocation,

When we may spend so very long

Yearning for one who cannot

Love us back, or cares not to,

Or who lives somewhere else

And has forgotten our address

And the way we looked or spoke.

The remarkable thing about love

Is that it is freely available,

Is as plentiful as oxygen,

Is as joyous as a burn in spate

And need never run out.

And yet, for all its plentitude,

We ration it so strictly and forget

Its curative properties, its subtle

Ability to make the soul-injured

Whole again, to make the lonely

Somehow assured that their solitude

Will not last forever; its promise

That if we open our heart

It is joy and resolution

That will march in triumphant

Through the gates we create.

When I look at Scotland,

At this country that possesses me,

I wonder what work love

Has still to do; and find the answer

Closer at hand than I thought –

In the images of contempt and disdain,

That are still there, as stubborn

As human imperfections can be;

In the coldness of heart

That sees nothing wrong

In indifference to want, to dislike

Of those who are different,

In the cutting, dismissive

Turn of phrase, in the sneer.

Love is not there, in all those places,

But it will be; love cannot solve

Every human problem, but it makes

A start on a solution; love

Is the only compass-point

We need to learn; we need not

Be clever to know it, nor endowed

With unusual vision, love

Comes free, at least in those forms

Worth having, lasts as long

As anything human may last.

May Scotland, when it looks

Into its heart tomorrow

If not today, see the fingerprints

Of love, its signature, its presence,

Its promise of healing.

Another Sunday,  www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

On Another Sunday in Baltimore

anothersundaycover

On Another Sunday in Baltimore

I was in Baltimore this past weekend to launch Another Sunday there. It was an extraordinary experience for me. First, that this book is really here; second, that people actually want to read it. And then being back in the city where Another Sunday takes place, albeit the Baltimore of the early 20th Century, was intensely emotional.

We stayed at the Johns Hopkins Mt. Washington Conference Center, which just happens to be the site of a major scene in the book, The Mt. Washington Country School for Boys. The Octagon Building, a pivotal location, is now lovingly restored to its former glory. Thank you, Johns Hopkins University, for that. How poignant to actually enter its foyer, to see where little boys, dressed in their military school uniforms, learned Greek and Latin and the history and geography of a century past.

The launch was held at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, for streetcars play a major part throughout the book. The volunteers there could not have been more helpful, nor more enthusiastic, and all who attended, in addition to the “pleasure” of hearing me read, were treated to a ride on a 1900 streetcar. The actual streetcar, not a replica.

This journey back to Baltimore was also filled with sadness, as we visited streets and neighborhoods that are featured so prominently throughout the book, and which have not fared as well as the beautifully and lovingly restored Octagon Building. Time and circumstances have not been good to North Avenue, the Baltimore Cemetery, St. Paul Street, Maryland Avenue. Those areas, indeed Baltimore itself, have as central a role as do the human characters. And, like the protagonist Celeste, who starts the 20th Century with hopes and dreams and assurances, and who finds life’s challenges sometimes unwinnable, so too does Baltimore, the real Baltimore, not the ersatz posturing of million-dollar harbor-view condominiums and restaurants featuring hundred-dollar plates of spaghetti.

And I realize that for my Baltimore, its time is past. Jobs have vanished, thousands upon thousands of vacant and derelict houses remain, hidden to the visitor’s eye behind the harbor’s Potemkin façade. It is almost impossible not to despair. My Baltimore is gone.

I write of a time in the early 20th Century, a time when the city thought it faced a bright future. For me, it’s better that way.

 

Another Sunday, www. cynthiastrauff.com

On Those Scots-Irish Pioneers

mtnwomen02

On Those Scots-Irish Pioneers

I’m an indoor person. I come from a long line of indoor people – you know, the kind who define rigorous exercise as walking to the library (or bar), and weight-lifting as walking home from the library carrying books (or from the bar holding onto streetlights).

My forbearers settled in Maryland, almost all in Baltimore. When they got off the boat, they walked, at most, a few blocks and said, “This looks pretty good to me,” while they looked with bemused wonder at their shipmates who thought the wilds of Western Maryland (by this they thought Frederick) held their dreams. I would reckon that those who journeyed to the Appalachians were beyond my ancestors’ imaginations.

So, all this as a precursor to my admiration for hardy pioneers. For who better to appreciate an attribute than one who would have roundly turned her back on Horace Greeley’s exhortation to “go West.”

My thoughts are fueled by a recent trip to the Smokey Mountains and reading John Erle’s Time of Drums. Both deepened my understanding of that fierce independent mountaineer temperament, that inner strength that had to be called up for survival. While riding through Cades Cove in my comfortable car, I found myself filled with a deep sense of admiration for that Scots-Irish Highland spirit. I once heard Sharyn McCrumb, known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, say that the Southern hillbilly is the last group that we are still allowed to ridicule. They have no advocacy group calling for respect, for deference, for political correctness. Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

While we all have our labels, each of us is more complex than a one-dimensional categorization. And how easy it is for our strengths to quickly morph into clichéd weaknesses. No, those primal mountain men and women were not perfect, but I surely do admire their ability to face life as it was presented to them, without complaints, or excuses. Strength, and determination, and independence can be read in their faces. They wear their wrinkles with pride and dignity. We should respect and honor them for that.

 

 

ANOTHER SUNDAY Has Arrived!

anothersundaycover

ANOTHER SUNDAY Has Arrived!

I’m delighted to let you know that my book, ANOTHER SUNDAY, is here. It’s an historical novel set in Baltimore in the early part of the 20th Century, and chronicles the life of Celeste Wells, who was born expecting that life would deliver her dreams – love, and a house on Mt. Vernon Place. However, as life most often does, fate selects other paths for her, as she learns to live in a time and society radically different from what she envisioned.

Set when life seemed a bit simpler, at least to the modern eye, ANOTHER SUNDAY gives us a glimpse into Baltimore, and the world, as it was, complete with streetcars and train trips and a young woman coming to grips with a changing world and the costs of her own independence.

ANOTHER SUNDAY is currently available in both print and electronic versions. You can purchase it by going to my website: cynthiastrauff.com, or by going directly to Lulu.com. (Please note that I have written this under the name Cynthia Strauff, so this is the name that will be on all sites and search engines.

Please excuse this bit of “shameless self-promotion.” I do hope that you’ll consider purchasing the book. And, in even more self-promotion, if you know of anyone who enjoys historical fiction, family sagas, or women’s fiction, it would be great if you would share this blog post with them.

And as we end this holiday weekend, I thank you and hope that your Thanksgiving was filled with joy, contentment, and, of course, gratitude.