Saturday, September 27, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LIII

...and cold hic jacets of the dead...

I have loved and feared cemeteries for as long as I can remember.  I grew up surrounded by them and so some sort of reaction to their ubiquitous presence was inevitable.  While the fear has lessened to the point of being negligible, the love has grown to make them one of my favorite places.  Fortunately, my wife shares this attraction so that our summers in New England have involved numerous trips to grave yards.  Featured here is a gem I found while looking for the graves of several Sheltons in Derby.  It's a family plot, but contains only three burials that I could identify.  This is common in 19th century cemeteries: acquiring wealth gave one generation a desire for permanence but keeping wealth required the next generation to embrace mobility.  The oak sighs in Mamre, but there is no one left to bear a coffin up from Egypt.
The funerary arch at the rear of the mortuary garden gives the name of the Family.  The words "come unto me" inscribed beneath the pediment are taken from Matthew 11:28, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest".  In context, the verse has to do with the present life, but one can see why the Mason's chose it for this particular use.  Here, the rest Jesus promises to the Christian in life is extended into eternity, the "Sabbath rest" that is the reward of the saints.  The style of the arch is reminiscent of Baroque churches in Italy and the use of Baroque elements in American funeral architecture was common during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is interesting that the arch here is not an entrance to the complex, but instead serves as a back-drop for the graves and, presumably, for the grave-side services that once took place here.  As a personal speculation, I wonder if it isn't meant to represent a doorway into eternity.
The open book as a tombstone or monument is another common piece of funerary architecture from this time period.  The book can represent the Book of Life found in Revelation or it can symbolize that this couple's story has come to an end.  Roses are usually associated with women who died young, so it is odd to find them here.  I can't find the original context for the phrase "we will all go home tomorrow," but it may be taken from a hymn or spiritual.  Whatever its origin, in context it serves as a sentimentalized "memento mori" and is typically Victorian.  Cemeteries also tell stories, and it's sad to note that this couple was separated by death for more than thirty years.  I wonder how often Eva Mason came here and if any of her descendants still visit her grave.
Some tombs take the form of benches, but this one seems to be merely an architectural feature. There is a grave associated with the bench, and it can be seen in the picture below.  The bench tells us that the area is the "Court of Peace" and it is still a wonderfully peaceful place on a warm summer day. The date on the bench, 1912, tells us that the Masons had this plot constructed two years before the first member of the family was interred, suggesting that Mr. Mason's final resting place reflects his own particular tastes and wishes,  Beneath the date is written Revelation 21:4 "and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying.."
This grave may tell another story from the Mason family.  The maiden name on this tombstone is the same as Mrs. Mason's perhaps indicating that this is a child from a previous marriage.  I wonder if the Masons had any more children.  If they did, I couldn't find their graves in the Court of Peace.

*Once again, I am indebted to Douglas Keister's Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.
**Update: Since the writing of this post, I have been able to identify at least two more graves in the Mason-Terrell plot: at least one Terrell and the second may be a another Child.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LII

Lieutenant Daniel Shelton, the first of his family to settle in the town that now bears their name.  The lichen grows thick on his stone, but careful observers can still make out the name.

On my father's side of the family, the Irish and Italian, we're recent immigrants; solidly 20th century.  The Rileys and Kennedys on my mother's side go back to the potato famine. The Quebecois stretch back to the 1600s, but that side also migrated to the states in the 20th century.  Much of my family's world began in the mill towns of Northern Massachusetts.  The Italians fared better opening up a diner in Hartford that was a stop-off for musicians in the Jazz Age. Our roots were shallow and therefore easy to pull up.  The family tree has fared well in new soil from California to North Carolina.  We've done well, but my heart still belongs to the little Connecticut hill town where the bones of the founding families lie thicker than glacial rock in the fields.  Some of them are still farming there and burying their dead in the same plots as their long-fathers.

So what does it feel like to always be on the outside looking in?  To be Pip, Charles Ryder, Walter Mitty, never a Sebastian, an Estella, or even a Charles Dexter Ward?  I don't know.  But the trees still sing and dance for me when I come home, the sky weeps, and the sunlight falls over the valley like a door opening on the first morning of the world.  In those times, I feel most at home among the dead.  He who overcomes I shall make a pillar in the temple of my God and he shall never leave.  They have entered into their rest and their reward but, for me, the rough work of the world is still to do.  So I have to turn my steps again, as I did all those years ago, and bid my dead farewell.  I don't know if I'll ever really come home.  That's a privilege for w.a.s.p.s -we mics have to make our own way.  Yet Israel asked to be buried in the land of Canaan, by the oaks of Mamre, and when the Israelites went back they brought the body of Joseph out of Egypt with them. So for me it may be a coffin in Egypt.  We will not all of us sleep, but we all will all of us be changed. 

I met a sexton in a cemetery in Derby.  He was an immigrant from Portugal and he new every grave in that vast necropolis and all its history like the back of his hand.  He asked my wife and I if we were doing genealogical research; if we were looking for family.  I told him we were looking for an author of a book and two of her family that she mentioned.  Jane de Forest Shelton was there, and so were Aunt Mary and Glorianna.  I told him we were looking for people from a book, but I was looking for family.

When these things are washed away,
The River will keep flowing,
Wei la lei
And the daughters of the river god all sing:
Be mindful of these bones,
Be mindful of these bones.
Wash them, cradle them,
Lay them in the earth,
Till they lie
As thick as glacial rock
In the twinkling of an eye
They will be changed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part LI

When I began The Platypus Travels thread, I never thought that I would reach fifty-one posts.  The Platypus of Truth was originally conceived as a sort of daily journal share-able thoughts.  Around 2007-2008, it evolved into a literary blog with The Platypus Reads taking the lion's share of each year's posts.  The share-able thoughts and the book reviews have remained, but I'm pleased to see that The Platypus of Truth as grown over the past years to include poems, academic reflections, classic gaming reviews, and now travel blogging.  If one thread doesn't appeal to you, hopefully another will. From a small seed, this blog has grown into a vast tree and every branch and leaf is dear to me.

Today's post, then, is a short follow-up to this discussion of Victorian stained glass.  Specifically, I want to show you the companion piece on the west side of the church.  This window is in a more traditional style and features the Agnus Dei, or "Lamb of God".  The window is specifically dedicated in memory of the children that past away; whether in a specific epidemic in 1906 or over the course of several years is unclear from the dedication.  The Agnus Dei is a symbol of the Resurrection and thus fitting for a memorial window.  It may also be a reference to Blake's Little Lamb which had been converted into a popular children's hymn.  The daisies between the Lamb's feet are symbols of simplicity and are a typical emblem on memorials for dead children.  The Sunflowers in the field behind the Lamb are typically associated with the Roman Catholic faithful, an odd touch in an Episcopal church.  The lilies in the bottom panel are symbols of purity and resurrection.  The IHS can stand for the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek or for the Latin "In Hoc Signo" (In This Sign [Conquor]).  The later is particularly fitting given that the Agnus Dei is an image of the victorious Christ from Revelation.  The oval that the central portrait sits in is a feature of byzantine icons and depicts a window into heaven.  The cross is a broadfooted cross with the triangular ends representing the Trinity(as do the clusters of three circles around the IHS and the fluer de lis around the Lamb).  The image of the Lamb creates a nimbus around the cross that gives it a Celtic flair.*  Since the sun was decidedly in the east when we visited the church, the window lacks the dazzling luminescence of its companion.  I can only imagine what it looks like in the light of the full afternoon sun.

*For help with interpreting the symbols on this window I am indebted to Douglas Keister's handy guide on funerary symbolism, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading 2014: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXII

Summer is dead and gone good lady; Summer's dead and gone.  The sunny season has finally given way to her more temperate cousin and that means it's time to take stock of this year's Summer Reading.  As usual on this blog, that also means that I'm handing out awards for the seven best books I've read during the break.  The awards are themed around the attributes of the seven medieval heavens in honor of C.S. Lewis and Michael Ward.  So, without further ado, here are this year's winners.

Moon: The planet of madness goes to a book that nearly drove me mad: Night Train to Lisbon.  Pascal Mercier's story of a Swiss school teacher's mid-life crisis is the sort of book that reminds you of the emperor's new clothes.  It attempts to cow you with its own pretentiousness.  That's sad, because with another round or two of merciless edits, I think it could have been a good book.

Mercury:  This year's award for the planet of wordsmiths goes to one of the more helpful volumes on the writing process I've seen: Ray Rhamey's Flogging the Quill.  There was more practical advice for writing and editing in this thin little volume than in just about any other book I've read.

Venus:  The planet of love and the green earth goes to a book about a place near and dear to my heart, Jane de Forest Shelton's The Salt-box House.  It's the next best thing to living in the Shire.

Sun: The Heaven of scholars goes to the formidable father-son duo of John Ronald and Christopher Tolkien for wonderful treasure trove that is Beowulf and Sellic Spell.  While acknowledging that his thought is dated, I have always appreciated professor Tolkien's reflections on Beowulf and make frequent use of them in interpreting the work for students.  This new edition of Tolkien's translation with commentary is a joy to read and has me genuinely excited to teach the Anglo-Saxon poem again.

Mars:  The planet of contention goes to a book about some particularly contentious little creatures.  That book is Brain Froud's The Goblins of Labyrinth.  I have what amounts to an inordinate love of the movie and this whimsical little volume of production sketches did not disappoint.   

Jupiter:  I nearly missed this one and was saved by a chance trip to Barnes and Noble in search of a map of Southern New England.  The planet of kings goes to a story about a king who comes into his kingdom and finds no one at home: Hellboy in Hell: The Descent.  The real treat of this volume is that Mignola has returned to do the illustrations in the visionary style that set the series apart from the very first issue.

Saturn: The planet of catastrophes goes to book that deals with one of the great catastrophes of the 19th century, pulmonary tuberculosis.  That book is Food for the Dead, by Michael Bell.  Bell's book chronicles a folk medical practice that evolved on the fringes of New England for dealing with this dread disease.  Those who had died of the disease would be exhumed so that their hearts, lungs, and liver could be burnt and the smoke inhaled by their infected relatives.  I remember hearing about such a practice when I was growing up and it was good get the facts from an academic folklorist.  This is not a sensationalizing book, but it is a highly interesting one that treats its subject with rigor and respect.

So there you have it, another year of Summer Reading pleasure.  This was the first year in a while that I didn't do a "Summer of Shannara" reading campaign and I have to say that I enjoyed the freedom to roam without any specific goal in mind.Who knows what next year will bring, but I feel a sense of satisfaction as I draw the curtain over another summer here at The Platypus of Truth.

Monday, September 01, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part L

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

-Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yates

Having a Tiffany factory in town has its advantages.  There are two windows in the old Episcopal church that dominates one side of the green (the other, true to form, belongs to the Congregational church).  One of these windows (featured to the left) depicts Saint Paul, the saint after which the church is named.  We caught the image at the right time of day with the morning sun was streaming through the East windows.  It was a weekday, and the secretary was nice enough to lend us the key along with as much viewing time as we wanted provided that we lock up and return the key once we were done. Having had a good bit of time to view the window, then, let me share our observations.

My wife and I are still novices as students of stained glass and we noticed something in this particular window that we had never seen before,  The artisans, rather than painting in the folds of Saint Paul's garments textured the glass to simulate folded cloth. To provide deeper contrasts for the heavier folds, they used a darker shade of glass,  The trade-mark Tiffany mottling effect is still used in the non-textured portions of the window but it is more pronounced in the flat panels, particularly the edging of the Apostle's cloak, his gospel book, the ground, and the sky behind his head, where the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled,the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled, and painted glass is striking without imparting a sense of business -just the touch of genius I've come to expect from turn-of-the-century work.    

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.):The Platypus Travels Part XLIX

Who says you can't go home?

Connecticut is called "The Land of Steady Habits" both by those that inhabit it and by their neighbors.  Going back, even after sixteen or seventeen years doesn't mean that you're going to find much in the way of change.  There may be a few new houses and a few new faces, but things mostly stay in their place -the trees grow taller.  Not all change is bad, however, and it's always a delight to pop back in to a place you know and love and find that its beauty has been carefully tended and enriched.  Below, is one of my favorite places: the old library.  The town I grew up in once had a Tiffany glass factory and that factory provided a beautiful set of stained glass windows(ok, it's not actually stained glass, but a modern technique [rolled glass?] that Tiffany pioneered) for the town library.  These turn-of-the-century windows were damaged long ago and moved to the musty recesses of the attic so that I never saw them while I was growing up.  The library board recently partnered with an offshoot of the original Tiffany factory that remains in the town to refurbish two of the windows and install them in the reading room.

  The two figures represent Art and Literature.  There are two other panels(non-representational) still awaiting restoration as well as the original light fixtures (So much better than the present florescent monstrosities!).  Something else to look forward to...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVIII

Major Connecticut hero, minor video game character

Places can become ways of seeing things, but things can also become ways of seeing places.  I discussed this in regard to books in the previous post, but today I'd like to take a moment and extend the concept to video games.

Games can also be a way of seeing.  In fact, we should expect this since video and computer games are primarily a visual medium.  An abnormally frosty morning in North Houston can be transformed for a group of teenage boys just by playing the first notes of the Skyrim theme.  Eyes light up, slack faces crack into a smile, and immediately their imaginations begin to spin.  The chill frost and bleak landscape they were complaining about a minute ago is transformed into a wide world of adventure with a wilderness of dragons.  In my youth, games like Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda colored the way I saw my surroundings.  Exploring the woods, or canoeing, or archery were all different because they were the sorts of things the heroes and heroines of those games might do.  Playing A Link to the Past is enough to ensure that you never look at bushes or tree stumps the same way again.  On the other hand, until quite recently the abstract quality of video game art required a well-stocked visual imagination to give it life.  The blocks of color in the original Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Brothers that stood for trees and rivers and mountains had to be transfigured by the imagination of the player to be enjoyed (that process still occurs in contemporary games but improved graphics have made it less pronounced).  This means that based on the stock of images in each player's mind, the game as experienced by the individual player might be significantly different from that of another player.  For me as a Yankee, Link's world had a New England feel, even as the woods of Connecticut and Massachusetts will always have something a bit Hyrulean about them.  Real world and imagined world each influence and enrich each other.

Like Tennyson's Ulysses we are a part of the real and imagined places we have been.  They are our way of seeing the world and circumscribe our personal autonomy just as light circumscribes our sight.  Put another way: places are a part of what makes us who we are.  We usually think of place in terms of geographic location, but the artistic locations of books and video games can have a powerful impact on us as well, both in themselves and in the way they subtly shape our perceptions of the locations where we live and visit.  What are the places real and imagined that have shaped you?  In what ways do they cause you to see the world differently from others?  In what way might the geographic and artistic locations you have visited shape each other?