I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark TwainFollowing the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

****

Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

****

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and in Kaye George’s Day of the Dark. She is co-author with Manning Wolfe of the novella Stabbed. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

A Mind Unhinged

Posted by Kathy Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Attribution: Ingrid Fisch at the German language Wikipedia.  GNU_Free_Documentation_License

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come completely unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And when you were five and your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via flickr

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate is the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her t...

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

###

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

###

http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_58.html
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1315.Louisa_May_Alcott
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941
http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2009/06/angus-and-cat.html
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182477
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithets_in_Homer
http://biblehub.com/1_john/4-18.htm
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/10/15
http://www.twainquotes.com/Laughter.html
http://biblehub.com/songs/2-16.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Man_(1962_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_Terabithia_(novel)
http://www.shareguide.com/Siegel.html
http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_320.html
http://www.shorewood.k12.wi.us/page.cfm?p=3642

***

“A Mind Unhinged” appeared on Austin Mystery Writers on February 25, 2016.

*

Kathy Waller writes crime fiction, literary fiction, humor, memoir, and whatever else comes to mind. Her short stories appear in the Silver Falchion Award winner Murder on Wheels, Austin Mystery Writers’ first crime fiction anthology, and in their second, Lone Star Lawless, as well as in other print publications and online. Her novella STABBED, co-authored with Manning Wolfe, was released in October 2019. She blogs at Telling the Truth–Mainly.

Memories of growing up in a small town on the San Marcos River in Central Texas, and life in a large extended family, inspire much of her work. She now lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

A Mind Unhinged

Posted by Kathy Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Attribution: Ingrid Fisch at the German language Wikipedia.  GNU_Free_Documentation_License

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come completely unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And later when your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via flickr

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate as the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her t...

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

###

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

###

http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_58.html
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1315.Louisa_May_Alcott
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941
http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2009/06/angus-and-cat.html
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182477
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithets_in_Homer
http://biblehub.com/1_john/4-18.htm
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/10/15
http://www.twainquotes.com/Laughter.html
http://biblehub.com/songs/2-16.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Man_(1962_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_Terabithia_(novel)
http://www.shareguide.com/Siegel.html
http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_320.html
http://www.shorewood.k12.wi.us/page.cfm?p=3642