• Joan Carris

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

"Wit is the only wall between us and the dark."

--Mark Van Doren

Like many of us, I remember being a lowly, humble high school freshman in the fifties—back in the long ago. Oh, to be a senior! Dressed in the current, approved clothing, my classmates and I would project that same je ne sais quoi… as soon as WE were seniors.

The senior couples “going steady” appeared glued together as they strolled around the school. For example, Wade and Peggy. He—darkly handsome, with Elvis Presley hair—was known to be “fast” and so was she. Everyone assumed they were “doing it.” Whatever that meant.

All of this was uncharted territory. In sixth grade we had watched a Walt Disney coming-of-age film so delicate and sweet that it was useless. (The music was wonderful, of course, a beloved Disney trademark.)

The only actual fact about sex that made its way into our minds was that after having sex, the female could end up pregnant. A dire fate, the girls agreed. Vague rumors circulated that some senior girl had been sent away to have a baby. The “boyfriend suspect” continued blithely in life as far as we could tell.

BUT… staying out of trouble seemed to depend on the female saying “Whoa!” to a teenage boy who was a two-legged raging hormone, according to the older girls. Birth control was an iffy thing in the long ago, so girls were typically cautious—curious, but terrified of getting pregnant. Our mothers, all raised by exceedingly Victorian mothers themselves, were so unnerved by the topic of sex that they never mentioned it.

Fortunately I was a nerd. I was also shaped like a lumpy conduit pipe, could spell almost anything, and loved writing assignments, all of which kept boys away in droves. I started dating in college, where nearly everyone intended to graduate with marketable skills. As college seniors, our eyes still focused on the future, we graduated, and many married then or soon after. Yay! Legal, approved sex, if we weren’t too tired. Or if the baby wasn’t screaming in the next room. Or if our teenager hadn’t stayed out way beyond her curfew, rendering us senseless with fear.

And now, in early 2021, we are seniors again, with early eligibility for vaccination against the Covid-19 pandemic paralyzing the world. Oh, lucky us! Seniors again. We can stay out as late as we want, if any destinations are open. We don’t have to get up early and go to work. We can smoke, drink ourselves silly, and throw up on the shrubbery. We can have sex any time we want…except we’re seniors. Oops.

Writers Noted for Substance and Humor:

Richard Russo--Empire Falls; Nobody's Fool; Straight Man

Farley Mowat--The Dog Who Wouldn't Be; Owls In The Family; Never Cry Wolf

Carl Hiassen--Sick Puppy, et al. (not Razor Girl --ugh)

Robert B. Parker--detective fiction--fast, funny, and irreverent--great reader candy

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  • Joan Carris

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

--Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

What do we need with a thirteen-letter word like bildungsroman?? Admittedly, this is a tough word to slip into a casual conversation.

Yet we’ve all read several bildungsromans—novels about someone’s education and coming-of-age. Jane Eyre, for instance, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Little Women and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Catcher in The Rye and The Kite Runner. First used in 1819 by a German professor, the term bildungsroman is now fairly well-known, especially among nerdy English teachers like me.

We even have a bildungsroman for a piglet. Think about Wilbur, the runt pig in the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story, baby Wilbur is blissfully ignorant of a pig’s normal fate. As his education progresses he learns why humans raise pigs, becoming enlightened…and terrified.

Enter Charlotte, literature’s best educated, most thoughtful, and ever-beloved spider. (For me, the only beloved spider ever.) Charlotte weaves messages like Some Pig in her web above Wilbur’s stall, adding another element of fantasy to the bildungsroman business. Those messages turn Wilbur into a popular celebrity, thus saving his life.

I think of this novel by E.B. White as a national treasure. And thanks to the magic of language, we can now christen it with the impressive German title bildungsroman.

Recommended reading in this popular genre:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman (2017)

Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2001)

A Painted House, John Grisham (2000)

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd (2000)

Northern Borders, Howard Frank Mosher (1994)

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

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  • Joan Carris

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy.

They are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

~~ Marcel Proust

One memorable spring—way, way back there—I was sitting on our front steps, anticipating a delivery. In our new, too-large front yard I had a too-large, sickle-shaped flower bed that needed help. I waited, excited, gardening tools at the ready.

My neighbors had warned me months ago when we moved in. “Your soil is lousy,” they’d said. “You need a ton of the real thing.”

On delivery day I watched as an elderly pick-up truck bumped down our long, graveled driveway. The truck stopped and the small, very old driver leaned out of his window. “This the right place?” he hollered. “I got a whole load here!”

I bounded off my steps and raced toward the pick-up—I was 34 then, so bounding and racing were still possible—“Oh, yes! This is the place! I am soooo happy you’re here!!”

I smelled it right away. The real thing—moist and richly decorated with bits of hay and straw among the fresh dung. Horse manure, and all mine.

The old man and a very dirty teenage boy looked at me in silence.

Maybe I needed to explain. I told them about my inherited love of gardening, the giant dahlia bulbs on the way as a gift from my father…. I knew I was babbling, so I pointed at the large flower bed. “That is going to be just beautiful in a few months, thanks to both of you! I’m very grateful, really!!”

The old man looked at the teenager and nodded. “We should probably help her spread it around some, don’t you think?”

The three of us worked together, gradually talking more as the morning went on. The old man’s wife of 60 years had recently died, and the boy was his youngest grandson. I explained that I was an English teacher and mother of three. We took a break and drank Cokes in the shade on the front steps. With the work completed, I paid them, sorry to see them leave. I remember that we all were happy and nodding and smiling at one another.

Recommended Reading:

How The Penguins Saved Veronica, Hazel Prior

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse (all ages), Charlie Mackesy

Northern Borders, Howard Frank Mosher

Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman

Three Bags Full, A Sheep Mystery, Leonie Swann


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