Introducing Elouise Bell

Elouise Bell, a well-known force to be reckoned with in Mormon letters, has accepted our invitation to guest blog at BCC. While celebrated as a Mormon humorist and godmother to those aspiring to that calling, her essays cannot be constrained by any category other than extraordinary writing.

When asked why she left Utah in 1999, Bell explained, “Even for Moses, 40 years of wandering in the desert was enough.” She loves Utah deeply, however, and agrees with Judge Monroe Paxman that “Utah is a great place to try and live.”

During most of those 40 years, Bell taught English at BYU. At various times she also wrote columns for three newspapers, did entirely too much public speaking, served on the Young Women’s General Board under Ruth H. Funk, wrote and performed a one-woman play based on the life of Mormon pioneer midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions, had two collections of light essays published by Signature Books, and otherwise frittered away her time. In 1999, she moved to South Carolina for a spell, which she had. Last year she moved out under the glorious wide skies of Oklahoma, where among other things, she reads books onto tape for the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and is learning the tango. Her first BCC posting follows below.

SNOWBIRDS IN TRANSITION

For countless centuries, the sight of migrating geese has stirred deep feelings in human beings. Those lovely V’s, arrowing high in a wind-blown autumn sky or honking through a freshening spring morning, can bring deep thoughts about the cycles of life, about change, adventure. (What might these graceful creatures have seen in their long flights?) And about the inevitable passage of time. Scottish singer Jean Redpath (regular guest artist on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” some seasons ago) has recorded a moving folk ballad in which an expatriate Scotsman asks a countryman to recount his impressions when last among the hills and heather. When the traveler mentions a long, wavering skein of geese flying north, the homesick Scot breaks down, imploring him to stop: “Have ye no mercy then?”

But apparently even geese, despite ancient instinct, can conquer tradition and sink into the ease and softness of modern life.

Twice a week I attend a water-exercise class at a nearby fitness center. It is located on the handsome grounds of a retirement community. Among the permanent retirees from the north, Colonial Gardens now counts a large flock of Canada geese. Just as our neighbors, former Ohioans and New Yorkers, no longer qualify as snowbirds (who come to warmer climes only for the winter), so the Canadian honkers have settled here for good. They have moved in all over Oklahoma, and probably in other southern states as well. Methinks it’s the avian version of “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

And dinner has been quite the feast, it seems. The geese find more than enough to eat, month in, month out, which is why they no longer pack up each spring and head for Thunder Bay or Banff. The pickings are so good here that the geese have become truly heroic specimens. Many are the size of collie dogs. I expect them to waddle into the Fitness Center any day now and sign up for a Slim ‘n Trim class.

And yes, yes indeed, they are a nuisance to have on the grounds. But apparently the community has decided to put up with the droppings (cleaned up every day, and not by the feathered residents) for the sake of the picturesque backdrop the birds provide as they paddle around the decorative pond or pose rotundly on the well-kept grass. More than this, I think, many frail and invalid residents from the Assisted Living building enjoy watching the geese out their windows, or rolling out in their wheelchairs to scatter corn and breadcrumbs before the great, omnivorous creatures. (The other day, having nothing else to give them, I broke up a couple of very hard dog biscuits and offered the pieces to a pair of geese that had managed to waddle the thirty yards over to the fitness center. I think they were startled, but reluctant to give up on the chunks and finally got them down.)

These Canada defectors no longer traverse the flyways of North America.

But every now and then, perhaps to make sure their young still know how to fly, or possibly in one of those fits of self-improvement that overcome all of us on occasion, the gaggle takes to the skies overhead, at least those who aren’t too Wagnerian to get themselves airborne. They don’t go anywhere, of course; they just attempt a few maneuvers, still keeping sight of the land of milk and honey below. The other day, as I watched, they performed a few straggling formations, They did not attempt the time-honored V; perhaps their V-license has expired. But they did make a somewhat shaky X, then a figure that you might charitably call a necklace, and finally, with a lot of intra-squadron checking of signals and several false starts, a rather nice circle.

Apparently, fifteen minutes worth of drill satisfied the flight commander; and with much showy honking and embarrassingly labored flapping, the Top Guns made their landings onto the lush lawn and the quiet pond. They were just in time to preen for two women from Assisted Living who were stumping out on their walkers, each clutching a bag of tasty offerings for the immigrants. Quid pro quo: no green card needed.

Comments

  1. Sister Bell, I had a freshman English class from you in 1972. But like most 18 year olds away from home for the first time, I was more interested in what was going on outside the classroom. Over the years, as I have read and enjoyed your insight and humor, I’ve regretted that I didn’t pay more attention to what was going on inside.

  2. Welcome! Your writing is lovely and I’m glad you’ve found fat geese to laugh at in OK. I was raised there (in Norman and Moore) and enjoy many fat (phat) things from OK. People, bbq, summer afternoons when you think your skin is going to peel off, Nat’l Cowboy Hall of Fame and bluegrass.

  3. Simply splendid! We had some of the year-rounders in Indiana, where I went to grad school and this post captured sentiments that I didn’t know I had. And very entertaining!

    Having spent a significant amount of time in Utah and Oklahoma, I must question the sanity Elouise. Summer. Oklahoma. Bad.

  4. Ed Snow says:

    One thing I failed to note–Elouise’s most recent book, Madame Ridiculous & Lady Sublime, is available from Signature Books.

  5. Welcome Elouise!

    Wonderful story, but I wonder if the geese you are dealing with are somehow different from the geese where I grew up in Canada. They were mean, mean birds that would just as soon snap at you as dump on your lawn. Christmas goose seemed all the more appropriate.

    It’s good to see, in other words, how even the most despicable of avians can bring some joy and life to others.

  6. rleonard says:

    Ah yes,

    Sister Bell are you related to Alfred Bell who crossed the plains in 1848 or so?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Beautiful, Elouise. Welcome to BCC.

    (Great, now we’ve taken Canadian geese and Americanized them by making them fat and lazy. I wonder what the evolutionary repurcussions of this are?)

  8. I had a class from you and you exiled me to Doug Thayer’s class, for which it took me twenty years to forgive you.

    Hope you enjoy Oklahoma, it is certainly less crowded than Utah.

  9. Thank you Elouise for this wonderful post. In many ways, Canadian Geese are time markers for me. They rise in a double helix, from the pond in the valley below my house, and have endless practice sessions of getting into formation in the fall. Their departure signals that the snow is really on its way; their return offers hope at the end of the long Canadian winter.

    I thought that your ideas also mesh nicely with Steve’s today — sometimes we become so fat and comfortable that we decide it’s not really worth it to extend ourselves in ways that are not self-serving.

  10. Craig W. says:

    Interesting. In the waterway behind our home we have several geese who have decided to stay permanently. (Oregon.) Interestingly, every spring and fall the migrations continue overhead. We are very frequently treated to the geese flying above us in the famous “V” formation. I have always been amazed to watch as one of the geese further back in the formation will take the lead, while the former leader takes his/her place back in the formation.
    Sometimes the geese stop in our back yard for a short rest, but then they move on. Leaving the fat and contented ones behind.
    Craig W.

  11. Elisabeth says:

    The pickings are so good here that the geese have become truly heroic specimens. Many are the size of collie dogs. I expect them to waddle into the Fitness Center any day now and sign up for a Slim ‘n Trim class.

    LOL! I love this! I’ve been scared off not a few times by the gaggles of Canada geese congregating at the banks of the Charles River. The geese are absolutely huge – and seem poised to dart into my path as I run by to trip me up and peck me to a grisly death. I’m sure the geese in Oklahoma are more tame than the Boston immigrants (probably true for other species as well).

    Lovely post, Elouise. Welcome to BCC!

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    Glad to have you on board, Elouise.

    I’m not too familiar with your work, I must confess, as I tend to be allergic to reading anything that isn’t dry, boring and analytical. I do, however, remember discovering your essay “The Better for My Foes” many years ago, and really loving it. I still drag it out, every once in a while, and share it with others who need it (whether they know they need it or not!).

    Aaron B

  13. Ed Snow says:

    Elouise has asked that I forward her reponses to her essay:

    KLC: Checking my grade book for 1972. Hmmm. Aha! Well! So that was you!

    Amri. So glad you are receptive to “things from OK”! This particular one is currently also enjoying the plays at the Pollard theater, the foals at the nearby horse farm, and the triumphs of the OU women’s basketball team: Courtney Paris is a marvelous work and I wonder what fall will bring.

    J. Stapley: Never claimed sanity, J. But I’ll see your, “Summer. OK. Bad.” and raise you, “Summer. South Carolina. Outer Humidness.”

    Steve Evans. OK geese are mean, too–just mean with a drawl.

    rleonard. Concerning Alfred Bell. No, in 1848 all my Bells were deep in the coal mines of the UK where God intended them to be. But would they stay put? Nooo.

    Kevin: Thanks for your welcome! As for possible evolutionary repercussions of the obese immigrant geese, how about: “Returning Prodigal’s Dad Kills Fatted Goose; Feast to Host 5,000″?

    StephenM: Exiled to Thayerlandia? O frabjous day!

    Kris: Great concept of the geese as “time markers”! I wonder what other creatures act as time markers for us? The robin, yes. . .. and the foals in spring; any others?

    Craig W: Re “Leaving the fat and contented ones behind.” So true. It was those with “divine discontent” who left the Old World for the New, and the settlements of the East for the dangers and dreams of opening the West.

    Elisabeth: Canada geese on the banks of the Charles sounds so bucolic and charming, doesn’t it? Makes me think of the folks who start by feeding the “cute” little racoons begging on the porch of the cabin–and end by having their windows ripped out by those cute, powerful fingers.

    Aaron–Thank you for remembering “The Better for My Foes”! It’s a piece only three other people have ever read, as far as I know, but it’s one of my own favorites.

  14. Ed Snow says:

    Ooops. I meant to say:

    “Elouise has asked that I forward her reponses to the comments to her essay:”

  15. tephenM: Exiled to Thayerlandia? O frabjous day!

    Indeed, my buddy who got to stay in your class learned to write as did everyone esle who was in your class. I had to teach myself later …

  16. Wagnerian—is the connotation more heavy b/c of the tragic themes in his operas, or more “thick and syrupy” b/c of the highly romantic strain in his music, or am I way off? Thanks, I’m a little slow on the uptake….

  17. ElouiseBell says:

    Robert C. No, Robert, you are not slow on the uptake, just considerably younger than I.
    For decades, those who sang the Wagner repertoire were supersized divas (male and female), their great heft, it was thought, providing an “instrument” all better to bellow with.

    The marvelous Ernestine Schumann-Heink was such an one. Late one day to a rehearsal with Toscanini, Madame struggled onstage through the seated orchestra, knocking over music stands and jabbing violinists with their own bows. The Maestro pleaded, “Madama! Can-a you not go sideways?” Shumann-Heink retored, “Mein Gott! Haf you no eyes! Mit me, der IST no sidevays!”

    Today’s opera stars, for the most part,have both splendid voices and slender figures. Television”s demands, perhaps?

  18. Eloise,
    I’ve seen many a fine show at the Pollard. Did you know that originally the state capital was in Guthrie but some bandits came and stole the state seal and took it to Oklahoma City? The city/state officials in Guthrie were so flustered and dismayed they did nothing to retrieve it. And OKC became the state capital.
    Or so the story goes from my 9th grade Oklahoma History textbook.

  19. Elouise says:

    Amri–I like your version; it has a great Wild West flavor! The version currently being published has a more boringly-familiar taste: the OKC politicos wanted the power base for themselves, and so, on the night of June 11, 1910, stole the great seal from Guthrie, and with it, the town’s potential for economic growth. It remains a wonderful place; the whole city is a National Historic Landmark, and it’s very much in demand as a location for period films.

  20. Elouise,

    I very much enjoyed taking a creative writing class from you twenty years ago. I particularly appreciated the fact that you did not penalize me for including science fiction and fantasy elements in my assignments. I just wanted to say thanks.

  21. ElouiseBell says:

    Eric,

    Thank you for your kind comments on the creative writing class. As to “penalizing you” for including science fiction and fantasy in your assignments–whew! SOOO glad I didn’t. Wouldn’t I be embarrassed now if I had! BCC readers probably know about your recognition in the “Writers of the Future Contest,” and the Phobos Fiction Contest, your appearances in top science-fiction publications, your public speaking adventures. . . . Well done, sir, well done!

  22. Eloiuse (#17): Thanks for the explanation and additional anecdote. Great post by the way, I love reading your stuff and really covet your gift using words!

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