Rebecca Martin

Rebecca D. Martin's essays have been published in Proximity Magazine, Art House America, and Relief Journal, among others, and she is a contributing writer at Makes You Mom. She hails from Georgia, but currently lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with her husband and two young daughters. You can find her online here.

Chimneys Dark & Spirits Bright

This post was originally published in 2012. 

On the eve of Christmas’s reemergence in England,Charles Dickens and Washington Irving began a correspondence. It’s no secret, especially at this time of year, that Dickens was the father of Victorian Christmas. English folk had all but forgotten the festivities once surrounding the advent season, thanks to a superstition-wary protestant reign. By means of one well-timed Christmas story – A Christmas Carol – the upper classes were reminded what “keeping Christmas” meant, and were ready to dance quadrilles, deck halls, sing carols, and wassail to their stomachs’ content in the name of the holiday. They were also reminded of their country’s less fortunate, the Tiny Tims and workhouse families that remained hard up and left out, particularly in this time of heightened merriment.

Over in America some thirty years earlier, Washington Irving had done much to revive Christmas sentiment, as well, with his sketches of traditional English celebrations and a reimagined St. Nicholas. Dickens later admitted he drew inspiration for his own festive scenes from Irving’s descriptions. And so when, in 1842, Irving wrote Dickens to express his admiration, Dickens responded immediately, overjoyed to receive acclaim from the man who had authored the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which Dickens had “worn to death in [his] pocket.” It was only one year before Dickens would publish A Christmas Carol. These Victorian-era Fathers of Christmas, one British, one American, shared an appreciation of humorous satire, of keen social observation, and of England – particularly English Christmas tradition. Also, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving both had a thing for sending people up chimneys.

Dickens was against the practice, actually. He hated the tight climbing work that ruined – and often ended – the already miserable lives of London’s poorest child: the iconic Victorian chimney sweep. He knew about the physical dangers of bodies in small spaces, the carcinogenic effects of breathing soot, the after-hours life that usually involved no sort of family. And so the dark structures loom as a backdrop to many of his stories’ gloomier moments, grim monuments foreboding the death knell of many a hapless orphan. His more familiar characters like Oliver Twist barely escape such a fate. Alternately, the blazing chimney hearth shines in Dickens’s tales as a symbol of the warm potentiality of home. Dickens hoped for betterment in his economically fractured and morally broken city, and he put most of his eggs in the basket of home and family. In stories like the Christmas tale The Cricket on the Hearth, a bright fireside illuminates the family’s – and the reader’s – way.

Dickens himself never made a workplace of the chimney, but he was no stranger to child labor. The tale is familiar: his father found himself in debtor’s prison and a young Dickens found himself affixing labels to boot-blacking pots. Despite his early education, sharp mind, and vivid imagination, he was, for a time, a working boy, rubbing up against the lower classes. He never forgot it. In his young adult years, as his first fiction stories were just taking shape, Dickens served as a parliamentary journalist, actively reporting on proposed reform that had direct bearing on the suffering poor. And so the plight of the poor and the government’s response – or lack thereof – bled into his fiction. In 1843, at the age of 31, Dickens’s tendency toward keen observation of the human condition intersected with all he had seen and heard, andleft him with his most popular story to tell. Ebenezer Scrooge and the three Christmas Spirits formed themselves in his imagination, and he jumped on the idea like Santa to his sleigh. [1]

A mere three and a half decades before Dickens penned the landmark holiday tale, Washington Irving sent a different type of figure down a chimney for the first time: St. Nicholas. The “new” St. Nicholas Irving described in his 1809 Knickerbocker was neither the dignified bishop of Dutch wooden shoe-filling lore, nor the fat man in red we Americans now know best, popping a Coke top with a twinkle in his jolly, commercialized eye. There’s a rendering of St. Nick in Smithsonian Magazine’s December Art Museum feature, as interpreted by artist Robert Walter Weir. Irving’s version, like Weir’s painting, imagines a different type of Christmas spirit, darker and less trustworthy than the traditional Father Christmas, for all his glorious gift dispensing. As the article points out, it is a “mischievous St. Nick” about to disappear back up the chimney with his bag of toys, his finger to his nose, and, possibly, “the family silver.” It isn’t actually certain that Irving’s version descends and ascends chimneys in a like manner, but he certainly lights on rooftops and drops “magnificent presents down them [2]” throughout the Christmas season (which is an odd and rather creepy practice, if you pause to think about it). Here, in that very Knickerbocker’s History of New York that Dickens so loved, is a Santa who steals in like a thief reminiscent of those blackened London chimney boys. When it comes to the Irving’s jolly Christmas icon, there’s some strange, if unsettling, charm in the thought. In the matter of Dickens’s child sweeps, the idea is outright troubling.

Which may be why that particular purveyor of Christmas cheer – Dutch, impish, Coca-Cola-imbibing, or otherwise – doesn’t figure in Dickens’s versions of Christmas, though they are full of fireplaces and chimneys. Dickens knew what a nasty place, both literally and figuratively, the chimney was. He easily passed many a chimney sweep on the London streets, possibly as young as four years old – weary, sooted boys earning a dangerous, miserable, and likely short living, and reaping the contempt of London’s more civilized citizens. The wealthy of Victorian London looked upon the chimney sweeps and saw villains in the making. They depended on those blackened boys for household cleanliness and warmth and, above all, safety, but wouldn’t trust them farther than they could throw their stockings.

You could argue Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present bears some resemblance to the older, original Dutch Father Christmas, surrounded by gifts and food and imbued with a deeper concern for the important things in life – compassion and generosity, to start. Scrooge even discovers the “jolly Giant” before a flaming hearth in his home, suggestive of this invader’s good intentions, but it is fairly certain that this particular spirit never descended or ascended a chimney with a bag of presents to pay his Advent visits. He is a different sort of Christmas spirit. He is more interested in morality than in stocking filling. And it’s safe to assume he cares more about the welfare of chimney sweeps than about being Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. As the ghost preceding him declared, he is in Ebenezer’s house for the wretched man’s reclamation.

Not that cultural reclamation wasn’t an interest of Irving’s, too, especially by means of political satire. Nor did he leave chimney sweeps or their destitute like entirely out of his own tales. But the young sweeps Irving observed during his England travels are rendered as romantically as his Christmas-decked Bracebridge Hall, charming sidenotes to city life. Dickens, on the other hand, made his home in the same city as these destitute boys. He saw them out far too early and too late on the unfriendly city streets. There were no cheery-faced singing and scampering Dick Van Dykes in the bunch. Admittedly, Dickens could sometimes use the chimney sweep to comic effect. He also made use of the sweep’s perceived villainous side, as in Oliver Twist’s sweepmaster Gamfield, who represented the dangers into which a young boy without family or support might fall, circumstances that struck at the heart of Dickens’s concern for his city.Who knows?Perhaps Irving’s mildly disturbing St. Nicholas indicated Irving knew Christmas was not all full stomachs and bright, scrubbed faces. Either way, Dickens took the influence of Irving’s earlier, romanticized depictions of English Christmastide and did as he always does: he added in the urban neediness of the London poor, and also the pervasive neediness of the human spirit, whatever the financial circumstances.

There is no Santa Claus herein. There are only the chimneys themselves, bright symbols of the cheery, loving home and dark images the deepest filth the city – or the human soul – can scratch up. It might be said that Dickens’s fiction – holiday and otherwise – plumbs the blackened, sooty depths of human depravity to ultimately offer hope in visions bright as a blazing hearth.

A different type of Christmas spirit, indeed.


[1] In the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Press 2011), Claire Tomalin details this moment (p.148-9), as well as the many circumstances that developed Dickens’s deep concern for the lower classes.

[2] Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Kindle edition.

 

Racism 101

“Have you heard of Nikki Giovanni?” I ask, and the woman volunteering at the sponsorship table at a local event laughs. She is African-American, and she laughs, “Do I know Nikki Giovanni? Do you know Nikki Giovanni?” I am white, and I begin to put the pieces together. “I think maybe white people don’t know of Giovanni,” I tell her. She shakes her head, but she is smiling, and she comes over and sits with me on a bench where we talk for a few minutes about Star Trek and space travel and race and racism all things Nikki Giovanni talks about in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101 [1].

“I didn’t know she wrote essays. I’ve only read her poetry,” my new acquaintance says. “I haven’t read any of her poetry yet,” I confess, though I would soon rectify that. I did know Giovanni was a poet of the Sixties, a part of the Black Arts Movement, a voice that black Americans, at least, have been listening to for decades. I stumbled across her by chance at a library book sale. Her name was familiar because she is now an English professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I used to live. At the library sale, her book Racism 101 was organized near Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Both seemed like good additions to my reading life, mostly because my understanding of being black in America is almost nonexistent. And that’s not okay.

I have been reading these essays now for the better part of a year, and I haven’t finished them yet. It isn’t because Giovanni is difficult to read. Reading through this book is like sitting next to her on my porch swing and listening, listening. But what I’m hearing is so different from what I saw growing up in the North Atlanta suburbs, and is sometimes so at odds with the histories I learned in my largely-homogenous high school, and is obviously so deeply important to understanding and loving people in my own life, in my own city, that I keep having to tell her,

“Stop.”

“Wait.”

“Can you say that again?”  

Giovanni writes about the legacy of the 1960’s, integration and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and her recollections of it all. She writes to black college students who study at mostly-white colleges. She writes warm recollections of growing up, of her family, and of friends. She writes about her interest in space travel and the cultural implications of shows like Star Trek. She writes about being Black. As I read, she gives me a long list of histories to research and events to read about next, so I can rewrite my terribly white-centric understanding of my country’s history. Often I bring my husband, who looks like me, in on what she says. “Listen to this paragraph,” I say to him, “about her sister Gary’s experience in high school in the Fifties.”

“Her teacher in civics, a still-needed course that is no longer taught, discussed the Emmett Till case with his class. “Till got what he deserved,” he declared. Gary and [a friend] walked out, and [our father] made another trip to see [the superintendent]. Apologies all around. Shock and sadness that this could happen. I was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with my grandmother when [my current] school district was integrating. Our family had already given a soldier to the war to make white Americans better people.

After that sucker punch and I feel it the essay moves on. It’s more of Giovanni’s childhood memories, growing up in both Cincinnati and Knoxville during the Civil Rights movement. “Is she saying her family didn’t support Civil Rights?” my husband asks about that last sentence.

“No, the opposite. Something else is going on here.” I am trying to work it out.

“Her sister was the soldier, integrating her high school first. America was starting to do the right thing with integration legislation.” I’m getting there.

“But black citizens were still bearing the burden of the country starting to get things right.” Something different comes to mind. I recall the videos that made the rounds of Facebook during the week of July 4th, this year, black mothers responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. One mom in particular [2], whose words I can’t forget, is wiping tears off her cheeks and crying out, “We are dying here.” She pleads with any white Americans watching her video: “We need you.” She hates having to say that. You can see it on her face. But she cries out again. “We need you.”

It isn’t that Giovanni’s family didn’t support Civil Rights. It is that they were finished sacrificing their children on the altar of trying to get justice and fair treatment. Another mom in another video last July said, more angrily, “I am tired of having to explain this to you.” I tell my husband what I am seeing, that African-American citizens in the Nineteen-Fifties, that our black neighbors now, that people of color in the Nineteen-Nineties when Giovanni was writing these essays, have been bearing first the burden of mistreatment, and then second the burden of the painfully slow process of things being made right. And now they’ve got the added burden of having to explain their experience to white folks so that we might understand. They’ve been doubly burdened, for a long time, and have had to heft the weight themselves because the rest of us so easily think everything is fine. “Talk about this to your white friends and neighbors,” the second mom says, “so we don’t keep having to. We are sick of explaining this to you.”

At the local event in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting on the bench, chatting with the woman I have just met about how, like Nikki Giovanni, we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica, I tell her that Giovanni thinks the voice of Uhura in the original Star Trek was important. “It was so right, it made such sense,” Giovanni says in her 1992 interview of Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit space, “that the voice of the Federation would be the voice of a Black woman.” In her essay “Black is the Noun,” she says more: “The black woman’s voice sings the best notes of which earthlings are capable. Hers is the one voice that suggests the possibility of harmony on planet earth.” And why does she love Star Trek so much? “I love Star Treks,” she says. “The television series . . . marked a new era in television by obliging audiences to respect and even to admire differences among people.”

My new acquaintance shares the story of how Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, planned to leave the show after its first season for Broadway. But then she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at an event, and he strongly urged her to stay on and continue being that black female voice on television in America. I looked up the anecdote later, and found the 2011 NPR interview [3] with Nichols. The interviewer points out that staying on Star Trek in order to be the one African-American female leadership voice on television must have been “a heavy responsibility. . . . I mean, the fact is you did put aside some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.” Nichols agrees. Later, she talks about how African-Americans in entertainment are still mostly cast as “the friend, the buddy, the secondary role,” even though things are changing. The interviewer asks, “How do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?” Nichols acknowledges that we’ve come a long way, but still: “I think it’s as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn’t finished. It’s only just begun.”

On the bench, my companion and I are quiet for a moment. I hesitate. I want to do the thing so many people who look like me are inclined to do once our eyes are opened to these sufferings of fellow citizens in our country. I want to talk about race. I want to confess to her what I don’t know about race and racism. But not every conversation between a white and a black person needs to be about race, or racism, in America. Probably more conversations, for our black brothers’ and sisters’ sake, need not to be. I may be seeing things anew, finally seeing them aright, but this woman doesn’t need to bear the burden of what I’m just now learning. She’s been living it every day. Still, I tell her, “I am learning so much about racism that I didn’t realize. I’m just starting to learn.” She is very gracious. “I’m still learning, too,” she says. “I’m always learning.”

I am thankful for her, and I am thankful for Nikki Giovanni and the words she has put down on paper often for different ears than mine, in magazines like Essence and The Black Collegian. So I tread respectfully as I go through the pages. In one place, Giovanni says, “You do not have to have had an experience to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written . . . We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” It is an honor to get to listen in and learn. It is also a responsibility. Perhaps another time, I can have the same conversation about Battlestar and racism with a white friend, and then that friend may start reading the likes of Nikki Giovanni (or Lorraine Hansberry or Jacqueline Woodson, if I may make further suggestions), and her ears will be open, and she, too, will begin learning about race and racism in our country and collectively, maybe we can take on some of our black neighbor’s burden.

 

 

[1] Giovanni’s book can be found here on Amazon.

[2] View that mother’s video here on Facebook.

[3] Read that NPR interview with Nichols here.

Why We Need the Olympics in Brazil

“It does not make sense to be extravagant in this moment.” The opening ceremony for the Olympics is on, and the creative team explains that it will be a low-tech show. “We have a message, and it’s not about Brazil,” Fernando Meirelles, the show’s Creative Director, explains in an interview. “It’s really about the world, about mankind.” Brazil is in economic crisis right now, which shows up in athlete housing conditions that are unsatisfactory to some out-of-towners, and locals protesting outside the stadium that their country shouldn’t be spending its limited funds on other people. The country is also deep in the embarrassing waters of political controversy, with multiple presidents facing indictment and impeachment, and it suffers the outside health threat of the Zika virus. It does not make sense to be extravagant, Meirelles says. This ceremony’s message will not be all about Brazil, which sounds strange to my American ears.

The world has come to Brazil, and it brings its own tensions and apprehensions and entitled expectations with it, depending on which nation to which we’re referring. People who haven’t come have turned their eye toward the televised show, and maybe now that the games are on, the media has moved past its coverage of Can you believe how badly prepared this place is? Now we can cheer on the athletes, one of whom swam three-and-a-half hours in the Aegean Sea to get nineteen people in a sinking boat to safety, and all that long night, it sounds like Yusra Mardini thought she might die, and–seriously? The apartments aren’t nice enough isn’t going to cross her mind, if I might hazard a guess. But even if it does, still. The world has come to Brazil, to participate together in these games, in this year 2016.

In the US, unlikely candidates are running for president, and many people dislike them for one reason or another. One of them stands up front, all bombast and disdain for the people in his own country who are neediest, and especially for the people outside his country who would come looking for relief—for the people of anywhere who aren’t the best, who don’t win, who find the cards stacked against them in circumstances outside their control. “I like people who weren’t captured!” he brazens about American POW’s. Songs from my daughter’s Disney Pandora station start reeling through my head, especially Gaston’s mad crush on Belle with more than a touch of NPD. Belle is the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?! “We’ll have so much winning,” the man running for president is famous for saying, and I think by “we,” he means himself, and to hell with other people who can’t get ahead.

At the beginning of the coverage for these Olympic games, the current two-term president is drawing his time to a close, and many people feel strongly about him one way or another. Tonight, in a pre-ceremony interview, he answers the question, Is there a larger value to the Olympics than bringing home the gold? His response is straight out of any book or essay by Marilynne Robinson, and I about jump out of my seat when I hear him say the Olympics “builds a sense of common humanity, a sense of empathy,” and how hearing the back stories of the athletes shows us another place, another person we might not usually consider important. And then we can hold that person in imagination, I think, remembering Marilynne Robinson.

“I suspect,” he says, “particularly for Americans, who sometimes, because we’re such a big country, don’t always feel as if, unless there’s bad news out there, that we need to know much about any place else, it’s a nice introduction to the world, and I think that kind of empathy and that sense of healthy competition can carry over beyond the Olympics.”

He says this while America’s angry Gaston shouts about how we were once a great nation, and we will be again, and I know he actually means the Greatest, and I suspect he means we’ll be the only country that matters, or, barring that, the country that matters most. But, “The Olympics build a sense of empathy,” our current president says. They show us other stories than our own.

I’m for hearing these stories. For understanding people and cities and countries and ways of life I’ve never seen, for being moved to empathy by other lives. Did you notice how, in the opening performances, Brazil did not turn away from the fact of its racial (and its religious and its political) tensions, but in a wonderfully tense moment, showed the people divided, each group on its own separate square of light, the people almost sparring, showing that these problems are ongoing and present and real? Did you see, in possibly the most powerful moment of the Cirque du Soleil-inspired performance, the black men and women wheeling and marching their way, belabored, across the sea, across fields, even while heavy blocks weighed them down, only to emphasize the strength and beauty of the dancers all the more? My God, did you see them?

Two weeks ago, in 2016, a number of people reacted against our current First Lady’s mention of slaves building the White House. Who wants to be reminded of slavery? Isn’t that over and done with? Why are we still talking about it? It is uncomfortable to hold these people in imagination, the ones who were forced to cross the sea—the ones who survived and, worse, the ones who didn’t—who had children in this land, and their children had children, and they were never free here, not even after freedom. And these enslaved descendants of slaves participated—by no choice of their own, remember—in building this house that stands for democracy, for the best and freest possible form of government. To imagine what that must have been like, building the White House: the living conditions, the sleeping quarters, the food and the treatment, and even– hear me–even if all those elements of job were good, still.

To imagine our way into what being enslaved does to a human being’s psyche, to his perception of himself, to developing even a shred of a possibility of self-respect. This is unpleasant. This is what Marilynne Robinson means by holding others in imagination, knowing their experience and their needs, understanding them and really knowing what they’ve been through. The acrobatic artists roll swinging through the gigantic wheels across the stage. Brazil, for its part, on this evening, in this ceremony, at least, has not looked away.

So I am watching, and at moments, the show is a lower-budget-than-usual mix of blurred lights and dancing souls—but the acrobatics! This show is performance-based: people, not electronics. It might be difficult to tell what is going on (though perhaps NBC’s coverage is to blame for that), and maybe Russia’s 2014 opening-ceremony love affair with itself was more visually stunning, but the marvelous dancing, and the crowd in the background, singing, whooping, cheering!

Did you hear what it sounded like? Joy.

All those people, real people, down there on the arena floor. There is friction outside the stadium: protestors, poverty, and crime remind us that it is as deep and raw as America’s, it seems, but tonight, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the world came to Brazil, and instead of putting on a performance to try and prove the country’s own greatness, the Brazilian creative team gave us a long and intense dance sequence. In doing so it acknowledged the disadvantaged of its own country, the people living in the favelas, the slums, up on the mountain, in the center, yet on the periphery. “We decided to create a ceremony for the world,” says Meirelles. The world came to its doorstep, and Brazil did not look away from the least of these. It celebrated its own history and culture, unflinching even at the bad parts, and it invited everyone to watch, and to join in.

I am sitting in the living room watching the opening ceremony, the interviewing and the performing, the wild breakdancing, the environmentalism, even, and the joy. I am thinking about America. America is frightened of so many things about itself: its own history, its minority groups and disenfranchised citizens, certain outside threats, even the living and health conditions in Rio. We fear because We are the greatest! We are entitled to have the best! We are so afraid that we can’t see straight into other people’s realities. America needs nothing so much as a mirror. America needs the Olympics this year to be in Brazil.

A Halfway Review of a Sometime Farmer

“Do you remember Noel Perrin driving his eco-car around town?” I ask.

My husband laughs, “Yes.”

“What color was it?”

“Red,” he says. He pauses and thinks some more. “Definitely red.”

I open my laptop and search Amazon.com. Indeed, yes, there is the book Solo: Life with an Electric Car, Noel Perrin’s account of driving his retrofitted electric Ford Escort across the country in 1991. The end of his road was Thetford, Vermont, the small New England town where my husband grew up. The car on the front cover is red. He really has seen Perrin’s vehicle zooming around.

I wait for more details, but he has returned to his own reading.

I return to my reading: Perrin’s essay collection Best Person Rural. “Vermonters don’t gush,” Noel Perrin says. Tell me about it.

Noel Perrin – essayist, Dartmouth College professor, self-described Sometime Farmer – is exactly the right person to tell me about it. He was an honorary Vermonter. Though he grew up in New York, he spent most of his adult life in rural central Vermont. As English Department faculty, he wrote his share of academic pieces (one book, unexpectedly, having to do with the history of guns in Japan), but he is mostly known by the essays he wrote about where he lived. Those who know him best think first of his Person Rural essay collections. These are his accounts of the experiences and relationships, both meaningful and humorous, connected with life on his farm.

Best Person Rural is the final of the five Person Rural books, a posthumously-selected collection across his essay-writing life. Its hardback cover is also red, just like that eco-Escort. The book was an early present from my mother-in-law on my first New England Christmas visit. “Here,” she said, handing me the gift-wrapped book. “I want you to understand where your husband comes from.”

Perrin writes about this place, its landscape and its people. Interesting neighbors, covered bridges, cow highways, and maple syrup. And he writes about many of the things I appreciate most, actually, about another author concerned with conservation and community: Wendell Berry. Townspeople, history, continuity. Humor. I was destined to love Perrin from the start, and I read Best Person Rural every morning for weeks in a row. With each page turned, there’s more and more to love: economy in spending and acquiring, generosity in knowing and living. Curiosity about the way things work. Willingness to try and fail. So I became a fan, immediately and fast.

I continued to read more collections of essays  by Perrin, and I sank comfortably into the feeling that I was sitting on an old front porch, hearing worn, grey boards creak under the shifting weight of rockers as he told me tales of his land, his house, his most recent escapades, his neighbors – some nice and some not. He was never hard to listen to. And so I wanted to write about him, to spread his name far and wide – but I couldn’t. Any analysis I tried took me straight off that porch and into some dull, dry academic space, which was decidedly un-Perrin.

The thing about Perrin is that his writing was not yet my kind of writing, and so I didn’t know how to talk about it. He demonstrates this best when, in his final essay, he talks about something that’s as serious as it gets: the disease that was killing him. He, in typical Perrin fashion, mentions it almost in passing. It gets only a small paragraph in the middle of a heartfelt essay about why he and his wife love their Thetford farm. “I have developed a remarkably unpleasant version of Parkinson’s disease,” he says. “One of the unpleasant things it does – one of the very minor ones – is make it impossible for me to lift heavy rocks. Heavy anythings, actually. Thank God for chinkers.” And then he’s off to talk about cider-making. I didn’t get it yet. I was only beginning to see that understatement and simple sentences could pack a strong punch. I didn’t get that this kind of writing was a legitimate and difficult and even beautiful kind of craft. At the time, I leaned toward lyricism in my landscape prose. And when looking for lyrical prose, I look beyond Perrin’s nonfiction and find what I want, instead, in the likes of Wendell Berry’s Port William tales.

About the same time I was trying and failing at reviewing Perrin, Wendell Berry’s short story collection A Place in Time came out. Whereas Perrin is decidedly northern, Berry is firmly of the south. Hills and farms, rivers and floods, small towns, main streets, and bachelor antics provide fodder for heightened prose. There are moments of sheer hysterics and appreciation for the huge fun and lightness that human life can have: bachelors get pantsed in front of the widows they have crushes on. And the like. But goodness, there are moments in Berry that transcend, there in his imagined town of Port William. Like in the story “Fly Away Breath,” when four teenaged girls, sitting the night over their dying grandmother’s bed, watch as she breathes her last and sinks into death – or so they think. Suddenly, against the solemn silence, the old woman gasps deep and loud, and the girls, having received the fright of their lives, can do nothing but collapse into unbridled laughter. When their grandmother’s spirit finally does depart, it is under this blanket of sheer joy. It must have been the best of blessings to leave this life for the next like that. This kind of heightened spiritual moment is throughout Berry’s fiction; there is so much humanity and dying and blessing and joy, and I love this kind of thing.

But I love Perrin, too, and no academic analysis, it would seem, can do a good enough job explaining why. But I think that my inability to pull apart my love for Perrin is found in the beginning of Berry’s book, Jayber Crow. It begins with a warning:

“Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.”

Perrin forces me to heed. His stories are told for real life rather than an ivory tower. They are for reading and enjoying – and perhaps for recognizing and knowing – but not, I think, for explaining.

My mother-in-law nailed it half a decade ago when she handed me that copy of Best Person Rural: “Now you can know where we’re from.” I want to know the backstories of people and places. I want to see the bigger picture. In Berry, I find myself flipping from story to Port William story, tracking fiction characters across time, puzzle piecing them together. But this also is what’s great about Noel Perrin. He, too, tells me stories of a place – of people united by a specific place – in and across time. And it’s real and true. I want to know about Thetford, Vermont, and Noel Perrin tells me in print, just like my husband tells me via memory. That car was red; they all used to see Perrin zipping around town in it.

Here’s what I’ll say, and don’t tell Jayber. Perrin, for all he has in common with Berry, approaches imagination from the other side, rendering true experiences plainly, rather than imagined experiences lyrically. Perrin’s deceptively plain prose makes me laugh and then strikes me deep, all the same. C.S. Lewis says the best kind of story is the sort that brings glory this side of heaven, as close and ordinary as the bread on the table and the coals in the grate. But I don’t need to do any more analyzing or explicating. Perrin has done the best work on his own, right there at the beginning. A man who scours the country for a retrofitted eco-car a full decade before that kind of thing was done and drives it home across country, searching for recharging opportunities all along the way, and who convinces Dartmouth college to set up an electric parking space just for him, and who teaches English literature and tries an inexperienced hand at farming in rural Vermont – well, he’s at the least going to have interesting stories to tell, isn’t he?

Another evening.

“What do you think of that book you’re reading?” I ask my husband and await a response.

My husband’s thumb holds his place while he looks up to consider.

“I like it.” He’s in the first chapter of Robert Farrar Capon’s cookbook-memoir The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

I won’t let him off the hook that easily, Vermonter or no. “Really?” I ask why. This isn’t ordinarily his type of book.

He thinks for another long moment, then simply says, “Because it’s about the world.”

So with Perrin. His Vermont essays are about a real place in time. They are simple, fun, and worth the read.

Photo Credit: Valley News

Safe as Houses

When I was young, I buried myself deep in the attic corner, huddled under layers of quilts beneath dusty rafters bowing to midnight winds. After a while, I would creep downstairs for a cup of hot cocoa and a tomato sandwich, worrying about hurricanes. Later, a strange woman clad in sodden boots and layers of endless scarves would blow through the door. Was she a tramp? Was she a witch? I wouldn’t know until the end of the book.

C.S. Lewis says that his childhood house is “almost a major character” in his life’s story. He is a product of its “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude”—and also “of endless books” (Surprised 7). My childhood was full of roomy suburban houses with fluffy cream carpets and fresh new furniture. Am I a product of that comfy environment? Certainly. But I have also spent time in countless rooms inside books: Cynthia Voight’s bayside, marsh-lined farm in Homecoming and Diceys Song; Susan Cooper’s Grey House in Over Sea and Under Stone; Madeline L’Engle’s two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse on the hill in the Time Quartet (including A Wrinkle in Time, in which young Meg Murry escapes her wind-torn attic for a kitchen sandwich, only to meet with the strange Mrs. Whatsit). Growing up, my imagination passed into these houses again and again.

In his book A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan describes a response to houses and buildings that is more than just intellectual appreciation of architecture. He talks about our “unconscious experiences of space,” our “immediate, poetic responses to place” that make us want to be in one particular building and not in another (74).

I’ve gone from 1970s ranch house to mid-‘80s new construction to college apartment (and apartment, and yet another apartment) to mountain Arts and Crafts bungalows to quaint 1940s post-war development…and now back to 1970s ranch house. Our current rental echoes the floor plan from the first ten years of my life: the paneled front living room with dining and kitchen to the back, the straight-shot hallway and its arsenal of doors. But the walls in this house are thin as cardboard and the wallpaper is weird. The tile upgrade on the kitchen floor is nice; the lavender paint choice overwhelms the senses.

It strikes me that most of the houses I imagine out of books—Meg’s attic-topped home, Dicey’s clapboard farmhouse, Howl’s moving castle—morph on the indoors into this familiar floor plan, wood paneling and all. The doorway from living room to kitchen is always in the same spot. Meg’s mother stands there to call her family to dinner. When something extra is needed, like Mrs. Murry’s science lab, it gets tacked onto the back kitchen door.

It seems my imagination will not bend far past the walls—both fictional and actual—between which it grew up. My thought-life is as firmly rooted as any old oak. What if, I wonder, the actual walls that housed my imagination’s first forays into such a specific spot of ground—one I didn’t and couldn’t choose for myself—were any different? What if they changed from year to year? I wonder this in fear as we move our daughter from house to apartment to rental home in the first three years of her life. Or what if, much the worse, they were tattered-down walls, worse than lavender, cracked and crumbled from the bad foundation of, say, a broken family or a cruel moment in history or a hungry bank account? What if, more awful still, there had been no walls at all? What then?

Fiction can only go so far in its cover for fact.

In his book The Gates of November, Chaim Potok and his wife meet a stranger outside a Moscow Metro station on a Friday evening “in the first week of January 1985” and follow him through dark, snowy streets (3). The Potoks have traveled to this city, through bitter cold and in careful silence, to visit a man they have never met.

The Potoks arrive at this man’s apartment building, and the stairwell has “the air of an old New York tenement, but with no vivid sounds of life drifting out from behind closed doors. Here you wanted to walk on tiptoe, expecting a sudden leap out of the violet shadows by figures demanding to know what you were doing there” (5). This is Soviet Russia. But then the Potoks enter the apartment:

“It was a fair-sized room that served as both a living room and a dining room, the air warm and stuffy, the floor covered by a rug, the slightly shabby genteel look not unlike that of the rooms in which I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods of New York. In front of the couch stood a table with seven place settings (6).

The book is nonfiction, but the same space is echoed time and again in Potok’s fiction: Davitas Harp, My Name Is Asher Lev, The Chosen. In his imagination, generations of Jews live in these apartment spaces, and it is in these homes that they gather, rest, worry, pray, debate, fear, and observe Shabbat. And welcome guests.

The family the Potoks have met are the Slepaks, heroes in Jewish circles for resisting the oppressive Soviet regime during the 1970s and ‘80s. The Potoks are in Moscow to meet with and encourage the many Jews who are risking their lives. And they have made this trek on this particular night in order to say, “We Jews in America have not forgotten you or what you have done.” Who would travel such a long way and through danger just to tell strangers, “We know you are here. You are not forgotten”?

The Potoks stay only for the evening. It is a visit rich in conversation, and together the families share a Shabbat dinner. Though Potok recalls that a “consuming desolation lay upon the room,” in the same space a “warm intimacy settle[s] upon” the gathering, “a quality of familiarity and closeness brought on by a shared table” (10). Potok recounts a piece of advice he once heard. He says the “only true question we ought to ask one another is: ‘What are you going through?’” (6). This question could be asked anywhere. It could be asked in a faded, desolate Russian apartment across the effort of a language barrier, or on a front porch with peeling paint and rotted steps. It can be asked in any room in which people sit together and remind one other: “I know you are here. You are not forgotten.” How much does it really matter what color the walls are, or what square footage the floor plan?

Today, my husband and I are painting over the lavender walls of our rental house to try to make it look more like home. I feel desperate for a home of my own, one whose freshly-minted green kitchen paint won’t get passed on to a stranger after the lease is up next summer. What is it I’m actually wanting in my desperation to own a house? Am I looking for something that is okay to desire on this side of eternity? I hear an old pastor of mine gently admonish: “Of course you don’t feel at home here. No place on this earth is going to be home.” Am I looking for safety and security? I think of Dicey in Voight’s Homecoming as she sits at her grandmother’s long farmhouse table: “‘How do I know you’re not going to rob me?’ her grandmother said. How could she know? Dicey thought. The people in the houses were in just as much danger as the people outside the houses” (251). A house in and of itself is not the answer.

I hear Dicey’s revelation, and I hear my pastor’s admonition, but that doesn’t mean I like it. What is the point of yearning for a home if some piece of eternity can’t break into this present reality and illuminate ordinary days with a sense of belonging, of comfort, of peace, of history, of safety, of meaning, of home in all its best iterations? I read too much into my pastor’s words. He only meant for me not to look for perfection in my communities. Dicey and Potok get even more to the point.

I return to the architecture-scapes of my imaginative youth. At the center of them is Bag End. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and company are far from his cozy hobbit hole (“Home is behind, the world ahead”), and oh, how they miss it. They sing songs of perseverance: “apple, thorn, and nut and sloe, / Let them go! let them go!” (107, 106). They are indeed sojourners, and so am I. Will it yet happen that I arrive at the place Bilbo discovered when he finally returned home and “was quite content”? It sounds glorious: “the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (Hobbit 271). Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. But it is guaranteed that one day, if not in this brief moment of earthly life, then on the other side, “We’ll wander back” (or will it be for the first time?) “to home and bed” (Fellowship 107).

Till then, in the words of poet Carl Dennis, I’ll remind myself, as I’ve had to before, that “whatever [I] might do elsewhere, / In the time remaining, [I] might do here.” Wherever “here” is, whatever the walls that house me, whether they be lavender, green, or otherwise, I resolve to pay attention to the person nearest me. I will turn to him and ask, “What are you going through?”

 

 

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Surprised by Joy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2002.

Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own. Dell Publishing, New York: 1997.

Potok, Chaim. The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1996.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993.

The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1997.

Voight, Cynthia. Homecoming. Fawcett Juniper, New York: 1992.

Certain Tides

This piece was originally published in Equals Volume 1: Exploration in Fall 2013.

 

They built against sound advice, or so the story goes. The vulnerable stretch of shore was too changeable for development. But prospectors said yes, and island lots were divided and sold, inheritances and retirement funds cashed in. Sometime in the 1980’s, the last beams were hung, the final nails hammered, the last stretches of siding sealed and stained. Today, not a single house stands on Cedar Island. One remains, but its walls have given way. It has toppled onto its side, a testament to the persistence of something; I am uncertain what.

Cedar Island is one in a chain of barrier islands that unravel, link by link, down the Atlantic side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Some years, at high tide, it is completely underwater. Over on the Chesapeake side, not many miles away, the small harbor town of Cape Charles boasts a different history. Its turn-of-the-century houses, for better or worse, mostly still stand. Established in the 1880’sunder the booming industry of railroad barges, Cape Charles was built on the bay. It is protected by milder tides. Still, there is a sense of depression here. No lunar floods rushing in and pulling livelihood back out with them, but instead the slow neglect of an abandoned economy.

I love this portion of the world. I hate the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. To get to this remote spot, which I want to be in precisely because it is remote, I must endure the mile-long stretches of underwater tunnel that run between mainland and peninsula. I try unsuccessfully to forget the tons of water that roil above me as we pass underground. The tunnel bridge structure has held solid since it was built in 1964, my husband reminds me; I wonder when it was last inspected. He assures me it will not cave in, but I breathe deeply only when I can see each resting gull atop his own high lamppost, as we finally drive up the out-ramp, back into open air. The aft shoreline grows shadowy, then invisible. In one swift stretch of road, we curve over the final waves and back onto land.

 The book is bigger than a family Bible, and I only made it through the first chapter, the plight of the oysters.

In Cape Charles, we stay in a restored Victorian home. On one side of the house sits a similar two-story structure, weathered white and boarded up: unsound. I wouldn’t dare set feet on the rotted steps. On the other side, the same – except when we return this year, it has been bought up and is undergoing a slow face-lift. Future rental property. Two houses down, on a cluttered front porch, a grimy, damp-looking pile of blankets shifts as we walk by, and I realize a young boy has slept the night outside. Does his family know? It is a school day, midmorning.

On another street, a tall and narrow turn-of-the-century house (currently unoccupied) has settled so far into itself that it has begun to lean until it is a mere inch away from resting on its straighter-backed neighbor (currently occupied). Cape Charles’s industrial heyday has passed; we no longer need barge boats to transport railroad cars full of tomatoes and tobacco in order to get our produce and smokes from the Eastern Shore. We no longer get much of our produce or anything from the Eastern Shore. The town is now poised, waiting to see if the newer economy of art and tourism will support its people. That, and whatever the work that is done by the family of the boy on the porch.

Several years ago, I set out to read James Michener’s historical fiction tome Chesapeake. The book is bigger than a family Bible, and I only made it through the first chapter, the plight of the oysters. Everything is a potential menace for them, I learned: the ecosystem, the human neighbors, the water itself. From overharvesting to pollution runoff to changeable weather, what an uncertain life these mollusks lead in their efforts to secure a bayside homestead. How tenuous the balance that must be kept in check by every contributor to and user of these waters, in order that the oysters not be suffocated and starved out of house and home together at once. And sometimes even that is not enough.

Today, I sit on a remote, roaring stretch of Cedar Island beach. We have arrived by fishing boat. Our guide, Captain Jim, urges me to explore. Who knows what I might find? Narrow half disks of abandoned oyster lodgings, grandly spiraled whelk shells. Captain Jim tells us the flooding of Cedar Island doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, the same phenomenon that makes for faulty house foundations leaves behind long-empty sea snail homes. “Find a good one!” he says.

Instead, I claim a dune-lined strip of sand, solitary between the stormy crash of rushing ocean to my left and grassy wetland to my right. In the distance lie the beaten boards of the fallen house. At my toes, I trace a line of ridge-backed whelk shells in the sand, a black and perfect row half-buried by the ocean’s periodic stretch across this entire reach of land. Captain Jim approaches and reminds me I can bring home up to three whelk shells; in fact, he insists. I hold out my one knobbled discovery, small and mottled, undistinctive. I can tell he finds me an inferior shell seeker. I would leave even this one behind, except that I need a reminder.

“Find a good one!” he says.

As we motor through the island channel back to the mainland, I hold my shell. Our boat cuts through the waves, and I ask Captain Jim about the decline of oysters in this particular spot. “Oh, yes!” Overharvesting certainly played its part. But mostly, the waterscape hasn’t been the same since the Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane of 1933 came through. People’s livelihoods–not to mention the oysters’–were changed irrevocably. The water’s altered salinity couldn’t support sea life any longer, and eighty years later, levels still aren’t back to normal. Nothing anyone could’ve done to prevent it.

I think of the boy on the porch. We build our lives, it seems, on the narrowest speculation of possibility; we make our homes on the edge of an island on the verge of erosion. A little shift of gravity, a turn of the tide, and where will we end up? More important: who will find us sleeping outside and cover us in fresh, dry blankets?

Tomorrow, we leave the shore. Chances are the tunnel bridge will hold. Eventually, we will arrive at home.

Watching for Trains

The first train station in Lynchburg, Virginia, was built in the 1850s, but the tracks were laid before that. They shipped – sometimes folks, sometimes freight – straight past here from New York to Louisiana and back again. Passengers started getting on and off in our central Virginia city when the stations were built. People still board here, the ones interested in taking Amtrak instead of their own vehicles. But the tracks that run outside my apartment window are a different line. I sit in the armchair and hear a not-too-distant horn. My daughter mimics a methodical “choo, choo” without even looking up from her toy puzzle pieces. The Norfolk Southern railway (once the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad) runs across my line of vision and out of sight. This particular line moves freight, only freight, lots of different kinds. In the late 1800s, it carried raw copper, lead, salt. In later years, it connected into westward lines to transport coal. It carries a lot of coal today, still. Also, sometimes car parts.

Who is able to live under the eaves of a train track? Anyone who’s stuck around long enough to suppress the intermittent rumble into the hinterlands of the subconscious. By our second week in this apartment, the sound of the nearby train had diminished to white noise. But sometimes I notice the stretch of cars chugging by, and then I’m like someone driving by a wreck; I can’t help looking. My imagination runs wild. I ask my husband, who knows about transportation, if there are ever people aboard, going places. He says no, these are not passenger trains. I shed my book-bred fancies of boxcar children and circus performers and even the train that plummets disastrously over a bridge and into the chilly depths of Marilynne Robinson’s Fingerbone Lake. As usual, I am out for fiction, a particular type. I am out for some imagined grand scenario untethered from reality, unchecked and untrue. Fact: it is only coal in those train cars, or auto bumpers. Still, I keep watching.

We live a good quarter mile from the tracks. Several blocks of uniform houses lie in between – straight from “The Truman Show,” my husband and I laugh. How do those people in their vinyl-clad homes, I wonder, insulate against the loud train’s noise? Something awakens in my own air-conditioned conscience, and I wonder, with a jolt, what it is I’m insulating against. Like the character Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, I am hooked by an ambient sentiment of days past, the boom of some purportedly happy industrial age.

The truth is, here we live like suburbanites under Central Virginia’s low peaks and high hills, but that coal train and her mountain-hollowing industry came first. The coal comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else, and who carved it out of which mountainside, and who will benefit? And the freight trains: who loaded what materials onto them, and then went home to what kind of meal with what tired family to greet them, or to what lonely apartment? Or do any livestock travel therein, and what treatment have their short animal lives born? The hill-hung pastures I pass on my drives to the grocery store should be enough to remind me that life isn’t all smooth asphalt and easy energy. This country was built on the backs of men and women whose black and white photographs look awfully nice on the fireplace mantel in my faux-rustic decorated home. And someone, somewhere – probably me! – relies on the hard work of folks today, even now, on another end of the train track. People whose faces I will never see. Meanwhile, I crank the air conditioning up a notch.

In the fiction world of the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the train that has hitherto passed over Fingerbone Lake like clockwork commits the untrain-like act of unpredictability: it goes off-track. It plummets from high bridge into deep water, sliding smoothly into the depths, never to be discovered or seen again. Nary a ripple remains on the surface to mark the disaster, and at first, the lives of one local victim’s family seem just as impossibly unaffected. Three daughters and their widowed mother draw close, a tight unit. They go on with their days. But as the narrative races down the generational lines, the wreckage begins to show. It shows in the psychological cracks that spread, slow and quiet, until the pent-up fragmentation and sorrow of years pushes through, a deluge that leaves the children and grandchildren of that long-ago train crash dangerously – and relievedly – exposed to the elements. High and safe as their home may stand above the lake, the family can’t ignore forever what lies at the bottom of the water, or the raw memory that each passing train signifies. Truth will out, as they say. No more sweeping the difficult past under the rug; the rug is afloat on the waters of a flooded life.

It’s not just the past that needs to be flushed out into consciousness. If you ask my husband what he thinks the modern age’s biggest oversight is, he will tell you: “Cars.” We travel down highways and interstates, fifty cars at a glance to one single stretch of road. The waste of money and energy alone sends his mind, built for efficiency, reeling. Then there are the safety issues. Do so many of us really operate heavy machinery every day without a second thought? Yes, we do. And the culture of aloneness: we love our private travel spaces, even if we pay for them in fuel, in auto payments, in precious time, and sometimes with our very lives. An internet image search for “Atlanta gridlock” on the night of Tuesday, January 28th, reinforces his notions. And an article at the Other Journal last spring echoes his sentiments:

“When the future is unimaginable, societies tend to become spectacles, indulging in cakes and carburetors. Our grandchildren will likely look at us with the same distaste with which we view 1950s gender politics or the institutionalization of the mentally ill.”

How to make the future imaginable, then, so we can see what is really going on here in the present? In her nonfiction essays, Marilynne Robinson talks about the concept of the “imagined other.”[i] She says that we will build the strongest communities, that we will love each other best, when we learn to hold each other in imagination. And by “imagination,” she means the kind that can see what’s true, whether that’s by way of fiction or hard-and-fast fact. She means we should hold other people in our minds with empathy and understanding, arrived at by knowledge of who they really are and what their lives are really like. Arrived at by a willingness to watch and actually know what’s on that train, and who has loaded it, and what life is truly like for them.

So I keep watching the train; my mind still whirls with notions. My daughter says, “Choo, choo.” I get down from the armchair and join her, and together, we complete her puzzle, locking the remaining pieces in place. The image is pastoral: a horse, a cow, a pig, and a barn. I think of people, past and present. I am still out for fiction, but this time, I try for the best kind: the kind that blocks the white noise of decades. The kind that sees who’s really there. I keep my ears and eyes open, and my mind, too. I tell myself I will ask better questions as I go through my days. I keep watching the train.

1 [i] Robinson, Marilynne. When I was a Child. “Imagination and Community.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2012.

photo by: rvaphotodude

Permission to Not Talk

I was such a good secretary. Just enough Myers Briggs “I” and “P” to synthesize ideas and data, not so much OCD that I couldn’t stop mid-project to talk with a visitor. And Google? Put any question to me, any question at all; I would (I’ll still!) find out what you need to know, lickety-split. What snagged me, though, was the telephone perched on the edge of my desk. It would ring, and I’d wonder for a moment – for the length of that first electronic trill and then perhaps half of another – whether my boss in the next room would notice if I simply didn’t answer, so great was my terror of holding the receiver to my ear and saying “Hello.”

The telephone is a strange device, but it’s been around long enough now (disturbing the peace since 1876) that we are used to it. In his essay “My Father’s Brain,” Jonathan Franzen includes the phone as one in a list of “charms” modern materialism has disruptively bestowed upon us. He suggests that we’ve reverted to something ominously empty in “our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.” Granted, Franzen’s essay was written more than ten years ago, and the original landline hook-and-handset is indeed a relic. But the idea still rings as true as a cell phone buzzing insistently from the bottom of my purse: must communicate! Now! And all from a distance. In the absence of an actual person, a voice, disembodied. This has become normal. This is a strange way to live.

When Alexander Graham Bell, with the help of Thomas Watson, developed the telephone’s liquid transmission technology back in the 1870’s, his wildest dreams were for its broad home use: “The day is coming,” he proclaimed, “when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.” Other folks, however, considered the phone an intrusion that would never catch on in the home – oh, wait. I’m thinking of the television. And also cellular phones. And texting, and video chat, all prophesied to never become widely-used. Early predictions for the phone’s success weren’t much different; the higher-ups at Western Union in the late 1800’s brushed the new technology aside as an impractical toy. It was so awkward a device, so utilitarian and impersonal, that folks would surely never grow used to it as a daily conversational tool. The phone might do fine for government or business purposes, perhaps, but never for the average housewife on the kitchen line. God bless those insightful souls; this housewife agrees.

Even Bell admitted that telephoning was unusual enough to necessitate sign-on/sign- off directions, detailed in the first user’s manual. He and Watson drafted a script. “Ahoy!” for a greeting, or perhaps, “Hulloa!” And “That is all” for farewell. What if that had caught on? Well, what if it had? Imagine: a script! Oh, to talk on this strange device and not have to navigate the near-impossibility of communicating with someone without being with someone. If I’d had a script back in those secretary days, one that all the frantically-phoning parents (I worked in a university office in the early days of Helicopter Parenting) also ascribed to, I might have been bolder. I might have picked up on the first ring!

Of course, much can be attributed to personality. Facebook is live these days with lists that help us define how we already are, along the lines of “Top Twenty Signs You’re an Introvert.” One list insightfully described those of us who seem outgoing, but only because we put such a huge amount of effort into having to talk at all. Over-talking because of feeling uncomfortable talking. (Lord, the things we do to ourselves.) Back when my daughter was an infant, I would pop out of church worship on Sunday mornings and into the baby room, where the service was piped in for nursing moms soothing crying kiddos. Being in the service had been a glorious comfort, that permission I craved to be within a crowd without talking. The baby room was cold water in the face, and in my discomfort at sitting in awkwardly-close quarters with a bunch of women I didn’t know well, I couldn’t desist. I hated to talk; I had to talk. Many a baby- soothing mom, I think, feigned sleep over in the corner rocker to avoid my anxious chatter. I wanted to avoid it, myself.

In the Spring 2013 issue of Image journal, Fred Bahnson’s book excerpt “The Underground Life of Prayer” describes the time he spent living and working amongst Trappist monks in South Carolina. Meditation was central to the lifestyle, and so, too, was silence. But when Bahnson describes the monastery as a “household that includes fields, people, and home,” I cringe a little: how many people? Did he have to interact with them all? Often? On a daily basis?? (You begin to wonder if I was actually that good a secretary.) So much forced interaction: this monastic life suddenly sounds terrible! Then I recall how, earlier in the article, Bahnson describes the monastery’s morning vigils: “When Vigils ended at four AM we would leave in silence, returning to our cells for nearly two hours of ‘spiritual reading.’” They would leave in silence. It was permission to be together and not talk. Yes. In the absence of voice, a person, and the rich possibilities of a connective quiet.

I expect you’ve heard of the popular parents’ tome What to Expect When You’re Expecting (though happy for you if you haven’t). My realm being the nursery rather than the monastery, I can attest this book is enough to make every already-paranoid parent quake in fear that he or she is somehow at constant risk of ruining his or her child’s future. In every moment, I could be doing more. I should (dreaded word) be playing more, cooing more, and (dreaded thought) talking more to my baby. After reading this book, I lived in a state of heightened distress at the demands this small person placed upon my already-subdued social set. I was convinced I was not talking with her enough; her language acquisition would surely suffer. But sometimes I didn’t want to talk to her at all! My panic reached critical heights. I tried explaining this to friends and received blank stares. “You don’t want to talk to your own daughter?” I imagined them thinking. But my poor daughter. She herself did not often want to be chattered at; the Myers Briggs “I” goes for her, too.

All this to say, talking is good at the right time, but it isn’t good for all the time. And the phone? It’s fine when it’s useful. I’ll admit its benefits: emergency calls, important announcements, and the like. But let’s imagine that earlier script could be reinstated. Ring ring. “Hulloa?” “Hulloa, Bob! This is Evelyn. Martha had her baby. All are healthy. Visiting hours are one to three.” “I’ll come tomorrow. Is that all?” “That is all.” Think of it as a spoken telegraph message. (Ah, the telegraph. Now there was a distance communication device.) But I can hear you on the other end of the internet. You think the scripted approach too void of the personal touch, too empty of that common depth of understanding that makes us human. But I ask you, how normal is it to talk to someone when you’re with no one? (Or, worse, when you’re with someone other than the one you’re talking to.) This is a strange device, the telephone. It requires the development of unnatural social nuances and niceties. Must we expect it also to intersect with real, deep communication?

Perhaps it’s just me and the social anxieties talking. But that (very likely) being the case, I make this request of you – yes, you, all of you whom I like and care to know, who are many. When I don’t return your calls for days or weeks or possibly even months at a time, please restrain yourselves from leaving mildly irritated messages along the lines of “Just calling . . . again,” or, worse, when I (brave me!) finally do call, “I was starting to give up on you.” A thousand years is like a day to the Lord our God, and two months feel like a mere half week when I’m bracing myself to punch in the numbers on the little black plastic brick that connects me in such an uncomfortable and disconnected fashion to you (whom I like and care to know) on the other end.

My friends, please. Socializing in person takes effort enough as it is. When it comes to the phone, give me time, give me leeway, give me grace. (Season it with pity, if you must. Envision me, guilt-laden, hovering indecisively over the phone for days in a row before finally dialing you.) Grant me patience. Or, better, come over to my house and sit with me, in-person. But either way, give me permission to not talk.

photo by: macinate

In Praise of Nursery Tale Anthropomorphism

Animal stories are the stuff of an imaginative child’s delight: Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty and Mole, C.S. Lewis’s beaver family, Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny. In these stories, impossibility is key. “Lucie opened the door: and what do you think there was inside the hill? – a nice clean kitchen with a flagged floor and wooden beams – just like any other farm kitchen” . . . only suspiciously smaller. In fact, everything in Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is suspiciously small, including the washerwoman herself, who has other strange features: a nose that goes “sniffle, sniffle, snuffle” and prickles rather than pincurls under her cap. But none of her animal-like qualities stops Tiggy-Winkle from living a very person-like existence, wearing a print gown and apron while she irons out her neighbors’ waistcoats. This is a common animal story conceit: away from the familiarity of home, a child encounters fantastical creatures, the impossible nature of which she only slowly registers. (Tiggy-Winkle is a hedgehog!) At which point, the child seems to awaken; perhaps it was all a dream. But was it? The evidence points in both directions, a la Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Not too far afield, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows asks the same question – person or animal? – but the evidence is more complicated. The story of Mole and Water Rat begins with characters that are clearly animal, and it only slowly dawns upon the reader that it’s the other way around. The animals here are stand-ins for people, and very recognizable people, at that. Otter is the scrappy, cockney city chap; Badger your introverted, gruff old country fellow; Toad the landed gentry whose money has gone to his indulgent head. And Mole lives in his under-hill home, which is no muddy animal lodging, but instead a tidy, thoughtfully-decorated . . . well, let’s be honest: hobbit hole. And to the same extent that Bilbo Baggins is actually a landed English gentleman, mole is also an ordinary fellow; he is not very “animal” at all. (It is interesting to think that The Wind in the Willows was written three decades before The Hobbit, and that Tolkien had read and liked it.) Unlike the Tiggy-Winkle tale, there is no dream here to wake up from. Whether we notice it or not, we readers perceive the actions of Mole and Ratty as those of humans – albeit quirky humans with rather furry paws.

So what rescues Grahame’s tale from being the sort of anthropomorphic animal story C.S. Lewis called “astonishingly prosaic”?[i] Lewis talks critically about animal stories that directly substitute possum for person, in which the central character might be a human knight just as easily as a field mouse. (Brian Jacques’s recent Redwall series exemplifies the substitution effect of animals-as-people. Lewis would have recognized – and, I think, enjoyed – Jacques’s woodland characters for what they are: people walking around in mice’s clothing.) Regarding Willows, Lewis admits that the animal-person “disguise is very thin”[ii] – but it’s not completely transparent. Willows stands apart because it leaves room for some uncertainty in the details. As in Tiggy-Winkle, the evidence points in conflicting directions: Are these actually animals, or are they people?

The way Grahame asks the question is the same thing for which Willows catches some negative criticism. In the story, the human interplay with the animal characters is inconsistent, at best. We read along for some pages, often forgetting the protagonists are animals – they seem so people-like, living in their comfortably-appointed parlors with fully-stocked kitchens and cleanly-swept entry halls – when suddenly Grahame introduces the idea of humans inhabiting the same world as Ratty and Mole. Bam! The fantasy we’ve been receiving as reality reels on its own axis for a moment. How could Badger, so seemingly-human himself, inhabit rebuilt ruins left over from England’s very historical and real Roman occupation? How could Toad inhabit the same living space as the human Gaoler’s daughter, and, even more bizarrely, entertain the possibility that she might fall in love with him, a toad? Ratty and Mole walk down lane and through village like any other human biped, but on the very next page, they respond to that purely animal instinct that sends them scrabbling across long distances toward home. These are jarringly incongruous moments.

The Wind in the Willows is stronger for them. Incongruity is actually a crucial part of Grahame’s imaginative magic. When, upon reflection, we realize we’ve been picturing Mr. Toad with human arms and legs (After all, how else could he don his motor-clothes? Or drive a car? Or comb his hair?), and when he comes up against a group of truly human travelers on the open road, the impossibility of a frog so easily convincing a crowd of people that he’s human is part of the enjoyment. It’s also part of the book’s deeper resonance. With Beatrix Potter, the Person-or-Hedgehog question is straightforward. With Grahame, it’s more convoluted, and the book is a funny, wild ride, not despite, but because of all the clashing uncertainties. Two decades later, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories playfully intertwined similar uncertainties, creating a study in reflexive text pervaded by the old Velveteen Rabbit question, “Is Pooh stuffed? Or is he a real bear?” The answer for Pooh is “both.” Or perhaps the answer actually is, “Does it matter?” Likewise, though The Wind and the Willows never overtly asks “What’s really going on here?” the reader is forced to consider the possibilities again and again. And, as in Tiggy-Winkle, as in Pooh, there’s no clear answer.

At the end of Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Lucie holds the cleaned and pressed bundle of lost handkerchiefs in her hand – who but Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle could have put them there? And yet she also spies Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, small and prickly, unclad, dashing away on all fours – “nothing but a hedgehog.” Did Lucie, like Carroll’s Alice, merely fall asleep in the grass and dream the washerwoman? Or did she, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, actually see the other side of reality? The best of these children’s animal stories charmingly, cleverly know that the value isn’t in the answer, but in the question (Is it dream or is it reality?), and in the deeper questions that initial question unsettles and shakes free. This is the child’s version of a tactic as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as recent as Postmodern thought and as exciting as the drama in grownup tales like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. (I know which way I wanted that spinning top to fall. But did it or didn’t it?)

The initial question matters because, at the end of it, we arrive not at the answer, but at something more personally challenging. In this animal-peopled world of children’s lit, we are forced to engage a more bracing imagination that considers unfamiliar possibilities. And this is good, because we’ve got to get outside the norm in order to see both ourselves and others more clearly. As G.K. Chesterton says, when familiarity breeds contempt, “We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.”[iii] Marilynne Robinson further suggests that imagination is essential in loving and identifying with others – especially others who differ from ourselves.[iv] Of Kenneth Grahame’s narcissistic Mr. Toad, C.S. Lewis explains that the unnatural combination of human traits and froggy features lead to not only an “amusement in,” but also an actual “kindness towards a certain kind of vanity in real life.”[v] We’ve got to get outside our world in order to live better in it. The likes of Grahame and Potter and Milne offer a way out.

So, in the end of Potter’s story, Lucie’s initial, astonished response is wrong. Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle “nothing but a hedgehog?” No. Here in Animal Land, it is everything-and. The incongruities are the gateway to both the dream and the reality, where we can imaginatively engage impossibilities in order to see what’s really true.

 



[i] Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. “On Stories.”

[iii] Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man.

[iv] Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. “Imagination and Community.”

[v]On Stories.”

Try Again: On Follow-up Attempts

When J.K. Rowling published her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, back in September, many of her devoted readers wanted to know where the magic—overt or otherwise—had gone. The expectation was understandable. She had done Middle Grades fantasy so well before. Why wouldn’t she produce the same again? We had been told she was working on something substantially different from the Potter series this time. Followers anticipated her efforts and worried, “What if it’s not as good?” Our imaginations had been taken captive by the Hogwarts story, and as generous as we might intend to be, devoted readers are not actually very generous. We tend to want the same thing again and again. In this case, we wanted the same narrative excitement, the same wild creativity. We were operating from the idea that J.K. Rowling owed it to us.

Indeed, we readers tend to think writers, in general, owe it to us. We may concede the right—nay, the duty (dangerous word)—of the creator to push herself, test new ground, blaze new artistic trails. But the reality is that, having done something well once, the writer must do the same again. We expect that he do it over and over and over. Writers must keep writing. If books aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t only disappointing; it is downright strange. Harper Lee committed the greatest authorial sin: She only wrote once—one novel, that is. There are essays and articles and whole sections of books dedicated to the question “Why?” Why did she stop after To Kill a Mockingbird? Why didn’t she give us more? The silent conclusion is that something must have gone very wrong.

Charles Dickens, on the other end of the spectrum, wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote what he knew would sell: close to 20 novels published as serial fiction to satisfy the reading masses. And he wrote cultural articles for various periodicals because he knew that they would be read more immediately. But he also wrote about what interested him, including essays that weren’t all that well done or well received, because he cared to experiment with his craft. The reading public held expectations of him, and only sometimes did he answer those expectations with his ever-scribbling pen. There’s a reason we only read a select few of his books in high school and college. A number of them were a critical bust. (Martin Chuzzlewit, anyone?)

This nonconformity in writerly habit, whether it’s one exemplary novel in a lifetime or many books with varying reception, stymies us. Our criticism is implicit in the seeming oddity of Marilynne Robinson’s long pause between writing the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Housekeeping and the winning Gilead: “The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.” We are befuddled by why E.M. Forster “stopped writing fiction at the age of 45. He lived quietly for another 46 years and continued to write essays, short biographies and literary journalism—but no more novels.” As if the essays, biographies, and other pieces—not to mention the novels he’d already done –were not work enough. And of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his writing that has been stopped by the cruel hand of dementia: “García Márquez now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since his last novel.” It seems García Márquez has given us plenty; he’s given us enough. And I wish we could think of something more compassionate to say about him right now than that there will be no more novels.

I’m tempted to claim I don’t know much about these things since I am an essayist. But every few months, I pull out my own fiction piece and work at it, imagining, typing, crafting, deleting, writing some more. My fiction story may or may not ever see the light of day (or bookstore fluorescents or e-reader lamp). Still, the work of crafting it over the months and years has molded me. The project has tightened up my nonfiction storytelling, it has taught me that success in writing doesn’t necessarily have to do with immediate readership and it has given me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for writers who do get their fiction in front of the public. Developing narrative, structuring plot, crafting characters, creating dialogue: this is hard work. In my reckoning, Harper Lee is a blazing success. I hold her one piece of fiction prose in my hands, and I am grateful.

But back to those writers who keep at it with varied results. An astute response, this time about George Eliot and her little-known, admittedly-flawed novel Romola:

Only one masterpiece? Not a very impressive record, it seems . . . . But consistency in perfection is a lot to expect of any artist, and especially of an artist working in a medium as fluid and methodless as fiction. And does it in fact, make Eliot a lesser novelist that most of her novels are thus imperfect? My answer, as you probably expect, is no.

Experimenting with form and content, pushing ourselves outside the comfort of predictable perfection in order to create new and maybe—hopefully—better art: Is this not what we, as creative people, do?

Fortunately, some of Rowling’s reviewers get this, too: “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand . . . ” Let’s disassociate it, then, and perhaps give Rowling a hearty congratulations, too, not only for her work at crafting another story, but also for pushing herself to branch out, with all the risks and imperfections involved in attempting something new.

Shire Reckonings

“What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves! This is what I have been really longing for, for years! Goodbye!’ he said, looking at his old home and bowing to the door.” ~ Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring

There was a time I enjoyed road trips. When I began college, I landed in a group of friends who jumped in the car on a whim and freely drove here, there, anywhere. Freedom. Community. Fun. The open road. These carefree folk indulged in gleeful midnight drives and weekend jaunts: I joined in with abandon. The mountains! The beach! The hills of North Georgia! The Hard Rock Café in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. The hot, flat center of Nowhere, Alabama to visit a friend of someone’s friend. But somewhere along the decade between going to grad school and staying home with a toddler, my traveling tendencies have grown fewer, my goals for the road smaller, more planned, more manageable. Precise. It seems I prefer predictability. Really, I prefer home.

I suspect that’s partly because, in recent years, I’ve exchanged the footloose and fancy free road trip for actual life-hauling moves. Our family moves a lot. After an eighteen year childhood stretch set firmly in one city, I have been repeatedly carried away to new places. I haven’t always liked it. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[i] Yes, Bilbo. Agreed. College was the beginning of that road, and town after city after town has followed.

The most recent move has been particularly difficult. Two weeks after leaving our house in Blacksburg, Virginia, we traveled back for a day of cleaning and grabbing up odds and ends. We unlocked the kitchen door and looked around. The first home we’d ever owned stood empty save for the dust in the corners. Potential buyers came to look with high hopes but decided it wasn’t the place for them, after all. “It needs a lot of work,” my husband heard the woman say. I found myself sitting on the sole remaining piece of furniture—a piano bench—in tears. The small space was surprisingly empty, even of memories. How could this be?

I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy most years, usually in the fall. In the beginning of Fellowship, I’m always a little pained by Frodo’s newly-bought house at Crickhollow. How can any house—any house—replace Bag End? Impossible. In the end, of course, it doesn’t have to; Frodo gets to go back home. Still, in those moments before Frodo and Company must continue so quickly on their tri-book journey, Frodo looks around at Bilbo’s familiar furniture arranged in an unfamiliar place, and tries to convince himself that Crickhollow could be home: “‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’”[ii] I don’t believe him.

With each year’s reread, I end up getting through less of the series. I think it’s because each year I need less—less adventure, less wizardry, less epic battle, less grandeur. Two falls ago, The Fellowship of the Ring sufficed. Last September, I was satisfied to read the hobbits safely from Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil. This year I took the first book off the shelf a few months early. Something in this upheaved summer told me I’d need it. I cracked the covers that will soon fall completely apart and found myself slowed down by that first chapter or two. I pored over and over certain paragraphs and phrases: “For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future.”[iii] I couldn’t move beyond Frodo’s slow, pleasant early years at home in Bag End. And, of course, those moments when Frodo can’t make himself go:

To tell the truth, he was very reluctant to start, now that it had come to the point. Bag End seemed a more desirable residence than it had for years, and he wanted to savor as much as he could of his last summer in the Shire.[iv]

Even on the day of departure, Frodo wanders the darkened rooms of Bag End; he walks to the bottom of the garden path; he must drag himself away. When he and Pippin do finally go, he pauses yet one more time: “‘Goodbye!’ said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows” and waving his hand.[v] It is a long goodbye when heart takes leave of home.

Undoubtedly, I remained in this segment because I was looking around my own home, cleaned, then boxed, then emptied. How could I leave this place where I had cooked meals, made new friends, brought home a baby? To add insult to injury, Frodo’s move follows on the heels of the pleasantest weather in memory: “The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn.”[vi] It was, indeed, a particularly, painfully lovely spring this year in Southwest Virginia. The trees were a healthy, non-drought green, the lilies flourished, and there were, for the first time, cherries to pick. Our backyard had never looked better. This, I realize, is often the way of things: When life is normal, I see all the flaws—the chipped paint, the uneven ceiling; when normal life is lost, the familiar glows bright before my eyes. The birds sing louder, and I want to stay forever. When I read those opening pages of Fellowship back in June, I could only laugh for trying not to cry.

Frodo willingly marches into misery, danger, and despair to save everyone but himself, so far as he knows. But that is not the full extent of his sacrifice. Till this year’s reading I had never realized the depths of what slows Frodo as he heads out on his journey. His deep desire is to stay not merely in comfort but in a sense of place, history, memory, family. Yes, he is supposed to go out and do this grand thing. But his dragging feet are caught on the threshold of his love for home, that very place he most wants to save. And so, this year, I had no need to travel the Old Forest, go through Bree or visit Rivendell. I remained where Frodo and Sam wished they could: The Shire. If they couldn’t keep watch over home themselves, I’d do it in their stead. If I can’t stay in the home we spent three years imbuing with memory, love, and meaning—if home must be, for now, a row of townhouse rentals set down in yards of pavement in a new city—then I won’t read past page 142. I’ll find solace in Bilbo’s garden.

Like Frodo on that first and only night in his Crickhollow house, I look around this temporary place and say with some effort, “This does look like home.”[vii] I try to mean it. That won’t stop me from hoping we’ll have a place of our own again someday, one in which we can truly settle. Fewer road trips for me, and hopefully no more moves—just a backyard window view, one with daylilies and cherry trees.

 



[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993. (102)

[ii] (133)

[iii] (66)

[iv] (92)

[v] (98)

[vi] (95)

[vii] (133)

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Other Wizards, Many Worlds

We all know which child wizard first grabbed his Elementary Spells textbook and walked the castle hallways to Magical History 101, right?

Not necessarily. Decades before J.K. Rowling put Harry and Ron in a flying Ford Anglia on their way to Hogwarts, Diana Wynne Jones sent a young enchanter named Cat Chant crashing into the local post office on a contraption of enchanted bicycles and magicked flying furniture – after, of course, he had completed his magical education classes for the day.

When Jones passed away in March 2011, the New York Times detailed her long life, her recent death, and her proliferation of kids’ fantasy literature. I probably wasn’t alone in wondering who she was. To the library I went. Not surprisingly, the selection was meager this side of The Pond. I pulled down the tallest of the six plastic-covered hardbacks, wondering what a character named “Chrestomanci” might be like. The book title was The Lives of Christopher Chant. A good choice, as it turned out.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun.

Diana Wynne Jones is a good choice overall for anyone who’s steeped themselves in the likes of J.K. Rowling or Phillip Pullman in recent decades, or, further back, Susan Cooper. Americans may, like me, draw a blank, but most bookwormish British schoolchildren know the enchanter Chrestomanci, even if they don’t yet know that Diana Wynne Jones falls plum in the middle of Britain’s rich children’s fantasy heritage.

In that first book I brought home from the library, Jones’s Christopher Chant steps “around the corner of the night nursery wall”[i] and confidently into this very tradition. Ah, Christopher: a young boy, lonely, all but orphaned, who discovers the tear in the magical fabric of his world, carefully peels it aside, and walks through. (I’m lookin’ at you, Phillip Pullman.) I was charmed from the start. I didn’t skip a beat till I’d read to the end of the six Chrestomanci books, scouring two library systems and back-ordering the rest.

It’s rare at my age to be drawn into another world as wholly as I am by Jones’s stories. How does she do it? Believable, sympathetic characters combined with straightforward, unabashed magic. Don’t get me wrong; her books are no wild ride. Jones paces her stories moderately, meaning they move a good bit slower than Harry Potter. This works just fine for me, having developed my readerly imagination on the 1970’s likes of Cynthia Voight and Madeleine L’Engle. But Jones’s energetically resolved endings always make up for her easy pacing in a satisfyingly accelerated final rush. And all along, there is the awareness, the curiosity, the mystery, the suspense of alternate worlds to our own.

Which is the concept that works so well for Jones. And she’s got tons of worlds up her sleeve and around the corner. We catch a glimpse of them in the refractively mind-bending conclusion to Witch Week, a tale that’s almost too slowly paced. But the payoff, after making it to the end, is an exciting and thorough resolution, wherein worlds connect with worlds in one huge, kaleidoscopic “Aha!” moment:

“It was as if the world had turned into a vast curtain, hanging in folds, with every fold in it rippling in and out. The ripples ran through desks, windows, walls, and people alike. Each person was rippled through. They were tugged, and rippled again, until everyone felt they were coming to pieces. By then, the ripples were so strong and steep that everyone could see right down in to the folds. For just a moment, on the outside of each fold, was the classroom everyone knew, with the inquisitor and his huge men on the same fold as Miss Cadwallader, and Chrestmanci on another fold beside them. The inner parts of the folds were all different places.”[ii]

But Christopher Chant is the character who throws this other-worlds element into sharpest relief. At nighttime, he journeys out of his bed, around the nursery fireplace, and into The Place Between: a rocky valley that offers entrances into worlds – no, whole series of worlds! – in vaster numbers than Christopher can count.

“He set off sliding, scrambling, edging across bulging wet rock, and climbing up or down, until he found another valley and another path. There were hundreds of them. He called them the Anywheres.”[iii]

We know this other-worlds idea didn’t begin in Jones’s imagination. Two decades before the first Chrestomanci book appeared in print, a quartet of siblings walked through the back of a wardrobe into a land called Narnia. Nearly a century before that, a lesser-known fantasy character – the creation of Victorian novelist George MacDonald – entered another realm through (appropriately) a library. In MacDonald’s book Lilith, the librarian explains what it is that Lewis, Jones, Pullman, and countless others have since envisioned: “I tell you there are more worlds, and more doors to them, than you will think of in many years!”[iv]

These days, the concept of alternate worlds runs rampant on the middle grades and young adult library shelves (not to mention on prime time television). Of course, all fiction books, even the most realistic of fiction pieces, are themselves other worlds in that they are imagined renderings, recreated places. But what Jones and many of these others do differently is layer the concept, starting with the world as we know it and then working out the idea of imagined experience by giving their characters entrance from a recognizable “here” to a somehow different “there.”

Surprisingly, perhaps the most striking element of Jones’s worlds, besides the vibrantly rendered magical details they’re chock-full of, is the sheer normalcy of the characters’ experience. In Charmed Life, we read about Cat Chant’s inner dilemma, torn between brotherly loyalty and a moral obligation to tell the truth. We almost forget we’re dealing with multi-lived enchanters and magical matchsticks, because we’re caught up in recognizing how Cat feels: agonized, like a normal, conflicted eleven-year-old boy. His equivocal decisions are decisions we know; his dialogue and responses ring true. We feel empathy for Cat and, perhaps, for the part of ourselves that is so similar to him. It’s just as reading should be: entrance into a deeper Real. A deeper real, that is, and a whole lot of fun.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun. The more fun, I’d say, for their being so artfully crafted. With a nonchalant tone and a steady pace, with an effective honesty toward her readers and uniquely imagined moments, with playful good humor and a hint of darkness just troubling enough to be delicious, Jones’s hand wields fantasy adventure story with skill. Even we American readers who have never read her benefit from the many worlds she conceived. As we stay up too late reading The Golden Compass or The Dark is Rising (or, in the adult lit realm, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), as we watch and rewatch the Harry Potter films, we participate in the narrative legacy Diana Wynne Jones has left behind.

At the end of Witch Week, the young character Nan, a budding writer, makes the discovery that storytelling is “as good as witchcraft, any day.”[v] Later, a friend confides in her:

“Do you know what I think?” she whispered. “When you grow up to be an author and write books, you’ll think you’re making the books up, but they’ll all really be true, somewhere.”[vi]

A world where books come true? Well, that may be a stretch. But fortunately for those of us who are into this middle grades fantasy kind of thing, that didn’t hold Diana Wynne Jones back. Who needs other worlds? Not when the likes of Diana Wynne Jones waits on the library bookshelf, teeming with enchanters and griffins, witches and warlocks, schoolgirl authors, flying furniture, wild woodlands, and much more, besides.

 



[i] The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume I. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p.271

[ii] Witch Week, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume II. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p. 540-1

[iii] Lives, p.271-2

[iv] Lilith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: 1996. p.40

[v] Witch, p.540

[vi] Witch, p.547

The Bearable Lightness of Letting Go

Undeterred by the cold and rainy weather, they came. Car after car, every passenger door flung open, each woman leaping out to scan the tables, hawk-eyed, grasping the best pillow or wine glass or ceramic on the table, throwing cash at us while diving back into the car and speeding on to the next driveway full of hopeful clutter. It was madness. It was bizarre. It was actually quite admirable. It was a yard sale.

I’ve known before that people “did yard sales.” My husband is one of them. But this level of commitment to finding the best of one man’s junk was something I’d never conceived. These people were professionals. Who says the sale begins at 8 a.m.? The sixty-something retirees know otherwise. The first mad rush started at 7:15 and ended thirty minutes later.

The morning continued with the less-vulturous hopefuls at 9 a.m. The folks who saw the roadside signs and turned in to take a look. The neighbors who came by to say hello. At 10:00, a more relaxed post-farmers-market crowd arrived, those who valued the pillows on their beds more than the best pillow on the table. I envied them. There was a college grad visiting town who had left her jacket in D.C. and picked up a fifty cent sweater for the chilly weekend at her old alma mater. There was a last-minute rush of women who pored through what was left while big, fat raindrops started to fall. We stuffed the remainder in boxes while they filled their arms at a reduced price, gleefully shouting, “This is the twenty-five-cent yard sale!” If only they knew I would have given it all to them for free at that point, if they’d simply take it, just take it away.

I had dreaded this sale all week. At 7 o’clock the morning of, I had peered out the window to a foreboding Saturday sky and three tables skillfully set in the front yard: bakeware, picnic basket, kitchen timer, cheap china angel. Apple peeler. Microwave. Clothes. This is not how I wanted to clear out the clutter of a very lived-in home. If I had it my way, it would all be in the hatch of the Honda Fit. I’d drop it at Goodwill and be back in the driveway with a fresh cup of Starbucks joe thirty minutes later, lickety-split.

But as it turned out, I loved it. I loved the yard sale. I loved every last rain-soaked minute.

It was not least for the characters. There was the man looking for antique furniture, unwilling to hear “We don’t have any for sale” and insisting we must. Did he actually want us to produce our own furniture for him to buy? He also wanted to know about guns. “You got some?” We did not go into the legality of selling firearms at yard sales. There was the friendly mountain couple who loved our daughter and chatted happily with her, though I couldn’t understand a word they said. And the moody teenagers who made off with armloads of 50-cent shirts and skirts, looking back over their shoulders as if we’d change our minds and charge them with thievery. Most satisfying was the woman renovating a new kitchen who needed a microwave for a mere two months. My old college dinosaur of a heating device? The perfect solution. She got a deal, and we had one less thing to load onto a moving truck.

What is it that drives people to drive hither and yon, searching out treasure amidst piles of someone else’s history? What is it that is so mutually happy about finding a steal on one end, and ridding the house of unnecessities on the other? Whatever it is, there was something shared and joyous that morning. Maybe it just so happened that only particularly nice (or interesting or funny) people came by. Or maybe it was the sheer community of it. Whatever it was, interacting with these folks was downright fun, and I say that from the depths of my introverted being.

My mother recently came to help me pack up a closet full of forgotten belongings. We tossed and recycled more than we boxed up for our impending move. The purge felt thoroughly good. This is the other side to that part of me that loves the sentimental home item. I am no packrat. In the back of the closet, I came across college-era letters signed in names I don’t recall. I may appreciate the meaningful family heirloom, but if I can’t picture the face of the friend who wrote me that letter back in college? In the trash bag it goes. I feel ten times lighter.

Still, after carefully culling the clothes I wear most days out of the clothes I’ll never wear again, I found it difficult at the yard sale not to explain the provenance of every wardrobe item to the teenagers, as they made off in gleeful banditry. They did get good deals, if I do say so myself. But they did not need to hear about the dress I wore on a memorable Charlottesville date with my husband five years ago, or the skirt I bought when I first moved to Chapel Hill. They needed to possess their new-found treasures, unweighted by story, as slates blank enough to be written with the tales of their own days . . . or else pass them on to the nearest friend or yard sale or trash can if they didn’t fit, after all.

Meaningful as these things are to me, it felt good to let them go. It feels good to let go and be who I am at this moment, moving on, encumbered only by the weight of bearable memories – and those, too, grow less and lighter, over time. The things the memories are attached to may stay, or they may not. Some I want to stick around more than others. And at this moment, watching people walking away from our yard with our old electronics in their arms and smiles on their faces, I think, “Our belongings could all go up in smoke.” I’d still be me.

Cleaning out the closet with my mom, I came across diaries that, in their time, had been very full of who I was. But now I flipped their pages, and I barely recognized myself. Or, more accurately, I recognized that I am still the best and most important of those old elements of myself. But the worst can go, and some of the memories, too. The journals go with them. I move forward from here. I feel very light, indeed.

Mid-morning, a white-haired lady appeared, tiny and casual in her loose jean skirt and baggy white blouse, careful and deliberate in her browsing. I understood her mountain-talk no better than I had the couple who jabbered with my daughter, but she wasn’t there to chat, anyway. She thumbed through the last of the clothes, all the while coming back to a peach-colored skirt, an almost-sheer number embroidered with silvery beads. I thought, for a few moments, that this was a gift, for a granddaughter, for a great-niece, perhaps. I had bought it during an unairconditioned Asheville summer years ago, haunting the cool library and movie theater as much as possible, and sweltering on miserably-hot sidewalks in between. That paper-thin skirt was my salvation. At the yard sale, the elderly lady held it up to her own waist, and suddenly I saw the new life this skirt was about to have. It was a beautiful vision: a bunchy old slip hanging beneath the hem while she watered the potted plants on her tumble-down deck.

But perhaps that is far too much to say about what is, really, just a piece of cloth. It’s the woman who mattered. I was happy to let her take the skirt, and the teens the rest of the clothes, and leave the memories behind with me. Even some of those will fade. Some already have. Some I’ve deliberately tossed. In the purging of my things, I found a surprisingly big space in some corner – or perhaps the very center – of my soul where people themselves seem to fit quite well. Less of this stuff, and less, even, of me. I watched, with some trepidation and a lot of peace, as the old woman climbed carefully into her enormous sedan and drove slowly away.

Staying Awake

It started with LOST.

It was a revelation: Action-packed, prime time adventure television could be really, really good. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my fair share of T.V. storylines that boast big explosions rather than fine character development. But in the last decade, a number of shows have given us attempts at something more thoughtful, connected, purposeful. Lost’s six-season run saw Thursday morning staff meetings derailed in favor of speculation over the Man in Black and the contents of the hatch. Lexicon-altering statements like “I really like Sawyer’s arc” were fodder for conversation at the local coffee shop and on Facebook comment strings.

And then it ended. Whatever devoted viewers thought about the series conclusion, one thing was common: We missed Jack. We missed Sawyer. Some of us even missed Kate. We missed the anticipation of a new episode and the slow unraveling of a mystery. We missed the discussions and arguments and blog posts the next morning. We missed gathering around a story.

Every season since, my husband and I have eagerly scanned the headlines, watched for previews, and kept our eye on the internet. What new show might spin us such an engaging yarn? It was sure to happen again, now that T.V. knew what it was doing. Right? Some shows were promising. Touch was a maybe. Alcatraz had potential. (It had Hurley!) Terra Nova had us hanging in for five hopeful episodes. Once Upon a Time’s fairy tale feature cloyed too heavily, though some argued it was well done. What each of these shows had in common was admirable: they attempted story telling on a large scale, complete with character, mystery, and a meta-story rising above each individual episode’s plot. But none of them struck gold.

Until February 2012, when T.V. reviews highlighted a show about to premier – when? – this very week! Awake. It promised that lurking fantasy element, dark visuals, psychological guesswork, strong acting. The potential was huge. We were hopeful. We were not disappointed.

A detective crime drama is a detective crime drama, right? Wrong; oh, so happily wrong. When we meet L.A. Detective Michael Britten, a car crash has already killed his wife – or did it kill his son? Detective Britten’s reality has fractured in two. Regular viewers can no doubt recite the opening sequence, in which Britten explains, “I’m awake with my wife and I close my eyes. I open them, and I’m awake with my son.” One of his two alternate therapists, acted by 24’s Cherry Jones, declares, “Well, I can assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream.” Of course, Britten comes back with “That’s what the other shrink said.” The audience is left to conjecture what is actually going on. There is no smoke monster, but the pervasive mystery of Britten’s alternate realities is just as compelling.

Which is where the consistent complexity of the show gets really smart. This bigger mystery is as engaging as the individual crimes Britten solves each week. The crimes themselves are carefully constructed, informing each other in a way that enables Britten to solve each episode’s drama across realities, much to the confusion of his family and colleagues. Best of all, the individual crimes always augment either Britten’s or the viewers’ understanding of what’s going on in the larger story. The individual, well-crafted subplots serve the larger narrative.

But now the word on the internet is that Awake isn’t returning. We’d feared it all along. When we mentioned the show to friends, we got blank responses. So what was the problem?

Surely we can get past Jason Isaacs as the despicable Lucius Malfoy of the Harry Potter movies. It’s true Isaacs has less pretty appeal than, say, Lost’s Matthew Fox. But this is a minor hurdle, easily overcome after watching Isaacs last year as gritty private investigator Jackson Brodie in Masterpiece Mystery’s Case Histories. The actor carries over most of the intensity and all the squinty-eyed goodness of the darker Masterpiece show into the similarly dark and grimy Awake. His acting as Detective Britten is subtle and superb.

And the writing! How many ways are there to evolve an episode? Thirteen, apparently. Whether the episode’s individual concern is restoring trust between husband and wife, bettering understanding between father and son, or Britten questioning his own psychological stability, each stands out as a fresh, creative take on the same scenario – is he waking, or his he sleeping? Impressively, the show never – or rarely – confuses between the two alternate realities: quite the feat, considering the amount of detail and character crossover between Britten’s waking worlds. All this while providing engaging new perspectives on Britten’s sleep situation each week. The writing that develops Britten’s tale is unfailingly creative. Kudos to Kyle Killen.

And then there is the affirmation of committed, supportive family (which Terra Nova did pretty well, too).  The relationships between the characters are realistically flawed and believably hopeful, and you’re behind the family all the way. You want their relationships to grow, strengthen, heal – and, in slow, realistic ways, they do. How satisfying. The directing is nuanced enough to catch Isaacs’ subtle expressions, and it’s straightforward enough to remain easily entertaining. Throw in the mildly creepy psychological mystery of Britten’s dual worlds, and the question looms: why did Awake doze under the radar? Why did a meta-arc show like Awake lose viewers to shows like the Mentalist that tend to present stand-alone episodes?

Maybe Awake’s failure comes down to poor advertising, or poor time slot placement. But I also think there’s something here that we, as viewers, don’t know we’re ready for. The show’s premise, by its very nature, requires a series-length story arc, which means the individual crime dramas that come and go will ultimately take a backseat to the larger story. So I wouldn’t recommend tuning in at, say, episode seven. Britten returns over and over to Ricky’s Tacos fast food joint; the mystery doesn’t really go anywhere; there’s not even a murder! Taken on its own, this might be slow, dim, boring stuff. But the beauty of the meta arc show is that the very strength of the premise gives its characters and their stories room to stretch, breath, grow, and be believable. The downside is that this isn’t a hit-or-miss show. It calls for commitment to weekly watching.

Back in the LOST days, circa seasons two and three, there was a lot of grumbling. The story had gotten off-balance, and viewers complained. Nothing has been explained for episodes in a row! This week’s episode moved far too slowly! What are the writers thinking? Do they even know what they’re thinking?! Perhaps the grumblers were watching in the wrong way. NCIS, say, or Person of Interest, might stand up to episode-by-episode viewership, but LOST demanded a different kind of attentiveness. Think Great Expectations, The Brothers Karamazov, The Great Gatsby. Are there slow moments? Sometimes. Is every scene just as interesting as the one before? Not always. Is each chapter essential to the whole? If it’s a well-told story, absolutely. We keep reading, and we trust the story is going somewhere worthwhile. Likewise, with LOST, with Awake, we keep watching. The larger narrative continues, and if we’re in it for the long haul, we’ll be rewarded with a cohesive story that rises above each episode.

The difficulty is we’re a culture that likes to be entertained. From Aristotle to Franz Kafka to C.S. Lewis, there are theories and disagreements over the elements that make for good story: plot, characterization, mood. On all these counts, Awake holds strong. Perhaps too strong. Maybe we just don’t know a good thing when it looks at us out of the television screen. We’ve had too much immediate gratification from slick, super-cool people blowing things up. (Not that I didn’t enjoy the explosive season finale of Person of Interest. Or the blazing series ending of House, which straddles the line between individual- and meta-narrative shows.) We’re not used to engaging with televised story for the long haul like we might commit to a novel.

Of course, there weren’t many Awake episodes amongst the thirteen that even required such a patient response; the story didn’t get the chance to develop that far. It’s too bad. Because, in the language of the Losties, I’d like to see the rest of Detective Britten’s arc. It was only at its beginning, and his outlook was more than promising.

Detective Britten’s tale has been told now. Whatever those of us who watched the season/series finale on May 24th thought about his last moments, I think his brief existence signals hope: Hope that storytelling like this can exist on TV. Hope that Americans haven’t altogether forgotten how to receive story. Hope that we can learn again how to watch, interpret, think, dream. As a reader, a writer, a mom, an engager of culture, I’m heartened.

We can only hope the networks will agree and keep taking chances on strong meta-narrative. And maybe, next time, more of us will be watching.

The Isness of Art

In downtown Hanover, New Hampshire, there is a gallery that carries local and regional art: the League of NH Craftsmen Gallery. You can enter the front door at Lebanon Street and find yourself in a broad, open space of gorgeous local handicraft on display. Or you can come in at the back, as I prefer, climbing steps past a downstairs studio where a bearded man cradles fast-spinning clay in his hands. The door at the top opens onto a host of well-crafted, authentic pieces: display cases filled with jewelry, shelves of blown glass and glazed ceramics, walls of framed art, and–the jackpot for me–stacks of matted paintings and photographs.

The picture that connected with me on this particular visit was a whimsical serigraph by New Hampshire artist Catherine Green. Entering the back door, I flipped through a stack topped by a stylized depiction of a creek bed, right up my husband’s alley, though somehow not to my taste. I wondered if there would be something to satisfy us both. There was. A wooded landscape, rendered stark and serene in confident greens and calming blues. Quintessential New England. Each slow, silk-screened paint layer was pressed through at exactly the right spot, and a skillful use of white space defined the winding snow path that lit the way through a birch forest to a hilltop cluster of pines.

I loved the spareness of the rendering. And I was immediately and poignantly reminded of a scene from L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known Emily of New Moon, wherein the title character names her front yard trees and makes friends of them. More to the point, I was reminded of my first acquaintance with the book, holed up at home during a ninth grade snowstorm. Appropriately, the screen print in my hand was titled “Meeting Old Friends.” I carried it around the gallery with me, and I brought my husband back the next day for a second opinion. I deemed the picture well worth the price. I walked out the door, art in-hand.

One-of-a kind, handcrafted finds are popular these days. We live in a culture that, at the moment, values the authentic, the handmade. Area farmers’ markets are nouveau chic shopping spots, their tables laden with locally crafted wares. Small, local art galleries are promoted and supported. Major home furnishing retailers get in on the action, too, not only selling items that merely look old and timeworn; they actually market original vintage pieces to coordinate with their faux-distressed tables and bed frames. They even (much to their credit) support online artisan sites like Etsy. Etsy items get pinned and repinned on Pinterest, and new members seem to join constantly, sharing their discoveries with friends and strangers. It’s fast becoming an era of mass marketed authenticity.

Recently, a New York Times Home & Garden article called for ceasefire. One person interviewed proclaimed frustration with too many things crafted. The overabundance of unique, authentic items in the home began to “seem like a ‘design uniform’.” The value became diluted. Another person explains, “When you pile Etsy on top of Etsy, it gets really cacophonous: ‘Everything in here is totally unique!’ It starts canceling itself out.” …and he throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I would like to keep hold of the baby, please. The same article asks the question, “How much authenticity is too much?” Perhaps therein lies the problem. If we’re only looking for the authentic, we will find it anywhere and everywhere. We could buy up the entire art gallery in hot pursuit. And we will indeed get oversaturated. Rooms packed with too much of the “real thing” — vintage furniture, artisan crafts, prints bought off Etsy — will amount to the same thing it always amounts to when we gather stuff for the sake of gathering stuff. When acquiring for the sake of acquiring, the value of the item itself will surely be lost.

In this kind of deluge, it’s easy to forget the value of the individual: the singular work of art and the unique person, and the intersection of the two. And we’re all so different. Our perceptions and pasts and particularities of “isness,” as Madeleine L’Engle would say, converge to make meaning out of, and thus to find value in, surprisingly different items from person to person– when we pay careful, close attention to each actual item, that is.

Walter Benjamin approaches the matter from another direction. As a collector (of books), he notes that the “phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” Belongings lose significance the further they get from the person who owns and appreciates them. It follows that a unique, original art object needs to be grounded in the caring ownership of an individual in order to be valuable — and in order to be authentic.[1] The work of art that is dissected from humanity has no real history; it might as well be a painting in an assembly line. But when Benjamin rifles through his crates of beloved books, full of personal meaning and past experience: “what memories crowd in upon you!”[2] He wants to keep hold of the baby, too.

Back in the art gallery, I held the painting, and I could smell the chill in the air from the snowed-in weekend when I first read Montgomery’s Emily, recuperating from the flu on my mother’s living room sofa. It was transporting. Yes, meaning may get lost in the jumble when too many one-of-a-kind pieces are bought and hung merely for the sake of an aesthetic. But in those unexpected moments at a gallery when a certain picture seizes my imagination and, even better, rouses memories of other moments, art and personal history intersect– in real time, in actual space. Authenticity is augmented.

When L’Engle talks about isness, she suggests there’s a certain glory in being precisely who we are, each person as unique and real as the work of art I ended up bringing home with me.[3] She recognizes that when our individual isnesses intersect, our true selves are more deeply established; via relationship, we reaffirm our very existence back to each other. I contend that works of art can do the same. And if any created items reflect our lives back to us–by memory, by story, by sheer imaginative rendering–therein lies an authenticity that deepens the already significant work it takes to craft each handmade, individually-conceived piece in an art gallery.

So I say, “Sure.” The bathwater can go and take the glut of authenticity with it. Maybe it’s all just a slurry of marketing ploys, anyway, destined to be washed down the drain when the next big decorating trend comes along. Thankfully, art doesn’t get dragged down with the rest, especially when it is created out of time and skill, slow focus and care. When it connects with someone on a personal level. When it isn’t sought merely to add to a cumulative collection of “authentic” things.

We can talk local art, and we can talk authentic, quality craftsmanship. We can talk about the grand meeting of the two, and we should. But value that’s lasting is ultimately in the personal connection, in the meaning made out of memory and imagination at the moment we engage with a work of art. It’s the experience I climbed those steps looking for. It’s the kind of authenticity I can’t get enough of.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. p.222-223

[2] Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library.” Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., New York: 1955. Transl. Harry Zohn. p.67, 66.

[3] *L’Engle, Madeline. A Circle of Quiet. HarperCollins: New York, 1972. p. 6, 110

 

All that We Can’t Leave Behind

Our dining room table is a salvaged antique store find. It is worn and old, weighty and substantial, and in need of a good refinishing job. Vintage mid-century, its peculiarity is a pair of oak leaves that don’t detach; instead, they slide out from under the middle section, transforming a thick, square table for two into easy accommodation for guests. A draw leaf table. Its solid round legs are heavily footed and connected by a wide board, good for resting heels (or chin, in the case of our short dog).

Photo by Barrie Humphries.

We like old things, my husband and I. And the best way to acquire them is, of course, in the twenty minutes before the antique store closes. At the last minute, we’d had to return a borrowed dining table to friends. So at 4:40 on a Saturday afternoon, we zoomed down to Christiansburg’s Antiques on Main and speedily narrowed our options to three tables. Then two. The clock kept ticking, and in the end, the sliding leaves and unique base charmed us. Who knows what family owned this table before us? Whoever they were, we would add our own years of eating to the table’s silent history. We departed a couple hundred dollars lighter and one beautifully scratched table richer. We’ve added our own scrapes, crumbs, and watermarks in the two years since.

We had both been acquiring items of ages past well before we met: my vintage 1960s dishes, his root beer bottle collection, my grandmother’s paintings and embroidered pillow cases. The two of us, coming from our separate backgrounds and distinct inheritances, intersect at the desire to own things of quality and substance. Things of value. For us, that value lies in meaning, and meaning lies in history. So we pick up pieces here, acquire them there, and save them through the years.

I sometimes cast a glance around our house and wonder what it means that some of our furniture was crafted by skilled Mennonite hands decades ago, and some of it comes from Grand Home Furnishings. I think about the culture of home and what we are creating as we accumulate things — well-loved tables, vintage plates, artisan pottery, a new-bought sofa. At times, the latent Target-shopping suburbanite within chafes against the old dishes, the chipped furniture, the mismatched wine glasses in the china cabinet. I have moments of wanting continuity, order, clean lines. In other moments, I take a near-rapturous delight in the bookshelves my husband is making, and I find myself peering up from the computer, or book, or baby, to appreciate the arrangement of my belongings, old and new, around me.

Last September, an article in the The Independent touched on the modernism of the mid-twentieth century, the prevailing idea that technology, machines, and industry would save culture, would save us all. I had never before considered the way the mass production of the Space Race era, from commercial art to the everyday home item, reflected that thought. The ideology was in the design.

The dishes that sit on my draw leaf oak table came out of that very time and ideology. They are crisp-white and clean-lined, with playful gold Jetson-esque starbursts across them: 1960s Star Glow dinnerware. I bought them from a friend, an antiquer down in Asheville, at a time when I was just beginning to think about homebuilding. They were the first full set of dishes I ever purchased. Though the other decor in my house leans toward the farmhouse rustic, the comfortably-used, the grandmotherly antique, here sit my dinner plates, my teacups, my cereal bowls with their space-age swoosh hiding the crumbs my daughter has mashed into the ridge between the table leaves. Those dishes were designed for a different time. They were born out of a progressive mindset that saw women less in the kitchen, and perhaps less nested. I never considered the modernist message they were proclaiming.

I recently decided to sell the dishes on eBay. I’d like a newer, fuller, matching set that’s safe to use in the microwave. I wrote up descriptions, determined prices, uploaded pictures. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. It’s not because I elevate these plates above their place as material items. It certainly isn’t because I buy into the last century’s idea that progress will save us. My Star Glow dishes bear the message, not of space travel and smart machines, but of their recent origin in my own life. They are symbols of my first foray into choosing my own home items. They are memory pieces of dear friends and a poignant time in life.

Our culture has developed its own particular ideology these days, one of intensive nesting. There are blogs, books, and television shows devoted to craftily creating a finished home, piece by domestic piece, room by DIY room. This movement appeals to me, but it also implies a sly confidence that the home environment can achieve perfection, might be everlasting. Rebecca Parker talked about this several months ago in The Curator: “modern American womanhood — a life lauded for our opportunity for independence — is yet contrarily bound by expectations to be completely nested at a very young age.”

Too true. We are all lives in-process, and our homemaking should reflect that process. It should tell our personal stories as we live them day by day, year by year. I consider my dinner table: a compilation of wedding gift dishes, discount ceramics, and, most sentimental, the retro plates. I look further, at the bookcases built by my husband, at the china cabinet constructed by a distant family member we never knew. That cabinet contains our wine glasses, half-new, half-mismatched from vineyard wine tastings. Good memories there. We may someday or may never replace them with a full, new set. I hope to sand and refinish that dining room table after the years of infant crumb-mashing have passed. Or perhaps we’ll keep paying more attention to our daughter than to our desire for a sleek and shiny furniture piece. Here we are in this place, right now, amongst things that mean something to us, and with people who should mean much more.

My little girl eats at the dining room table, christening the cracks between the leaves with gusto. I consider her place in our conglomeration of items, the material evidence of Us between our four walls. What kind of habitat has she been born into? What items and artifacts surround her in this, the beginning of the wild adventure that will be her life? We surround her with love and with care and with story. And we surround her with tangible pieces that contain some of that story. The table chimes in with its part of the tale; you look at it, and you know who has spent her days eating there — an eleven-month-old and parents too busy to clean up the mess.

In an eclectically-filled home like ours, the messages are many. A home full of newly bought, perfectly matching items would tell a static tale. Instead, we acquire these items here, are given those there. Some break, some are replaced by better, some are old and shabby and so full of meaning I hope never to lose them till the end, when I lose all things. It is a largely accepted concept: you can’t take it with you. This, also, is true. Or is it? That some of our items, like the 60s dishes, tell an unintended tale is merely interesting to me. That they came by way of dear friends is what’s meaningful. They’ll stay. That so many of our possessions are infused with memory and knowledge of people in other places and people long-gone makes me wonder if, in some way, we do take these things with us when we go. What if, in the ways of memory and meaning, of love and hospitality, the items in our home are sacred? Perhaps there is something of lasting substance to belongings, after all.

In one of his essays, G.K. Chesterton addresses this very sacredness that is borne out of each unique home environment. But he has much more to say about the value of the people therein. Like my plans to sell the dishes and refinish the table, it might often seem better to draw clean lines by lessening the importance of home and choosing the people we know. But Chesterton says there is no bigger adventure, no more important group of people, than those who comprise our home. He speaks of the priceless “largeness and variety of the family” and admonishes that “Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world.”[1]

The folks who people my home are a mere three, but the aunt who gave us that Christmas ornament, the father-in-law who gave me the basket hanging on the wall, the twice-great uncle who made our china cabinet, the unknown family who ate at this table before us — we remember them as we look at these things. The memory of those individuals, contained in the things they made, the things they gave, makes our home and our lives anything but narrow.

I suspect that in the end, meaning and memory will be — in the words of the ever-wise U2 — all that we can’t leave behind, along with our very souls. When that meaning and memory get wrapped up in the substance of tangible things, well, I’ll pull up a chair at our dining room table and enjoy every scrape and scratch. I’ll add a few of my own. And maybe, many years down the road, another family will pay a hurried visit to an antique store. They will be charmed by the draw leaves in this antique oak table, now even older. They will buy it and take it home. And in the act of sitting down to dinner, they will bind their story to ours. They will step into a larger world.


[1] Chesterton, G.K. “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.” Brave New Family. Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 1990. p.44

 

A Neighborly Kind of Quiet

Six and some odd years ago, I downsized. I’d grown up in one of the biggest Atlanta suburbs, and gone to school in the small city of Athens, Georgia. It was time to move on. I began my slow progress north. Somewhere past Old Peachtree Road, Atlanta’s wide interstate madness narrows to a manageable four lanes. Heading toward a life in the mountains, I pulled off at South Carolina Exit 42, and it was small highways winding up from Greenville after that: US-25, I-26, I-240.

Afterward, when I’d head back down I-85 for holiday visits to Atlanta, I’d pass the Greenville exit going south this time. Increasingly in those years, as the road widened and the semis raced by, anxiety set in. I began to see that this was all too flat; too open; too exposed. Too big.

Give me the small roads. Atlanta born-and-raised, it’s blue highways for me now. High hills and small spaces. But it isn’t just the roads I love or the landscape. It’s the sort of life that goes on in the places you find along skinnier streets. The pace of life that slows in accord with a ten minute drive into downtown — or, better, a thirty minute walk.

This is the speed that suits me: days in with my daughter; walks to the library in fall weather; grocery trips passing nary a stoplight. Strolls down the street to check our tomatoes’ progress in the community garden, and any trip over fifteen minutes taking me into the countryside. Here in the medium-sized college town I now call home, the introvert in me finds root-room. My mind relaxes. I can breathe. I can think. I can be me.

There are people who point out that cities are where movements start, where important change happens, where culture begins. I understand. I’ve lived in the cities. I’ve seen the vibrant humanity, the opportunity for involvement there, the concentrated brokenness and need. But at my best, I move at a slower, quieter pace. I want to put down roots in a place like this. I imagine, then, there must be some  purpose I can find in digging in and living slowly in a less populated spot. Things of import must happen here, too.

Wendell Berry agrees. He sees important movement starting in the known-ness of close communities, in an awareness of the people he lives with and around. “Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make.”

"The things of import start small here. They start in my house, in my raspberry patch, across the street."

I visit the farmers’ market to pick up my weekly CSA share, and I get to know some of the people who grow my food. How well do I know the daily, difficult things that comprise their lives? The full-time librarian knows me by name. How long has it taken me to learn hers? Some neighbors on our street have a harder time than most, and their pain spills out into public arguments on the road. My impulse is to feel annoyed and stay inside. Do I? Or do I knock on their door later, offering friendship and a listening ear?

When we first moved to our neighborhood here, I discovered raspberries, fresh-ripe. But there was a problem: the neighborhood kids. They had grown accustomed to this house standing vacant and had appropriated the yard as their own, including the laden vines. Each morning as I made my coffee, I heard the ominous screech of bicycle brakes and an excited shout: “Raspberries!!” Then footsteps running up my drive, and silence punctuated by, “Ooh, a good one” and “I found some more!” Trespassers. I stood in the kitchen, fuming like the evil witch in Rapunzel, wondering how to keep the little thieves out of my — my! — garden.

My husband came home and I explained how I had protected our land and sent the children away. He paused and furrowed his brow. “That wasn’t very neighborly.” He was right. Being neighborly does not often come easily to me. Nor does being sociable.

I’ve never much liked the book Little Women. (Strangely, my husband brought the one copy we own to our marriage. He denies ownership, but there it lies, amongst his books.) I love the 1994 movie, though, and there’s a particular scene: the sisters are all aspiring toward greater lives — in marriage, in Europe, in the big city. Beth, meanwhile, mournfully asks Jo, “Why does everyone want to go away?” I concur, though not necessarily in big moments. It is more often in the day-to-day I wonder, “Why attend a potluck, that church’s women’s event, this weekend’s baby shower?”

I am at home in this town because I am a homebody. That can be both good and bad. If I don’t attend next weekend’s baby shower, I might cozy up more comfortably with my small family and a good book, but then acquaintances won’t be made and friendships will remain static. If I drive quickly rather than walk slowly to the grocery store, I won’t engage in conversation with the woman next door. If I scold and send the children away empty handed, my heart stays small and the neighboring families isolated.

If I am going to begin the work of knowing my neighbor, I will have to overcome my inclination to sometimes live a little too quietly. I will have to overcome the very impulse that makes me feel at home in this kind of place. This town, if I will make of it what I might, lays before me the possibility — dare I say, the responsibility — to be somewhat less comfortable than I’d prefer in order to reap bigger benefits than merely having a calm home-life or driving in low traffic.

There are people here to be known and loved, if I will do the work. And really, isn’t that the best, if the most difficult, work we can do? Isn’t this at the root of any movement, at the start of any program that changes culture for the better?

I don’t fool myself: no one can do neighborly things perfectly, or even well, very often. There are too many of us living different lives, each with our own struggles and worse. There have been troubling reports this past year, really horrific occurrences coming through the news about children in America who have been hated and hurt, who have suffered harm in the silence of secrecy; their neighbors knew nothing about it. A friend posted one of these reports on Facebook and commented: “Know your neighbor.” Who wouldn’t want to protect these children? It is crushing that no one did. Perhaps knowing my neighbor goes beyond willingness to share raspberries with the kids down the street. Or perhaps sharing our raspberries, our yard, our home, might cultivate the very sense of community that holds such hateful behavior at bay. It is at least a start.

My husband and I joke about a big traffic day in Blacksburg, when you crest the hill at South Main Street heading into town and see — gasp! — six cars coming your way. There is, of course, traffic in this town. But the road size and the time to get from any here to any there (twenty minutes, tops) reflects the pace in which daily life and relationship might be played out. It’s not better or worse than the different pace and the different opportunities for daily deeds and relationships in the city, save in my opinion.

This, then, I choose as my kind of home. The things of import start small here. They start in my house, in my raspberry patch, across the street. Maybe they start this way everywhere.

Can a quiet, neighborly life intersect with a desire to help the oppressed, the afflicted, the hungry? Is brotherly love sufficient if it starts small, inside the walls of my house, on our short street? I look at my daughter, my husband, my neighbor, and I think, “Yes.” Yes, if I will do the work of loving my family. Yes, if I will step outside myself and really, truly, know my neighbor.

And so it is in the very act of overcoming the quietness in me — that introverted quality that makes me feel so at home in a small mountain spot — that I live well, that I love, that I do what is most important. But don’t get me wrong: should you look for me on a Sunday evening, you’ll find our family outward bound, pulling onto some sleepy road where the cars are few and the speed limit slow. Our windows will be down and our talk will deepen. There will be movement in our souls.

 

Weathering the Books

If this were Facebook, you’d read that “Rebecca Martin is happy Agatha Christie was so prolific.” Summer is for detective stories. Every year, just about the same time, the air gets hot, the trees turn green, this college town gets quiet, and Arthur Conan Doyle comes through. Dorothy Sayers as well. And, thanks to the productive industriousness of one Agatha Christie, Poirot and Miss Marple for many summers to come.

Photo by Anne Varak

Reading is seasonal for me, intensely seasonal.

I’m in a book club here in Blacksburg, Virginia, and I sometimes find it difficult. I have always, actually, found book clubs difficult — though also deeply satisfying, all that communing around literature, thought, and friendship. I’ve even initiated a few of the book clubs I’ve been in. But what’s hard for me is the reading on-demand. Yes, I may want to read The Catcher in the Rye sometime, but not right now, and not in December. Don’t you know December is for dark fantasy and Victorian novels? The likes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Jane Eyre, Bleak House. Fall is for The Fellowship of the Ring — at least the pre-Bree bit, every year. Spring is for landscape prose: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry. Mostly stuff about Appalachia, farming, and the local hills, including that long, straight laundry-line that is Dillard’s Tinker Mountain thirty minutes up the road. Late winter and mid-summer and all the gaps between are for Young Adult fiction . . . so really, there may never be a time for Catcher. I am selective. Selective and seasonal.

Does anyone else read this way, too? And why?

There’s the association component, for sure. The vestige of a memory when I first experienced The Hobbit on the way to an autumn art class. I held open that small, black trade paperback brick with Gollum leering creepily over curly-headed Bilbo’s shoulder. My mom drove and talked; I sat silent in the passenger’s seat of the old ’83 station wagon, engrossed in my first exposure to dwarves, dragons, and Gandalf. Each fall I repeat the impulse of that seventh-grade self and crack open my favorite part of Fellowship, reading the hobbit-friends through from the Shire to Bree. And then one winter a few years back, in the wonderful still of those post-holiday months, I filled the gray quiet with Dickens’s Bleak House. I have read something by Dickens every winter since.

The actual landscape of the book plays a part, too. Frodo and Company set out on their heroic journey on the humble beginnings of September 23rd. Mr. Norrell is discovered in the drear cold of January, and before the book has gone too deep, the magician has blanketed York Cathedral in a still mid-winter snow. In fact, Susanna Clarke explains that she wrote most of her fantasy tome in winter months, and her actual seasons became the imagined: it seems that the magic of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is always at a cold time, in a chill place. It’s almost as appropriately, enticingly dreary as the misty moors of Jane Eyre (read every Christmas break since high school freshman English class). Bleak House is more complicated, inside and out. Neither house nor story are so bleak as the title suggests. Still, the story is all Dickens, London is miry, and so winter is the time.

But then this past January, I stepped out of bounds and steeped myself, an infant on my shoulder, in the lyrical landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Wouldn’t that, now, be a book for spring? All her talk of Fingerbone lake and its mountains, that western place the protagonist Ruth is so deeply rooted in? Ah, but the landscape this stunning book contains: it’s all chill, all frosty lake, all winter or else cold, early spring. The time was right. I have a feeling it will be every January to come.

And of course there are the sentimentally-timed reads, the explanation clearer at hand: at the beach, it’s always Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch. I first read it on a Fourth of July Florida trip with grad school friends. Seven years later, I can still smell the salt water and sunscreen on the pages. And the story itself tells of a school vacation and the Cornwall seaside. What else would I want each trip to the Atlantic coast?

So this is how I read: by emotion, by memory, by my seasonal history with the book, by the book’s own inner climate. Not everyone approaches their books this way, I’m sure — and I would like to understand more about what that means for other books and other readers. But for me, reading at its most poignant is more than mere enjoyment, more than momentary appreciation of plot racing toward a whodunit end. (Though, boy howdy, can I ever lose myself in a good plot. Give me The Hunger Games! In November, that is.) A book — a great book — is a place that’s in my world as much as I am in its, unifying my experience with its own feel and yes, its own weather.

A friend recently asked if I’d read Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming. I had. (In middle school, on late-spring doctor visits for allergy shots, imagining Voight’s New England coast while waiting for the nurse to call me back.) Oh, had I. I excitedly tried to tell her, “Yes, yes, it was amazing,” and the words that came out were — oh emotional me — “It was . . . it was . . . it was formative!”

So it was. So these annual rereads are. My husband, an engineer who could do more math half-asleep in the middle of the night than I could ever do with a fresh mind and a calculator in front of me, does not reread. He confesses unapologetically: he reads for plot. Once he knows what’s happened, he’s through. But I read for the experience. And if it’s an experience I like the first time around, I come back for more. But I come back when it’s appropriate, which has a lot to do with when I first read the book, and a whole lot to do with the “when” between the pages. I make up part of the reading experience with my own when and where, and the book makes me, too. It adds to my understanding of my when and gives me a new where to emote and to think in. Books are, indeed, formative. I form the read and the read forms me.

A wise person once gave me the advice that, since all the books in the world couldn’t ever be read by one person, what we’d be best advised to do is mostly reread the ones we like best.

It’s not for everyone, rereading, emotionally reading. Book clubs may do better with committed readers who can step outside how they feel to get through each text. Bills will get paid because the man I’m married to isn’t over in the corner on his fifth mid-summer read-through of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But that isn’t me. It’s not how I’m formed. The books I love best conduit fluidly between my real landscape and the imagined ones within. And so, in a sense, my reading is dictated by the book.

What does this mean for planning to read? Discipline is key, when it must be: I commit to the community that is my book club, and so I stretch myself to read J.D. Salinger when I must. When I return to school as-planned to be — what else? — a librarian, I’ll read the textbooks and articles as I’m told, and Susan Cooper will wait patiently for my next vacation. But when it’s bedtime and I’ve got a few more reading minutes in me yet, I’ll crack open my shabby-edged copy of The Hobbit. It’s coming on fall, after all.

And then I think, with excitement and some trepidation, how I might help develop an imaginative landscape for my daughter — the little girl who fits snugly on my shoulder right now, but who, after not too many seasons, will start to recognize words. Maybe she’ll end up doing math and one-time reads like her dad, and that will be fine. But perhaps some Christmas break she will come to me, fourteen, looking for something to read. I will offer her options, and she will choose. She will reach for Jane Eyre, knowing the time is right. She will feel it outside and in. Something in the weather will tell her.

Mountain Roads, Sing Me Home

 

As we pulled out of the drive, the dashboard clock read 5:18a.m. It was dark in Ohio, and we were bound homeward. While the baby slept strapped into the backseat, the sun rose along the fields and small towns of 250. Somewhere between the main streets of Apple Creek and Wilmot, the old Rich Mullins album we’d put on sang to us, and it was apt: “there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see / But everywhere I go I’m looking.”

 

Two hours later, we wound through the high hills of West Virginia. My husband dozing on the passenger side, I sped down a mountainside run, the steep slope of a mountain rising gigantic before me. It seemed as though I’d crash into its side, or perhaps keep zooming up and up to the crest. I thought it was rooted very deep – a majestic thing. And I remembered Lewis’s Narnia in The Last Battle, worlds behind worlds, a gigantic mountain rising behind and above the very sun. My heart leapt and an eagerness gripped me as I sailed down the interstate toward the awesome, lovely thing. Then a bend in the road, and the hill was left behind, though the vision of imminence and majesty remained.

Once I moved to Appalachia, and my soul, it has stayed there. Now the cracks in my heart seal up a little bit whenever I travel through. Much of our lives, my husband’s and mine, have been lived in or near these mountains, and we travel intermittently along corridors that take us to and back home again from the North and New England. There’s another song that sings the tune of our relationship, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel, following my husband from New England to Roanoke, through Johnson City and all the way to Raleigh, where I lived before we were married.

There have been a lot of moves for me in the last six years, I in this generation of job-changers. I’m not sure how I feel about all of them, or the fact that it takes all the fingers on my hand to count the places I’ve lived between 2005 and today. James Taylor hears the highway calling him toward the Carolina that is the seat of UNC. But for me, with the exception of Taylor’s Chapel Hill (OCMS was so kind as to include the flatland Triangle in its song’s passage down the Blue Ridge), all my moves have been toward mountains. We lived our first married year comfortable under the historic green shade of Charlottesville’s Monticello. (I could see the apple orchard side of its brother Montalto out our bedroom window, balm for my moving-weary soul.) And now, these past few years, we’ve settled in a Southwest Virginia valley that has us driving right up against the hills in ten minutes, any direction. We’ll begin the raising of our daughter here.

As for the first chapter on this hilly portion of my life’s map: when, six years ago, I moved from the North Georgia foothills (rolling in their own sleepy, southern way) to Asheville, North Carolina, pocketed in the crestfalls of many mountains – Pisgah, Dearview, Beaucatcher – I drove up the winding road. Above Greenville, South Carolina, the curves of 26 become steep and the views drastic. In all my sweet Carolina, it’s the corner I love best. I neared the exit for my job interview, and all of a sudden, I was passing under a bridge so high I could hardly believe it shared the same travel space. I craned my neck, looking as long as I safely could, drinking in the stunning height. Then I was on to downtown Asheville, in love already and ready to live amongst these hills. When I had to leave those hills behind, and all the deep relationships that they, by then, contained (I held so many people in my suitcase heart), my heart was all but rent.

There has always been something about the height of the close ranges, the depth of the variegated rock as I pass through deep cuts, the insides of the mountains close enough to reach out the car window and touch. In Appalachia, the landscape becomes personal, something you can intimately know, and then, in another stroke, just around the next bend, it rises up in near-intolerable majestic show.

On sings Rich Mullins:

And once I went to Appalachia for my father he was born there

And I saw the mountains waking with the innocence of children

And my soul is still there with them wrapped in the songs they brought

I crane my neck to get a view of that high, close mountain for as long as I can see it. It beckons and it daunts. It is both near and far. It smites and charms me deeply, both at once. The road, as it always does, takes a curve at the last minute and passes the crisis of near-collision by. I move on through the next town, toward the next set of near peaks. But the close encounter with the mountain has begun its work. It inspires and it heals, and it takes me home.

Yes. Whether I live there or not, home is Appalachia now. In the words of singer/songwriter Jason Harrod, “Take me where them rolling hills / Can gather up and cure my ills.” And may they one day carry me home.