Places in the World

“I  had a farm in Africa…” Wait! This is not that, but I do belong to a book group in England. I joined in 2006 after an out of hand rejection to my inquiry about membership in a certain local reader’s group. Belonging to the group in England has been a great thing, and in a few weeks I’ll be traveling there to meet up with several of the members as we gather for a few days in Barnard Castle, a small town near Durham. This will be our last real get together as a group. The energies have shifted and participation is ever so slowly dying on the vine. Parts of the trip won’t be easy –  the saying of goodbyes, my fervent wishing that the laughter and conversation could last forever in the face of all obstacles. It is painful in the way of visiting a seriously ill person; the reality is that the fresh ideas and inquisitive spirit of the group are squelched in the shadow of those behemoths of immediacy, Facebook and Twitter. It’s been a spectacular run for an online discussion group, ten years now for the founding members, and there are many lives enriched and changed by dusting up against thoughts about reading and cinema, explorations of The Apprentice and the schlock of B-horror, all for the most part peacefully. There just isn’t a downside to this, other than its sputtering out.

Getting ready to travel lifts me into that state of pleasurable anticipation where thinking about the whole experience comes to the forefront and the mundane gets pushed aside to make way for excitement and wonder. The others in the group are far and away better read than I am; not for one second has this put me off chasing after them in an intellectual sense. I am the pesky American, the one asking questions, drinking it in, feeling excited about the newness of all the different directions to discover in reading and experience. In a sense I’ve been birthed again as a reader and thinker through membership in such a diverse and interesting group.

And yet on a long walk tonight, I thought not only about what a fortunate circumstance it is to travel, but what a happy thing it is to come home. The desk at my new job affords me a window onto the lovely city park here where Abraham Lincoln once debated. There’s a beauty and simplicity about my chosen home town that can make my heart flutter from thousands of miles away. It’s a good place to live, to dwell in what some days feels like an international station for connection with people who are down the street, across town, even across the continent and ocean. Not to mention the one most dear to me who sleeps down the hall and who is like me in his ability to make and keep close ties.

My son is getting to know teens from other places, and I’m amazed at how varied and strong these relationships can be. Last December, one of his closest friends visited here for a week. As I drove the boys home from the airport, somewhere between St Louis and Hannibal I learned for the first time that the boy’s father is prominent within NBC. In all of my exchanges with his mother it hadn’t come up because it wasn’t important. What could have been an awkward chasm of class division never opened, thanks to the graciousness of the boy’s family and my son and his friend. I was pleased to show the young man a Sinclair station with its ceramic dinosaur décor, wild turkeys flocking in a snowy Missouri field, and the lights of Kansas City as we drove in to spend a couple of days celebrating the New Year. My son looks forward to visiting his friend at some point when they can ride the subway and explore city life.

As the big world gets smaller and more navigable, I think more and more about Martin Buber’s philosophy of being open to each experience, each person, as an I-Thou relationship. When I’m available to the complex, indescribable melding that is the chance lying within almost every encounter, I’m open to the Eternal Thou. This is not pie in the sky, nor is it a dreamy state of willful ignorance to problems or conundrums such as class division and out of hand rejection. Rather it is at the heart of solutions small and ultimately larger. It’s the way of reaching out and then returning home to live more fully. I’d like to think that Martin Buber would never acknowledge any notion of mobility as simply “up” or “down.” Truly there is no such thing. There is really only out and back.  Buber wrote, “One who truly meets the world goes out also to God.” Out into the world, back into place.

9 o’clock somewhere

On A Thing Itself

Sometimes insight visits the most unlikely spots…Yesterday morning as I was sunk in the depths of a fragrant bath, an idea bolted my way as one possible reason for some of the gun love Americans suffer. Bear along…

There’s a valid notion that we all reject thought (let alone engagement) within those arenas where our limitations glare. For me, that’s athletics. Not pure sport or the love of play, both areas where I can be reasonably comfortable. But the notion of any competitive team sport participation leaves me with an urge to piss on the spot where it’s even suggested.  I usually dismiss team sport figures as unworthy of a moment’s notice. The announcer’s voice of the high school sports segment coming onto the late local newscast never fails to make me change the channel with a reflexive, nasty snarl. Why?

It has to be the sack race. Yep, that horrible Field Day event in grade school where you’re stuffed feet first into a closed burlap sack and forced to run in a straight line towards all of the teammates that you are disappointing with your clumsy gait and scrawny, losing attempt. Even before the game began, even before the school day began, even before breakfast on Field Day, my palms and armpits were soaked in dread.

The same goes for people who slap away their emotions and who seemingly view intimate connection as hogwash. This is where Mad Men’s Don Draper lives, in the world of incessantly running from his emotional life and using the most convenient avenues to relieve his anxiety over it. He’s the dog chasing his own tail, the guy who can nail an emotion with an idea and use it to tap the current of the human stream without bothering himself to swim there because of the terror that he might drown by his own flailing stroke. Dangling perilously above it all, he’s consumed by the same thing that moistens my hands even now when I dream that some grungy schoolyard gang is choosing sides for the sack race and I’m being scrutinized for my inability.

In the Oxford Dictionary, the word “fear” shares its origin with the word “revere.” To hold in awe. What makes us tremble and sweat can be part of why we hold uncomfortable ideas at arm’s length. There are those who can’t accept the reality of ourselves as flesh and blood, finite beings. Unable to deal with the fear of being physically afraid, I believe these are the folks who load up on guns. These are the people who react wildly and viscerally to any rational discussion of gun control by feeling, in a place way beyond what’s logical, supremely threatened when they are called upon as a group to be accountable.

Trying to imagine what it would feel like living in a home with guns, I wonder how those who own them and keep them to hand might fall asleep with a sense of safety that is different from my own. I feel plenty safe. Still there are those rare nights when I wake up suddenly with a jolt, my heart pounding at some loud noise in the unknown distance. I know that having guns would not prevent my waking, nor the beating of my heart in my ears. Yet I can understand how the notion of adding a violent layer of self protection into the mix might fool someone into feeling that she is putting her fears to bed as she is buying that gun, pushing dread away where she believes she can manage it. For someone like this, a frightened waking in the night could be unbearable.

Human inadequacy is plentiful, and just maybe the trick is to slowly work to feel competent where the gap is greatest. I might sign up for a physical competition of some sort, Don Draper may learn to swim in his emotional current (and move beyond the simpering user Megan), and it’s possible that somewhere in America today a gun owner is dismantling a firearm and turning it in for a gift certificate because she realizes that her fear places her in the greatest danger, and that the end of fear begins with recognition of it for what it is – a thing itself.

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Lights

At my house there is a light bulb that has burned for at least sixteen years, for as long as I’ve lived here. It’s an old incandescent screwed into a motion detector that protects my basement door and garage way. It is a dusty and dirty old thing fastened to a clunkily unsophisticated fixture, and I’ve ceased attempting to clean it in any way, if I ever did. Being motion sensitive, it enjoys long periods of rest, summer days when both leaving and returning home are brightly sunlit even into the far reaches of the garage. Those good days, when the southern and western exposures of the house are filled with the warmth of illumination and the sense of carefree safety, lead me to the lazy assumption that because of its limited use my bulb will last forever. Only in the past few years did I notice the bulb and the fact that I have never replaced it; my attention to its longevity no doubt springs from some unremembered easing into the garage during a bad storm, or a late night out, some small, grateful moment of respite from whatever unease makes us all glad to be home and parked.

Thus, at some point the little-light-bulb-that-could drew my notice, and now it is something that I frequently consider, especially late Sunday night as it blinks to life when I drag the trash bin from the garage to the street. I think about the bulb when the neighbor’s cats come creeping into the yard to fight and yowl, their bodies large enough to trip the motion detector before they slink back into the night. I think about it during fierce thunderstorms when wind and leaves thrashing in black skies batter the little light to shine and at times even remain lit until the storms’ wildest urges subside.

This year I have thought more about the bulb, wondering how long it might last and whether, with the discontinuation of incandescents, I should squirrel away a couple of 100 watters just in case. Speculating about this has led to thinking about more intimate lights, especially in these last days of an excruciating year, one in which it seemed there were fingers of darkness grasping at me from every corner.

I began the year musing about a long lasting security bulb and now end it thinking about other lights that are, for no better way to express it, on the inside of me. There is light to be found in the darkest days of a dim year. In a couple of weeks, the shortest day will pass, trumpeting the heart of winter but bringing a little extra daytime to struggle through it. Those extra minutes of January lead me to anticipate spring, a stealthy excitement that always brings with it energy and renewed focus. Next year my only resolve is to remain alight within, to stay open and soft inside. To this end, I have a reminder, a little chat light on my phone, something I turned on a while ago for someone else but instantly found that I enjoy keeping lit for myself. It’s something that can’t be snuffed out, a token acknowledgement that it’s important to just be myself.

Last night, for the first time, I lit a small menorah and let it shine through my dining room window onto the street below. It’s a symbol of freedom and the fanning of an ember that I’ve held close since childhood, a pull towards Judaism and the God of Moses. In lighting the shamash and speaking the ancient prayer aloud, I felt connected to the same spirit of liberation from oppression that Hanukkah represents. It’s a joyful light, and it feels like the re-dedication of something that feels like faith.

Clearing

I have done a bad thing.

Last week, I hired a local service to remove a sycamore tree from my yard. We, the arborist and I, contracted so that several of his men would appear on a Tuesday morning and obliterate every trace of this large tree, perhaps the tallest in my neighborhood, from the face of the earth. It’s a done deal now, and it is possible that I should not be thinking about this tree and its fate in such a way that compels me to write about it. But, trees sometimes fail to fall as neatly as we would have them do, and I am left here to think and write about it.

You see, the thing about the tree was that it scared me. Its height – what majesty – sprawled up late in the afternoon and feathered over, it seemed, the entire yard behind my house. This most distinguishing feature, and its resultant shade gifting abundance is, of course, what I loved and is yet what brought the tree to ground. I was afraid that it could topple in a storm and crush the roof of my neighbor’s home. The tree had lost some largish branches of late, tired of holding them steady, I suppose. Or, possibly infected with a sycamore ailment (the arborist confidently mentioned one by its scientific name), the tree needed attention and pruning. Any of this – a bit of a trim to growth, a serious look – I failed to provide because of my nervousness about an imagined scene of total collapse which would be messy and inconvenient. The tree definitely needed me to face up to it.

But it didn’t need or deserve what it got.

On the afternoon of the felling, I returned home just as the workmen began the final notching to summon the carefully planned trajectory for my tree’s death. I stood with my son, way back, and watched for over an hour as the chain saw operator tore notch upon notch into the base of the tree, trying to induce the fall. The supervisor became impatient; man hours were costing him more than he could recover from selling any logs. Finally, one of the men used a small bulldozer to push against the tree for it to come down. It did not go easily, and the hard thud of the end is something I did not want to know, or feel.

Immediately after, I walked towards the tree. Before I even reached the stump, I knew that the tree was not diseased, was in fact healthy, and that I would mourn the loss of its green luxury for a long time.

A few nights later, as I lay falling asleep, I thought about how easy it is to remove people from the landscape when we fear the complexity of them and how they make us feel. How honest it is to view them as nuisance, as object, as expendable. How real the aversion to mess and inconvenience. I know that monstrous, careless waste and cruelty both spring from the irrational instinct to remain safe and in control, as I had. As we all want to.

On the sycamore’s last morning, I walked outside early to snap a few pictures. Something in me knew that I was taking the wrong tack, maneuvering to the side with speed and economy when I should have tried to preserve what I treasured. We both would have thrived then. And there would be shade and some cool in a place where now there is none.


Philip Roth – When She Was Good

From May, 2007…

The year was 1967. In America, Roe vs. Wade and Title IX were still five years away, and a proliferation of the saucy-cum-insouciant heroine was unimaginable. A few women were dumping their bras in the trash, or even burning them, and yes, Philip Roth was writing. The title When She Was Good is reminiscent of 60s and 70s aftershave commercials where a sports hero might receive a facial massage from the sleekly scratching hands of a woman being, to his mind, very, very good. The notion of women being better when they are badly behaved is nothing new. But this is Philip Roth, and Roth’s idea of bad-as-good means “watch out”. Thinking of Lucy Nelson as a protagonist is difficult as there is nothing favorable about her. She’s born angry, vindictive, moralistic, and incurable. Only she doesn’t know it. In fact, she never has an inkling of insight and says, over and over, “but I’m good.”

Roth leads us into a sort of mixed sympathy for Lucy. She’s the daughter of a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and his passive wife. Her childhood is marred by the ousting of her father from the home after a drunken bout. But it is Lucy who does the ousting, Lucy who dials the police and breathes the sigh of relief when he is taken away. From that point, she wages war with men, chief among them her hapless husband, Roy, a WWII vet who loves her in a disheveled manner that she just can’t forgive. Philip Roth brings the reader into that mixed atmosphere of sympathy and frustration with Lucy, sympathy for her unplanned pregnancy and a waffling Roy, frustration with her blind spots, and finally an all out rivet as Lucy’s need to control wreaks havoc upon her family and self.

When She Was Good meanders through half the story; then, in Roth’s inimitable way, he strips the veneer and exposes the wolf. Written in realistic style and without any of his trademark humor, Roth struggles to find Lucy’s voice and motivation in much of the novel. She is somewhat weakly written until she begins to unravel, but then what an affair that is! The last third of the book holds fast and will not let go. As Lucy tries harder to get the square peg into the hole, her defenses smack of all their futility and uselessness. Her husband flees from her rages, taking their child and precipitating her shrieking downfall as she continues to demand their very lives. Only when she discovers that her father has been writing her mother all along, for years, is Lucy mortally undone. These simple lines shared by her imperfect parents place the final crack in her brittle casing, and she’s finished.

As years go by–with accelerated speed,
We find with us, an ever growing need
To recall to mind, and a wish to live,
In that glorious past–to re-have and re-give.

We bring to mind–the mistakes we made,
The aches and hurts–that we’ve caused, I’m afraid
Are brought in distinctly–with increasing pain
Till we wish, with all heart–to re-do it again.

Only to do it better–so that the pain is gone,
And make them all the good things, all along.
At least the great wish that would be really mine,
That I could just once more–be your Valentine.

No one does it gooder.

The Observations – Jane Harris

More thoughts from 2007:

The Observations by Jane Harris is many things, funny, gripping, tender and an overall delight. Beneath the skillful use of clever, vernacular dialogue and mysterious goings on are shades of complex relationships and a twinship of longing and belonging.

Bessy Buckley is a worldly fifteen year old, running from a sickly unsavory family member who drives her from 19th century Glasgow into the countryside where she happens upon a run down mansion with a mistress in want of a lady’s maid. She enlists and discovers that her employer, Arabella, is a writer- of sorts. Arabella’s literary secrets and the unknowns surrounding them form the top layer of the novel. This alone makes for an enjoyable read. But there’s more than meets the eye in every way for readers of The Observations. The friendship between Arabella and her young maid carries a whiff of sexual infatuation and the mix of chemistries that can only be awakened when women become close. Jealousies, slights, outright confrontations and misunderstandings pervade the relationship between Arabella and Bessy while they shape the household concoctions of both women.

My fondness for Bessy began as she goes to bed hungry on her first night at Castle Haivers, a handful of parma violets from her pocket meager repast as she falls asleep. She is both child and woman, her shortcomings equally charming as her strengths. Bessy and Arabella become ghost hunters, each searching for a loved friend, Bessy amidst the living and Arabella the dead. The supernatural slice – if it can be called such- of The Observations is more a peek into the power of longing as it casts about for someone who can’t be found, an apparition that might be recognizable to anyone. The device is written lightly and adds an exotic dimension to the story without derailing it. This novel brings to mind two other reads, Alias Grace and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Harris’ use of Glaswegian dialect brings Bessy to life with a cache of humor and dignity. And a knapsack of sorrow which she keeps hidden and only slowly reveals to the reader.

My read of The Observations coincided with a trip escorting my mother to homecoming at our shared alma mater. I was in the last pages by the time we crossed into memory land, and I’ll always associate that weekend with the book and its theme of friends loved and lost. At my mother’s class banquet, the salads contained dandelion greens and pansies; I thought of Bessy’s parma violets as I ate the flowers and watched my mother basking in the company of her friends. The next day I stepped from the warm October sunshine into the cool of the old college dormitory, emptied by a late afternoon football game. Standing in the silent hallway before the door to my old room, number 123, I listened for voices from the past, yearning for laughter that would dispel the years and gather old friends close by once more. Their ghosts were all around. Like Bessy and her mistress, I struggled to make them stay.

Willa Cather – My Antonia

A few thoughts from 2009…

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with reading, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other’s ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman (thinking it possible she had not yet truly met her match) fled to Willa Cather’s home town, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in the dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and a greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that, for some, striking out for the unknown is bred in the bone.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It’s a story of settlers and hardship, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glory, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I’m unable to go further as I’ve absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any novel I’ve read. It’s the story I think about on those occasions when I hop an outbound plane, knowing that I’m never more American than when setting out, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Yeah, baby.

I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.

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