It has been nearly a year since I posted on my blog – for good reason! First of all, life jumped up and demanded a lot of attention in a big way. Second of all, I have been working on getting the book version of Loving the Tasmanian Devil published, and now it’s out!!
The fabulous sculpture on the cover is an interior view of Kerplunk! by artist Sher Fick. Love her to pieces!!
And now that summer is here, I am hoping I can get back to blogging.
My brain has been so swamped with living my life that I have had no creativity left over for blogging. Hopefully, it will come back after this heat wave passes. In the meantime, luckily, my son Elliot has stepped in and allowed me to post his first movie. His beloved aunt challenged him to take the Bing Crosby version of “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” and create a video of Norwich, NY, our nearest “town,” which truly is one of those quintessential small towns. The story goes that Norwich was only allowed to incorporate as a “city” if it had a certain number of streets, so there are several streets that have different names on either side of an intersection. You will be driving along Borden Avenue, cross through an intersection, and suddenly be on Fair Street. Clever, those founding fathers!
Yes, although the boy is 12, this is very intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Elliot has a very sophisticated level of textual analysis and presentation. He recently read The Catcher in the Rye and noted that because the pace of the narrative was so much slower than the middle grade books he normally read, that Salinger was able to go more in depth about Holden’s thoughts and feelings and he liked this style, was planning to read more adult books. He’s twelve. Here’s the video.
And here is the young movie master. Be watching for him in years to come.
Couldn’t resist adding this one too:
Just to ensure that no one actually thinks I am a saint or anywhere close, I present as evidence the last month and a half of my life. I have been a basketcase. The combination of the flu, a sinus infection, cabin fever, and PMS turned me into a snarling lump of awful. I have been fit company for neither man nor beast, so I have just kept a low profile and stayed under the porch licking my wounds.
However, hope springs eternal and spring hopes eternal, and just as the lilacs breed out of the dead land, so does the creative spirit return out of hibernation.
I was in Western New York to visit my mother and brother and sister on Easter, and I also saw two of my uncles. It gave me enough boost to finish another Kate Bush movie I had been half-heartedly working on. So here it is, with much love to my grandmother Mabel Ruth Kellick and my great-grandmother MaryAnn Elliott, and yes, I know, Mom, the Kellicks were English not Irish. Artistic license.
I realized making this that these magical photographs, which I pored over as a child, had as much to do with my love for farming as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Please excuse Maureen’s one-month absence from her blog. She has been suffering from an extended case of Cabin Fever, both physiological and emotional. She will be back as soon as she is emotionally and physically stable.
To truly understand the significance of the picture to the left, you would have to have experienced my downstairs bathroom as it has been for the past 20 years. I wish I had a picture. The old bathroom had a barf-pink tub and toilet and an ersatz vanity/sink. The floor was two layers of crumbling linoleum, half of which was peeled off and half of which was kind of barely nailed on. I insisted on a plumbing upgrade when the pipes got so bad I was literally showering with a hose in the milkhouse in the barn, hiding behind the bulk tank and hoping to heck the milktruck didn’t pull in. My very pregnant and naked self was not a pretty site. Demi Moore I ain’t. During one Thanksgiving, we made our respective parents pee in the lawn because the septic was so bad. My mom was much in fear of the rooster that was poking about.
We made do with this bathroom until Youngest was born in 1997, when we put a brand new bathroom in upstairs (we didn’t have an upstairs bathroom for the first 7 years, and by pregnancy number three, I was darn tired of waddling down the stairs in the middle of the night). So since 1997, we have had a nice bathroom on the second floor, and we tolerated the pink pit on the first floor. It served its purpose for toilet, brushing or gelling (Middle son) hair, washing the dog. We rarely (read “never”) had guests, and we bumpkins didn’t care where we relieved ourselves. Then the toilet broke, and it would only flush intermittently. AND we have hard water, and calcium and rust accumulate on the inside of the toilet and hold on to the … whatever else is put in there, if you catch my meaning. So it became useless to clean it, and things became worse.
Remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal is in the outhouse and the movie star is arriving? That is not too far off from my bathroom of the past two years. So last spring, in a fit of Spring Fever, Andy and I tore everything out: the cast iron tub had to be smashed to smithereens (lots of fun, actually). I was in charge of ripping off the lovely faux-marble laminate walls and the plaster and lath. We left the sink and the toilet in place, but then the milk price bottomed out and we had to put it all on hold.
But just after Christmas Andy stumbled upon a fabulous deal on flooring so he bought it. And then our neighborhood ace handyman hurt his back and couldn’t work, but he could do some stuff for us. So way-hay and away we go! Suddenly beaded board was going up and toilets were flying and flooring was going down and all of a sudden I have a pretty bathroom. Twenty years is a long time to wait, and it makes the one-year wait on doing this
seem like child’s play. I bought this switchplate in Durham, North Carolina, at Vaguely Reminiscent in April of 2009. I was spending the day with a fabulous bunch of people I had met online and we were all about to go and see Haven Kimmel and Augusten Burroughs. I bought the switchplate saying to myself, “This is the way I want that bathroom to feel.” One year – 20 years – later, I finally screwed it into place. It will remind me daily of that magical trip. But screwing that little thing of beauty to the wall got me thinking.
I don’t know if this is an Asperger’s thing or a first-generation farmers thing, but Andy and I got very used to delaying gratification in the early days. Any entrepreneur will tell you that if you want to succeed in business, you have to suffer through the early years when all the money you make gets shoveled back into the business, and you cross your fingers that some day the business takes off and makes it all worth it. Andy and I were so good at delayed gratification, that we usually just skipped the gratification part. We just went without, went without, went without, one-month splurge when the milk price was high, and then back to went without, went without.
The year 2008 was a record-high milk price year, and the money was a’sloshin’ around like crazy! Andy bought a boat, and the family got a pool. We got a little used to buying a little treat or a little toy or whatever. I confess to over-spending on Amazon Used Books, and Andy overspent on fishing gear. But then the Bush era finally took its toll and the country plunged into a recession.
If the dairy industry is any indication of what is happening in the economy at large, the prospects for recovery are looking grim. Over the past 15 years, the large farms have adopted sexed semen (meaning they have 90% heifer calves) and expansion and anything else that made them personally more profitable, with the result that the national herd is huge and growing, there is more milk on the market than the recessed economy can absorb, and as any economist will tell you, oversupply and shrunken demand equals low prices.
For the big dairies where large volume means that even a small profit margin keeps you in business, this is fine. For us small to medium-sized dairies, a small – or non-existent – profit margin means borrowing to stay afloat and watching years worth of growing sweat equity start to slow to a halt.
Andy (who has THREE Bachelors degrees, one of which is in Economic Theory) and I (who have learned all I know about Economics because I have to teach it) have been talking a lot about the shift that seems to be going on right now. From my perspective in public education, I have seen the past twenty years devoted to preparing America’s graduates to go to college, teaching them critical thinking and theory analysis. When I graduated high school in 1984, that worked. You got yourself a four-year degree, and everyone opened their arms to usher your brainy self in the door. Ask Michael Lewis. Ask Melanie Griffith. If you could think, you were welcome to come on in and help America’s growing companies make some money.
But Andy and I are both feeling like the years of graduating from college and easily attaching yourself to the corporate teat are at an end. First of all, many of those Jamals made it through the latrine, got themselves an education, and will now do what American graduates do better and for one-quarter the salary – and be happy about it! Most American graduates (self included) are so dependent on adhering to big companies or agencies like barnacles that they couldn’t start their own business if you gave them the money to do it. And with money being funneled to keep the economic Titanics afloat, no money is currently available for entrepreneurs wanting to do their own thing, where keeping your job is your OWN responsibility. Besides, what upstart rowboat can compete with the Titanic, even if it is bailing water?
The really frightening thought is that the economy we have known and enjoyed for the past twenty years might be dying away. The economic model we have embraced, enjoyed, and are now trying to save might not be savable.
This hit me pretty hard this past Friday. We had been struggling along between milkchecks until Friday when the milkcheck finally arrived. I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately went out and bought myself swim goggles, fancy soap, a video game for Youngest, and was heading toward Lowe’s to get the medicine cabinet for the new bathroom when I stopped myself. What happened to delayed gratification? Yeah, we had money again, but truly, it was all spoken for already. Had I truly gotten so used to gratifying my desires that I couldn’t wait for my own paycheck a week later to get the bathroom decorations? Maybe, in fact, I might need to wait a month – or even two – to get those pretty baskets and that laundry hamper and that shiny towel rack. Maybe I couldn’t get them at all. And in truth, Jamal would be happy with just having the darn toilet that was already sitting at home.
I fear some serious belt-tightening is going to be called for, and I know that lots of Americans have already had to do it. Part of what Andy and I are feeling is that by the age of 50 (or 43), it shouldn’t be a big deal to buy a cappuccino; we have truly worked our asses off to get where we have gotten with the farm, much harder than our peers who did pursue the big and stable salary. Shouldn’t we be able to buy at least a couple of luxuries in our middle age? Ask the middle-aged folks in Guatemala or the slums of Mumbai.
Could it be that delayed gratification – or no gratification – is going to be necessary in America? And what about the concept of the majority of Americans returning to physical or manual labor? Perhaps the economy is now calling for us all to actually produce something as opposed to spin it, analyze it, market it, train it, teach it, think it, televise it, or turn it into a video game.
As usual, through pure grace, I am currently teaching The Grapes of Wrath in my class. Andy used to joke that America needed another depression to get Americans’ heads out of their butts. Maybe then we WOULD get some Americans who would work as hard as Hispanic workers.
And now the joke is on us. We had lived like the Joads for years as we had started the farm, and like the Joads, we assumed that if we worked hard enough, we could at least have that pretty little white house in the orange grove. But unless everyone on the planet can have the pretty white house, it’s not going to happen. People living in cardboard boxes are going to take the jobs and be happy to upgrade to corrugated metal. And those who want to live in a Pottery Barn advertisement might find themselves replaced by someone who wants the job worse.
I am looking down right now at a Pottery Barn rug, one that I finally purchased after 18 years and with great guilt and trepidation. Maybe it’s the last one I’ll ever buy. And you know what? I have a roof over my head, more flesh on my body than I need, a job that I don’t think is going away, and healthy kids.
This was real:
And so I should consider this to be as much or more than I deserve in this lifetime. I used to think I would have been quite the survivor had I lived through the Great Depression. It might be that I’ll be finding out whether that is true.
It is 10 below zero here today, and I just finished the perfect book to read when it is this cold. It also occasioned one of those happy confluences when a favorite children’s book suddenly appears in adult form and is equally good. I have probably read Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink 30 or more times. Of course I had discovered Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons and then Two Are Better Than One and Louly by third grade, but then when I discovered Winter Cottage, something about it made it my favorite of her books.
I finally had a name for the reason after I read The Poetics of Space in college, and recognized what Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity” or the sheltered, small, hidden space that allows the spirit to roam freely. Bachelard’s contention is that such phenomena are ontological and that we experience them when a writer is able to express them for us. I experienced intimate immensity when I read Winter Cottage.
The protagonist is Araminta Sparks, called Minty, who is on her way to Chicago with her sister Eglantine (Eggs) and their father Pops. It is the midst of the Depression, and their car breaks down on a back road they have accidentally turned onto. They find a summer cottage on a lake and “break in” to spend the night. Because they are hauling all the canned goods from Mr. Sparks’ failed grocery store, they eventually decide to winter there, planning to leave “rent” for the landlords whom they do not know.
Moving on to North of Hope. I had discovered the Loyola Classics series in Fall of 2008, and after I bought and read In This House of Brede, I made it known that I would like several more from the series. My lovely husband bought me three for Christmas last year, including North of Hope because Andy knows I like books about hardship, cold, Native Americans, and Catholics. Besides, look at that cover. Is that not lovely?
When the weather turns cold and nasty here, I usually pull out The Shipping News or Alistair MacLeod’s Island to make me count my blessings, but this year I picked up North of Hope. (I would also suggest Peace Like a River in this grouping). Jon Hassler is new to me, but I am now going to run out and read more of his books. He was a high-school English teacher and then taught college, later becoming Writer in Residence at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.
North of Hope focuses on Father Frank Healy, a priest having a crisis of not so much faith, as hope. He returns to his hometown parish to sort this through and is reunited with his best friend/almost girlfriend from high school Libby, who, though not religious, is similarly facing a crisis of hope as she deals with her manic-depressive daughter, drug-dealing doctor husband, and her own rekindled passion for Frank. These two spend a winter supporting each other through some true tragedies, and find in each other’s Platonic love and support, the means to find hope once again.
Reading Winter Cottage on a cold day is like drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows. Reading North of Hope was like drinking very strong espresso with maybe a shot of whiskey: adult, realistic, true, bitter, and yet still warming. The epistle from this morning’s Mass readings was from First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a woman, I put aside childish things.” As a woman I have not totally put aside childish things; I still read the Little House books and I still read Winter Cottage. As a child, these books were an escape into another world, a rural, character-building place I wanted to be. And when I reread these books now, they do rekindle that romantic, adventurous feeling that inspired me as a girl.
But now I LIVE in that world, where things are rural and character-building, and I cherish the tales of adults facing these hardships with courage and integrity. Frank Healy is my grown-up Minty Sparks. The other time I had a similar book confluence was when I discovered Willa Cather’s Prairie Novels and had found the adult equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Alexandra Bergson is now my role model as much as ten-year-old Laura was.
In addition to the tough weather-beaten and life-beaten heroes I sought, I was also looking for books that created that “intimate immensity” of a small, warm, protected place in the midst of the snow and the chaos and the hardship. I think even as a kid I kind of knew that life could be a tough journey, and I girded my loins by finding heroines who took it on bare-handed and adult characters who provided safety and warmth. There is Pops at left, making his famous pancakes. That kitchen is warm, and light, and smells good. At right is Pops playing chess by the fire. It’s cold outside, and Minty’s mom is dead, and they have no home or money, and yet they have made a place of safety.
In North of Hope that place of safety and warmth is much more abstract, in the way that adult things are. One character dies when his car goes through the ice, another is hospitalized in a mental clinic, another comes close to throwing herself in front of a train. There are no places of comfort for many of these characters. Frank has to find that place inside himself, as do the other troubled characters in the book. Most of them feel North of Hope itself, and hope IS that warm place by the fire. The hard thing in adulthood is creating that Winter Cottage metaphorically. And within.
I have met so many wonderful people as a result of this blog. It is nice to know that my random ramblings have been helpful to other spouses of Aspies. I have had the good fortune to chat with several of these people by e-mail in a more confidential setting. I thought it might be nice to have a protecteed chat space where we could “talk turkey” about day-to-day life in an NT-AS relationship. So I have added a page at right that is password protected and only for those married to an Aspergian. If you have already corresponded with me by e-mail, please e-mail me and I will send you the password. If you are a spouse and would like the password, please e-mail me for it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a new colleague at work this year. We have lots in common: we are the same age, we both have three boys at home, we both teach these bizarre hybrid courses. But in many ways, we could not be more different. She is tall and blond; I am short and brown-haired with glasses. Her husband owns the country club; my husband owns a dairy farm. She is very organized; I am … not.
But here’s the most startling difference. The other day she referred to her husband as “the morning guy” in terms of kid duty. And then she described him: He goes to work out at the YMCA at 5:30 AM, comes home, makes coffee and brings my colleague a cup in bed, gets their kids up, makes them a big breakfast, gets them out the door, and then cleans up the dishes. My colleague has come downstairs by this point to join them for breakfast and say goodbye. Her husband leaves for work, my colleague takes a shower and heads to work herself. (NOTE: take her job and add to it five English classes, and that’s my job.) She is a gracious and lovely person and said she was so grateful that she could stay home and raise their kids and wait to find a job that she really loves.
For a typical day in MY life, please refer to Tuckered-Out Duck: A Day in My Life.
Now, let’s assume that F. Lee Bailey was speaking the truth and that Patty Hearst was brainwashed by her kidnappers into joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. And let’s also imagine that on April 15, 1974, she for some reason snapped out of it and found herself in the middle of the Hibernia Bank heist.
I imagine her suddenly looking around, looking down at herself holding an M-1 carbine, and saying “What the …”
That is exactly how I felt during this conversation, as if I suddenly snapped out of my 20-year relationship with My Favorite Aspie and found myself saying “Wait … THAT’S a normal marriage? What the heck is this that I’m doing?”
I am sure other people also wonder that as they look at my weird life. Every once in a while someone witnessing my husband and me together will give me pointed looks as if to say, “You don’t have to live like this. There are places you can go” or alternately “I don’t know how you put up with him.” I have actually had people say that exact sentence to me, and I have given them the innocent questioning face, as if to say, “What? All’s normal here.”
I had a similar “What the …” when I read Home Safe over the summer. WARNING: NT wives with AS husbands, do NOT read this book, especially if you are a wannabe writer. Read every other thing Elizabeth Berg has ever written but avoid this one at the risk of anaphylactic shock.
Now, I truly adore Elizabeth Berg. I eat her books like pancakes off a stack. And I have seen her in person: she is lovely and gracious and her books are all warm-hearted and magnanimous and read so smoothly it’s like drinking the best ever cup of cocoa in book form, but I just about threw Home Safe across the room in despair.
The basic plot is this: The protagonist is a successful writer who, for the twenty years of her marriage, has every day rolled out of bed and to her computer in her pajamas to write while her husband takes care of EVERYTHING ELSE. As the book starts, she has been a widow for almost a year (I truly was saddened by this) and she is trying to get herself restarted. She suddenly finds out that her husband has taken a big chunk of their investments and purchased a house in California, which he has had custom-redesigned and redecorated in order to create exactly what he knows is her dream house, right down to the bookshelves filled with all her favorite children’s books, a fieldstone fireplace, a pie safe, a six-burner stove, a bathroom with artisan tiles and a shower with its water falling over a rock ledge, French doors leading from bedroom to garden, a small wooden shed outside for writing, a treehouse shaped like a ship’s cabin.
I’ll stop there before I cry. First, I fully recognize how much I have personally given up to make the dream of the farm come true (giving up any of my writing ambitions in the process), so this protagonist’s pre-widowhood life is beyond my imagining. Second, it is astronomically far outside the realm of possibility for Andy to know and create my dream house. It’s not his fault; it’s the Asperger’s: limited Theory of Mind ability, limited empathic response, and whimsy regarded always as unnecessary and illogical not to mention inefficient.
In thinking about this recently, I know there are several very logical reasons why it took me so long to really realize that something was a bit amiss and that our marriage situation was somewhat askew.
REASON ONE: Kid Sister Complex
I am the youngest of my family, younger by five years than my sister and younger by seven years than my brother. I grew up as the little tag-along, always clueless, always mocked, always sure that EVERYONE knew more about how to act and what to do than I did.
Andy is seven years older than I am. When I met him, I was going through a Linda Ronstandt phase, of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra “What’s New” album era, and I was constantly crooning “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good, to one who’ll watch over me.” Yep, looking for a father/big brother figure. I confess it. And so I always assumed Andy knew better. He was much older. He was an A-Dult and I was a kid. I followed his lead. Easier and cheaper to paint every single interior wall off-white? I guess so. Every once in a while I would cock an eyebrow and question something, but rarely. I figured, Older is Wiser.
I also grew up in a dysfunctional family, loving but influenced heavily by alcoholism. I knew my family was not normal. I avoided bringing people to my house. I did not talk about what was happening at home. And I therefore saw all other families as infinitely more normal than my own. My in-laws, therefore, seemed paragons of normal. After all, they were both medical professionals, had a nice house and a vacation home, recreated with other adults, cooked gourmet meals. My family did none of these things. I assumed I was marrying into an incredibly normal WASP family and would be immersed into normal by means of their eldest progeny. Any choice of Andy’s I assumed to be normal with a capital N.
We knew, walking into the agricultural world, that nothing in our lives would be quite like other college graduates’ lives. Also, Andy was the Ag major. I was English/Art. I knew nothing about farming (besides what I had gleaned from the Little House books) and that meant that whatever I was told about anything related to the farm I took at face value. Also, we did nothing but work and worry for fifteen years. Work and worry, worry and work. Our situation economically and ergonomically was so outside the norm that all other components of it – including our marriage relationship – were assumed part of the lifestyle marginality. Work from 3:30 AM until 9 PM seven days a week? Normal, considering the circumstances. Constantly do things for the farm, never the house? Normal. Every cow problem a fatal catastrophe? Must be. Him’s the Ag major.
We are isolated here. I mean isolated. The long days, the far-away family, the lack of time for friends, the ten-mile drive to town, the five-mile neighbors. We had no real reflection of our lives in the eyes of friends or family, no one to pull me aside later and say, “Uh, Mo? Is everything alright?” Our families did this sporadically (Andy’s mother even said to me once “I do NOT like the way Andrew speaks to you”), but much of the odd behavior I was able to explain away by the omnipresent stress of starting the farm.
This one’s a stretch, but worth examining. According to the net’ s most reliable source of information, Wikipedia, Stockholm Syndrome explains an abductee’s or hostage’s love and loyalty toward his or her captor. The psychological explanation is that people will not allow themselves to remain unhappy for long because it causes cognitive dissonance. To resolve the dissonance, the person psychologically manipulates herself into being happy in the situation in which she finds herself, i.e. “I LOVE my captor. I CHOOSE to be under his control.” The other explanation likens the psychological strategy as akin to newborn attachment phenomenon. It is wise to attach to the nearest source of food and warmth since survival depends on it. And so, I was grateful for any let up in the endless grind. “My husband let me sleep in until 5 this morning! Isn’t he kind!”
But, there’s hope. I did find out about Asperger’s and can now differentiate between AS behavior and normal behavior. All this reading and breaking out of the NT-AS thang has liberated me from my blinders. Yeah, I’ve ruffled some Aspie feathers, but there’s a lot at stake here, especially my sanity.
Here’s Patty Hearst after her release from the Symbionese Liberation Army, with her former body guard, then fiance. Look how stinkin’ happy she looks! And look at that man – Is he going to ask her to lift a finger? No way. It’s going to be all about Patty. You go, girl! If you’re going to have a man with a gun glued to your side, make him not a captor but a bodyguard. And remember, you might have to be the one explaining to him which one to be.
My oldest son created this one day when he was bored. I think it’s brilliant. He made it about four years ago, thus the spelling errors.
It’s even funnier to those of us who live here because we can name most of the people in the vehicles that go by. In the white station wagon is the wife of the guy who fixes our cars. She is on her way into Norwich to buy car parts for her husband. They live in a strange enclave in the woods, built into a hill so that half is underground. We call it The Bunker. For the first many years we dealt with him, we were instructed to leave our car up on the road with the keys in it – not to drive down into the property. For a long time we suspected he was in the witness protection program, but now we just suspect they are older hippies. We also suspect they might be practicing nudists because sometimes we’ll stop at the house to pay our bill, and they have obviously just thrown on robes. Great mechanic. Cheap prices. Life in backwoods New York.
The truck that pulls in the driveway is our trucker Sue who takes our old cows to auction when they need to go. Sad but true. By some fluke of the camera, the film slows her down and then speeds her up. I laugh every time I watch it.
The other smaller car that pulls in is the artificial insemination guy. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll leave you to figure it out.
There is a surprising amount going on if you know what you’re looking for!
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In this poem TS Eliot gives voice to the mysterious kings who, once they have seen the infant Jesus, return home unable to not completely change their outlook on life and religion. Yet they do not mourn this loss of old certainties, insisting they are happy to be shed of obsolete beliefs. The Magi were led to experience this world-view revolution by the words of a prophet, what Flannery O’Connor called a “realist of distances,” one who can describe in detail what is yet to come because of lucid understanding of what currently is.
In Quaker writer Haven Kimmel’s fictional gem The Used World, Hazel Hunnicutt, proprietor of the eponymous Used World Emporium, is such a prophet. She sees what is distant by discerning the purest essence of what is and urging it into new combinations. Her most significant “arrangement” in the novel, and what drives the plot, involves her two employees: 40-something Claudia Modjeski, a six-foot-four androgynous woman living alone and mourning the death of her beloved mother, and 20-something Rebekah Shook, disowned by her Pentecostal father after she becomes pregnant by her first-ever lover, the decidedly non-Pentecostal Peter. This new arrangement also involves a baby boy, “stolen” after being orphaned into the meth-addicted biker gang Hazel’s own sister has fallen into, as well as a pit bull, abandoned by and rescued from the same.
The new story that is created here is ingeniously formed by Kimmel from elements of the old. Narration of the present-day lives of the main characters is interspersed with chronologically presented flashbacks to Hazel’s childhood and early adulthood. In these scenes Hazel, who early in life is “marked” for prescience by an owl, learns to differentiate between those acts that demonstrate pure love – though they might not be socially accepted – and “antique” traditions that deserve casting off when what they produce is pain and suffering. Hazel’s past and present circumstances call for quite challenging acts of discernment, from evaluating her mother’s work with unwanted pregnancies and her own repressed love for her best friend to the proper response to her sister’s addiction and to a fledgling lesbian relationship. Kimmel does not portray these acts of discernment as easy, nor should she. She opens such perennial powder-kegs as illegitimacy, homosexuality, and abortion, all flash-points that persist throughout human history, elicit changing societal responses as humanity evolves, and remain controversial because they are so complex.
The “theological” opinions voiced in the book contrast Rebekah’s father Vernon, a member of The Prophetic Mission where “the cruel, the stupid, the kind and the good alike believed they were the conduits for the direct revelation of Yahweh,” and Amos Townsend, pastor of the Church of the Brethren. The principle difference between these two is the degree of certainty with which they assert their beliefs. Where Vernon Shook continually reaffirms his own incontestable convictions, Amos humbly questions his own claims even from the pulpit. While Amos mistrusts the idea that anyone can thoroughly understand Jesus and so speculates more than pontificates, he does avow those truths he knows to be everlasting, especially the truth that God is Love and is revealed through love.
Throughout the book, in both image and theme, Kimmel contends there is much in life to preserve because it is good, but there is also much that should not be clutched merely because it is old. Acts of loving responsibility, symbolized by Claudia’s mother’s preserves and Rebekah’s mother’s recipes, shine out against the micro-waved meals of Claudia’s married-with-children sister Millie and the immature instant-message romance of the self-centered and two-timing Peter. These two, dubbed the New Mother and the New Man, have left the past completely behind but have also, unfortunately, abandoned those elements that were most worth saving.
On the other hand those who cling too fiercely to their outdated beliefs – Vernon and Hazel’s father Albert – leave destruction in their wake when the “truths” they cling to are divisive, vindictive, self-serving, and intolerant. Those characters unwilling or unable to sort the treasure from the junk are left to suffer at their own hands, while those who adapt and move on, doing what love asks of them, thrive and grow. Kimmel challenges us too to retain what things are true, honest, just, pure, and lovely but to also be open to the new and sometimes unexpected ways these can be combined. The only test, and every great agape practitioner from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day would agree, is the question What is love asking of us now?
Haven Kimmel, whose hysterically funny memoir A Girl Named Zippy launched her onto the New York Times Bestsellers List in 2002, employs the same down-home humor in The Used World. But here in the world of fiction, Kimmel can employ even more nuance in her craft. Her symbolic touch throughout is simultaneously subtle and ever-present. The novel can simply be enjoyed as a gripping tale and yet the watchful reader discovers constant nuggets of pure philosophical gold, just as the persistent antiquer consistently finds new treasures in her favorite store. For example, the epigraph for Part Two from Luke, “the child in my womb leaped for joy,” literally describes Claudia’s reaction to the arrival of the pregnant Rebekah but also posits these two as a modern-day Elizabeth and Mary. Even such Judeo-Christian mainstays as a flood, a mob called Legion, and a woman saltily looking back read as seamless plot elements, especially as they are mixed with non-Biblical archetypes such as an Old Road, animal familiars, and three-headed dogs.
And this is indeed Kimmel’s point. There is only one story, one rock of permanence, one eternal word, and that is compassion. The impermanent and ever-changing face of history’s artifacts should not be worshipped. If the Word Himself calls us to anything it is to caritas, in whatever unusual and unexpected combinations this might require. It could be an illegitimate baby born to country folks in a stable and worshipped by royalty. It could be a woman accepting the love of another woman and raising a stolen child. The Magi say that what looks to be birth turned out to be death. And in The Used World what looks to be death turns out to be birth. The suicidal Claudia, the maltreated infant Oliver, the exiled Rebekah, the frantically despairing Millie and even the still-bereaved Hazel find new life in the odd arrangement a blizzard in Indiana hurls into place. As Hazel says, “There is wild change afoot, and you must be brave enough to not only endure it, but to embrace it, to make it your own.” And to do so, Kimmel maintains, always with compassion.