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.
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.
A dear friend from college sent me an innocuous e-mail about a month ago, inviting me to participate in National Novel-Writing Month. This is a world-wide challenge to write an entire novel (50,000 words) from scratch during the month of November.
I had been lolling about in between writing projects and cursing my foul luck in the world of agents and magazine queries and such, so I thought “Why not? Write something brand new! Create!” (Picture me here jumping about swirling silk scarves in bright colors.) I had had a novel idea floating around in my head for a few years, and this seemed like a good enough reason to try it out.
So on the 1st of November I plunged right in. Luckily, the date coincided with Daylight Savings Time doing whatever it just did (ended? started? falled back? springed ahead?) AND it was a Sunday, so I had plenty of time to get out of bed, sit down at my laptop, poised and ready to go on the desk in my room, and start ripping. Oh, I was so very Eudora Welty writing next to my unmade bed. (Actually, I NEVER make my bed.)
Now, 50,000 words in 30 days is 1670 words per day. Since I was basically opening the spigot of an idea under a lot of pressure in my brain, the first 1670 words just spewed out. Was it good? No way. But was it started? Yes, ma’am. At least this concept was a’rollin’.
Somehow, although I am one of the least disciplined persons I know, this darn thing has become a mania for me. I get those 1670 words in per day come hell or high water. And I have actually gotten pretty swept up in this odd world I am creating. As of today, I have written over 28,500 words and even have somewhat of a plot (ever my weak link).
At the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing a few years ago, my beloved sister and I split up for one session and K heard a writer – I can’t remember who – who said that writing is like pottery in that you have to make the material first: writing the rough draft is like mixing the clay. Then you can take that stuff and actually make something from it. Similarly, I am mixing my clay together for a novel I have been thinking about for awhile.
Of course the Holy Spirit/Unconscious is one wily bugger. What comes popping up in my novel that originally had no direction? A middle-aged farm wife, marital issues, a corrupt world. And who seems to be working her way through these quandaries? Said middle-aged farm wife. Hmm.
I even got together with my inviter friend for a Nanowrimo write-in with a bunch of Ithacan Nanowrimo-ers. Actually, this was a tad embarrassing. The rest of the people who showed up were all college age or younger. One girl didn’t even have her driver’s license. They were very gracious, but I could see the thought cross their faces “What is this OLD person doing here? Does she have nothing else in her life that she has to write a novel in a month to amuse herself?” But Friend and I had a great visit and did parallel pecking at our keyboards, and a good time was had by all.
I am getting major inspiration from Sting’s new album If on a Winter’s Night available at your local Starbuck’s. The music is awesome and the picture of Sting in a black turtleneck sweater in his Tuscan retreat is also having an effect.
I dare not divulge anything about my book-thing because it is way too amorphous right now and so bizarre that if anyone from my town heard about it, I might lose my job for mental instability, but there is a cat (Jasper), and a love interest who is a combination of my Youngest and Thomas Merton, and there is a hazelnut and leprosy and now I have to go back to writing it. It’s calling to me.
To enjoy the utter coolness of NaNoWriMo, check their website www.nanowrimo.com and plan to do it next year. It is truly a hoot.
Thank you, Friend. I am afraid you have unleashed a monster …
I think that Death Comes for the Archbishop is my end-of-August read because the lovely painting on the cover of my copy is filled with blues and yellows and oranges, the colors of late summer/early autumn. Also, there is something about returning to teaching that calls up what little Bishop Latour I have in me. And of course, woodsmoke. If you have never read this book, don’t let the title dissuade you. Only the last, very-short chunk deals with his death. Most of the book is very lively and uplifting.
…the Bishop sat at his desk writing letters … Father Latour had chosen for his study a room at one end of the wing. It was a long room of agreeable shape. The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had the irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand. There was a reassuring solidity and depth about those walls, rounded at door-sills and window-sills, rounded in wide wings about the corner fire-place. The interior had been newly whitewashed, and the flicker of the fire threw a rosy glow over the wavy surfaces, never quite flat, never a dead white, for the ruddy colour of the clay underneath gave a warm tone to the lime wash. The ceiling was made of heavy cedar beams, overlaid by aspen saplings, all of one size, lying close together like the ribs in corduroy an clad in their ruddy skins. The earth floor was covered with thick Indian blankets; two blankets, every old, and beautiful in design and colour, were hung on the walls like tapestries.
On either side of the fire-place, plastered recesses were let into the wall. In one, narrow and arched, stood the Bishop’s crucifix. The other was square, with a carved door, like a grill, and within it lay a few rare and beautiful books. The rest of the Bishop’s libray was on open shelves at one end of the room.
The desk at which the Bishop sat writing was an importation, a walnut “secretary” of American make. The silver candlesticks he had brought from France long ago. They were given to him by a beloved aunt when he was ordained.
The young Bishop’s pen flew over the paper, leaving a trail of fine, finished French script behind in violet ink.
“My new study, dear brother, as I write, is full of the delicious fragrance of the pinon logs burning in my fireplace. (We use this kind of cedar-wood altogether for fuel, and it is highly aromatic, yet delicate. At our meanest tasks we have a perpetual odor of incense about us.)”
The Bishop laid down his pen and lit two candles with a splinter from the fire, then stood dusting his fingers by the deep-set window, looking out at the pale blue darkening sky. The evening-star hung above the amber afterglow, so soft, so brilliant that she seemed to bathe in her own silver light. Ave Maria Stella, the song which one of his friends at the Seminary used to intone so beautifully; humming it softly he returned to his desk and was just dipping his pen in the ink when the door opened…
Here is a movie of the trip Andy, Elliot, and I took on Lake Ontario. This is Andy at his very happiest – fishing.
(Elliot gets the credit for the ending footage of waves.)
The song is “Wave Over Wave” by Great Big Sea, a band that I love from Newfoundland. All the guys in the band are Irish, Canadian, English majors, and play hockey. Could you ask for more? The guy on the left is Alan Doyle (sigh) who will be in the new Robin Hood movie to be released next year. He is at his most charming in this video of Great Big Sea and the Chieftains singing Lukey’s Boat. My second choice would be Sean McCann, playing bodhran: so stinkin’ cute.
But of course neither one is as charming as my hubbie!
I recently finished reading Patrick O’Keeffe’s collection The Hill Road, named after the first of the four novellas it contains. I was entranced. O’Keeffe is a professor of Creative Writing at Colgate and was the instructor for the short fiction workshop at the Colgate Writers’ Conference I attended. I had the good fortune of hearing him read from a new work and then meeting him afterwards on the last full day of the conference.
I bought his book after the reading, partly because I loved the cover painting called Cottages of Connemara.Two years ago, when I workshopped my novel Wonderful Plans of Old, my group’s favorite chapter was one in which I had imagined an evening in the life of my Irish great-grandparents, and I had set it outside Connemara in Ireland. I have never been to Ireland, nor while I was growing up did I ever hear stories of life in Ireland before my ancestors emigrated. For that matter, I never heard stories of my father’s childhood here in New York. He NEVER spoke about it, leaving me to conjure what I could out of references, imagination, questions, pictures.
What struck me so about O’Keeffe’s collection was how each of the four novellas dealt with this very issue: the task of trying to piece together a story which had never been told, or was only told in snatches under influence of drink or grave illness, leaving me wondering if this trait of Not Talking is endemic in the Irish people. Think of Alice McDermott’s novel Charming Billy, the twisting, winding story of a lie and its truth which had been kept long secret.
Is this tendency Irish? Is it a defense mechanism for any group that has withstood great hardship and dire acts taken out of necessity or despair? Is the same true of Holocaust survivors? former soldiers? Are there certain experiences that are simply too painful for the psyche to bear telling?
Or perhaps the common link, one which ties me to my father, is the Irish tendency toward contemplation. My father’s most characteristic pose was standing with weight on one foot, the other resting in front at an angle or up on something, one hand in pocket, the other leaning on a counter or windowsill, gazing. He would spend long periods of time this way. He did not speak much, but I learned to listen very intently when he did speak, for what he had to say was well worth listening to, forged as it was out of these long periods of contemplation.
My dad was an introvert, which is probably why he wanted to become a writer. He had plenty to say, he just didn’t like to talk. I am the same way. In seventh grade, my Home Economics teacher was Mrs. Williams, a.k.a. “Wimp Williams” because she was so soft-spoken. The most upset she ever got was when we were sewing and students would slam down the presser foot on the sewing machines. She would close her eyes, hold out one raised hand in gentle protest, and say with valiantly restrained anger, “Don’t. Slam. the Presser Foot.” And then we would all keep doing it. (I am really sorry, Mrs. Williams).
She told my parents at a parent/teacher conference that she could see I was “keeping my light under a bushel.” When I heard this, I thought to myself, No, I am just not about to cast my pearls before swine. The problem was that if I actually verbalized what I was thinking, my classmates would have thought me even stranger than they already did. It’s not that the teenaged swine would snout my pearls around in the muck but that it would be ME – my deepest self – that they were knocking through the crap. More emotional pain? Nein, danke.
Also, I truly do not like to talk. The physical act of getting my thoughts to slow down enough to verbalize them, of pushing these ethereal things out through the thick clay of my tongue and lips, and not being able to edit words that have floated out into the air, makes talking one of the last things I like to do. I’d rather write.
Thus my gratitude for the tremendous gift of blogging, and I am guessing this is the case for many introverted bloggers. We’ve got things to say. We’ve got thoughts worth sharing. And we are not afraid to cast them out over the wide waters of the internet. But let it be just my WORDS, in print, no sign of me, my face, my squeaky weird voice.
And not only that, but blogging is also ART. You create a visual product with colors and pictures and even MOVIES. It is like my thoughts – both word and image – incarnated digitally.
Like the little Who whose “Yop!” finally stops those awful monkeys from boiling that dust speck, introverts need a lot of effort to make noise, but we will do it. And in our long periods of thoughtfulness, we sometimes come up with ideas from which other people can benefit. So, what do I write when I write? I tell my thoughts. I tell the secrets of my childhood. I tell the secrets of my marriage. This is beyond Yop! This is doing what I was raised not to do.
Any child of an alcoholic grows up with the unstated but implicit rule “Don’t tell.” Don’t tell what happens at home. Don’t say how you really feel because no one is really there to hear you. But I have learned, against my familial tendencies, to “tell tales.” Why? First, because I have experienced how silence harms: how not speaking, not communicating your shame or fear or anxiety can cause real damage.
Perhaps I read so much as a kid because in authors I found the words to describe what I was not allowed to say out loud, what I never heard anyone one else say out loud, what was difficult for me to say out loud. And hearing from someone else, in another place, thoughts that I had had, made me see I was not alone, I was not so strange, that there were others out there with similar thoughts and problems and ideas.
Last week I was thinking about this in church and we sang this song:
I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life.
Taken and blessed,
broken and shared by Christ
that the world might live.
Lives broken open,
stories shared aloud,
becomes a banquet,
a shelter for the world:
a living sign of God in Christ.
This is the second reason I tell my tales. If this is what we are to be – broken and shared that others might live – then the introvert is obligated to share what she is and what she has: her thoughts, her life, her stories, not as recrimination but as a banquet, an offering of those thoughts and experiences in order to console others by letting them see in print their own deepest and perhaps un-worded thoughts. At least that is what I hope to do, give voice to all those weird and profound and silly thoughts that too many people keep under a bushel.
So thanks, all you blogging introverts out there who are letting your voices be heard, and thanks, WordPress, for letting me Yop! Reader, if you find any pearls here, please help yourself, and feel free to cast your own pearls as comments.
I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.
In addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.
My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.
As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.
One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.
I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.
Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.
I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).
This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.
As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.
However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!
On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.
Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.
I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.
Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.
I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.
When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.
On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.
In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”
Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.
Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.
Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.
Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.
The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.
My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.
All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.
We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)
Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”
Sure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments. Wendell Berry chose farm animals.
I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.
If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.
I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.
This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.
Please share your thoughts …..
Well, a certain commenter has got me thinking about religions and denominations and world views, and at the risk of blabbing my theories all over the internet (but isn’t that what blogging is all about?), I would like to share this poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which is actually a re-telling of a Hindu myth:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
When my children ask me about religion, I always tell them this story about the elephant.
My own zig-zag spiritual path has involved encounters with each of the following:
1 Raised Post-Vatican II Catholic, including the spiritual renewal of the 1980s
2 Assembly of God during high school, including a summer working at an AOG camp and a mega-conference during which I evangelized using the four spiritual truths
3 Living in Japan with a family who practiced the combination of Buddhism and Shinto typical of the Japanese
4 A nameless church that met in homes
5 Collegiate studies in comparative religion that introduced me to Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hindu, Confucianism, etc.
6 Marrying basically a pagan (in the best sense of that word)
7 Discovery of the Catholic mystics
8 Continued reading in a variety of religious traditions: chakras, Kabbala, whatever I run into that feels like Truth.
I hope that where this has finally landed me is in the camp of humility at my inability to understand what is really going on. I fully acknowledge that I am a blind woman running into various parts of an enormous elephant that I am unable to see. I think it is very possible that each of the world’s religions taps into a pure vein of what is the ineffable divinity at the heart of the universe. I KNOW it is very possible that we really haven’t a clue, and that if we WERE to experience the divinity in its resplendent form, that our nervous systems would not be able to handle the load.
In terms of EXPRESSION of spiritual experience and outward communication of and participation with community in spiritual life, I fall back on the experience of Christmas in my hometown. Lockport, New York, was settled by immigrants from Ireland and Italy who found work in America digging the Erie Barge Canal. Because so many settled in Lockport, the city has always been predominantly Catholic. However, there is quite a difference between the Irish-Catholic traditions and the Italian-Catholic traditions.
Take Christmas for example. In my house, we ate potatoes and roast beef and opened one gift on Christmas Eve listening to Nat King Cole and drinking eggnog. Imagine my surprise to find out that my Italian friends had the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What?! Fish!? That’s not Christmas!!!!!
But I am absolutely convinced that the feeling of Christmas in each household is the same. Family. Food. Gifts. Magic. Mystery. Light in darkness. What specific food and music is involved is beside the point. And some people grow up on roast beef, discover the seven fishes through a spouse, and have suddenly found their celebratory home.
Now, if sacrificing small children is what it takes for you to be singin’ and swingin’ and gettin’ merry like Christmas, I am probably going to have a problem with that, in the same way that “killing the American he-devils” might make me think twice about Jihadist Islam or stockpiling weapons to prepare for Armageddon makes the Branch Davidians seem not quite aligned.
But I cling to “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and I keep reminding myself that it is a very large elephant and I am a grasping blind woman. The shelf of “Bibles” that make me feel aligned is large and eclectic. The very fact of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama makes me feel God. The art of Sher Fick makes me feel God. The novels of Haven Kimmel make me feel God. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop makes me feel God.
I am completely open to being told I am wrong about all this. Therefore, I would welcome a discussion here. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or throw in some new ideas of your own.