Monday, January 12, 2009

Into a Better Language

I am a minor and ridiculous character in this multivalent/polylingual/pluravocal/endlessly interconnected and reshaped novel that is the Internet.  This web writing itself on the blogosphere moment-by moment as I replace the cursor with letters, as your eyes read, as thousands of others do the same –- the perfect literary artform of our age –- Borges’ Library of Babel, or better Donne's -

library where every book shall lie open to one another.
But that was heaven for Donne. For me, to be writing like Donne wrote – with that wit and roaring – that would be heaven.

Life-shaping moment: second row from the windows, three seats back from the front, cold afternoon light falling in on my desk, high school English. The teacher is droning. I’m leafing through the textbook which opens to Donne’s
Meditation 17 which we would not be studying, which I would never study – and so it has always stayed elemental in my mind, powerfully un-analyzed. My heart begins to pound, the hairs on my arms stand up. Are there flames bursting from the opened page, licking up into my face and neck? In that moment I am burned forever with those rhythms,
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated
with those ideas,
I am involved in mankind –
His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again –
with those turns of phrase,
an excusable covetousness -
a piece of the continent, a part of the main -
but God's hand is in every translation -
even just with the experience of savoring the words, rolling each line over my toungue in wonder -- it's like caramel! -- caramel being at that point of my life the breadth and height and depth of tactile pleasure.

But here, in the present, I am stuck with my plodding self and this pedestrian project – having given myself also the galling parameter of working in a weekly mention of one meal worth remembering: this week of not-Christmas we eat leftovers. Of course. Stuffed into the two last pie pumpkins from the CSA and baked. Memorable? Only because of the curry filling and the tasty toasted pumpkin seeds on the side.  So there you go –

I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.
“Give,” said the little stream,
“Give, oh! give. Give, oh! give.”
“Give,” said the little stream,
 As it hurried down the hill;
“I’m small, I know, but wherever I go
The grass grow greener still.”
Another life-shaping moment: Just over our back fence is a creek. I am maybe three or four, but inside my memory I am the age I have always been. My best friend (Janeal Dusnip – where you are now?) My friend and I both have brand-new garden implements, which I adore like I have rarely adored anything.

Over the fence, the sound of the creek makes the sound of the song – Give away, oh! give away – and I am seized with a beautiful thought: “Let’s throw our garden tools into the creek for the poor children who live downstream!”

My friend does not think this wise, nor desirable, but I am taller than she and impassioned -- my added arm length the more persuasive element of my argument.

I have a clear physical memory of my hand reaching over hers, forcing the white aluminum toys up and over the chain-link fence, tossing them up in a satisfying arc into the water. Those lovely, lovely rakes and spades with their flower-colored handles floating bravely toward their new –- soon to be ecstatic –- owners.

My holy glee, however, is short-lived when two sets of parents descend upon me, the neighbors carrying off my howling betrayer, my parents, deeply disapproving and deaf to reason. I learned from this experience many useful nuggets:
  1. I would have a fatal weakness for the beautiful idea.
  2. I would be misunderstood.
  3. It is good to know what lies downstream –- my mother’s descriptive force made me see (and see still) –- my heave-offering bent and broken like so much trash in the weeds beside the rusted mouth of the underground culvert which lay waiting to receive everything that floated on my backyard stream.
  4. Songs are not always the best guide to action.
  5. There is always another way –- less beautiful but more effective –- to do what you want to do. When you know what you want to do. There is always another way.
And if I knew . . .

When I don’t know what to do, I start divesting.

For example, I decided at the turn of the year that I read too much – yes, I do. The only way I know how to tell what's real, what's frippery is to start cutting. When it hurts to give any more away, that may be a nub worth keeping.

At least by giving up reading (two months at a time) I’m not sacrificing anyone’s toy but my own.

I am still misunderstood. No one believes me, first. When I tell them – they burst out laughing, or bug their eyes out at me – “You’ll never be able to do it.” Or they wrinkle their forehead, worriedly, “Reading's such a good thing. I really should read more . . .  ”

Even when I clarify - one month on (reading at will), two months off (no reading except for

  1. Scripture, warning labels, recipes, correspondence – i.e. functional reading
  2. The Economist (my window on the world)
  3. alphabet (the poem I am memorizing)
  4. books about the Catawba (one of the few tribes to stay in their ancestral lands in South Carolina) – history, pottery styles, and folk tales.
-– they still laugh, “Your non-reading program looks like a reading program to me!” (and yes, they have a point. But this is just a measure of how unrestrained the worm is.) 

Or they say, “If you start with a reading month, you’ll go on reading all year. I know you. Better start with no reading –- if you really mean it?!”

Only one friend nods in understanding approbation when she hears my vow. We understand each other.  Her small house would be dominated by the two looms in the main room except for the entire wall of bookshelves that reaches almost all the way to the peak of the ceiling – loaded with riches. I am trying to finish
one of her favorites before my month is up, and I am lending her one of mine.

I know that I want to write. To finish the novel I’ve been writing and unraveling for too long, the same way Penelope wove and unraveled – or is this just a symbol of what we do until our Telemachi are old enough to fend for themselves?

Turning myself towards this goal, divesting and re-dedicating, I feel around me that creative bevy - Penelope, Christine de Pisan, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Izak Dinesen, Penelope Fitzgerald, Inger Christensen – that cloud of witnesses - women who wrote and wove and who now nod and murmur, reach their hands to my forehead, nudge me forward with a hand on my shoulder, a sharp poke in the back --

Another moment: walking toward a small rural town on the French-Belgian border. Avioth. It is early spring. Fields and trees that feel somehow familiar -- like the fields around the town my dad grew up in, that high mountain valley. It’s the cathedral I’m aiming for, spires rising out of those soft fields. A “crocodile” of primary school children and their two teachers walking across the narrow road, all turning their necks to watch me. The cathedral is tiny –- maybe the tiniest in France. And it is empty. No one is there to let me in, but one door is ajar. Pushing the heavy, carved wooden door I look up –- all the Gothic arch above and all around me is overcarved with images of saints and scripture stories.

Idolatry, comments some forgotten ancestor in my blood –- shocking me a little with its vehemence -- Puritan, Quaker, Danish Lutheran. But look, breathes a more medieval or even older voice in my veins –- and I see how every time a girl from the fields, knowing no books, but reading all these stories of heroines and martyrs at a glance, entered the door, she carried in with her all these others who believed and worshipped with her and paid the price of worshipful belief, and every time she departed through this door, she carried out with her all these friends and witnesses testifying that she too can lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset her, and run with patience the race that is set before her. 

She would never be too alone.

Inside, the tiny cathedral is full of rainbow-colored dust motes and small statues jutting out of the pillars -- incredibly expressive, brightly painted, almost comical if they were not so earnest.  They are like the work of a very gifted child. In a tiny niche near the front: a broken eggshell -- bluish green, a songbird shell -- and a crayon-colored drawing of Jesus in the manger. At the center is a
doll-like Mary holding her Baby, both mother and child are dressed in real clothes of a heavy white fabric and lace, with crowns on their heads.

Back outside the cathedral near the Gothic arch of the entrance is an open stonework
porch? – of some mysterious function.

I’ve since learned (the wonders of
Google) that this child-sized cathedral was built in honor of a miraculous statue found in this very spot, where a thorn bush cast its shade. The people of that day tried to carry the image (carved by angels they believed) to the closest church, but in the night the image returned to the shade of the thorn bush. So they built an oratory there where the stone porch now stands. Later a small church and later still the smallest of cathedrals.

The stone porch has been ever since a site of pilgrimage.  Barefooted parents would come to stand on the cold stone with their stillborn child in their arms. The tower bells would call all the village to gather there and pray together to bring the baby back to life in order to receive baptism and be freed from limbo. The signs of life were perhaps not always indisputable –- because the priest would baptize out there on the cold porch under condition: si tu es vivant . . .

The grateful parents would return to pray their thanks to this clear-eyed and compassionate Mary who granted their little ones respite enough to be gathered and translated into God’s better language.

Am I that barefoot parent this cold morning? Or am I the child, trying to wriggle, trying to make the signs of life? Trying to say, Yes, I am living . . . gather me, translate me, don't leave me here inarticulate and floating . . .


Anonymous said...

Hi M and C!

We received your awesome new year letter! What a great blog you have. We look forward to catching up with you and your family! You can catch up on our family on my C's blog at:


Lisa B. said...

This is lovely. The words you use to describe it --"this pedestrian project"--that's not what it seems like to me. A beautiful work of weaving.

I'm so glad you made a comment on my blog, so now I can read yours.

Linnea said...

I, too, have gotten myself into a bit of a quagmire. I agreed to post a photo a day on my blog for a whole year. As much as I love photography, not every day seems to say "take my picture!" Still we press on ... for honor ... for experience ... for lack of being able to talk ourselves back out of our commitment.

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