Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perrennial Modern Classics)

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Better Late Than Never: On Blooming as a Reader

I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction.  The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?"  My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors.  My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens.  We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child.  I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button.  Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically.  Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally."  Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying).  Where had this kind of reading been all my life?  I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading.  The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading.  In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them."  I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late.  I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life.  But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation.  I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual.  Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement."  I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern.  Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett.  I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it.  At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder.  I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy.  It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.   Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence.  You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy.  Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare.  I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way.  But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it.  Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance.  Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better.  I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.  At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity.  But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --"  (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.)  Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions.  I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now.  Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives.  Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated.  The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia

No Place Like Home

1. I had a strange dream recently, and I haven’t been able to forget it. This is unusual for me. I tend to dream a lot, and vividly, in multiple layers, and all that vividness and layeredness will typically slosh around in my mind for a few moments when I first transition into consciousness; but by the time I’m stumbling into (then out of) the bathroom, I can’t remember a thing. (I know people say you should keep a notebook by the bed; but once my eyes are open, and I’m hauling myself over to the nightstand, click-clicking a pen, the essence of the dream escapes me even faster. In my experience, words can generate highly detailed dreamscapes, but not the other way around.) The dream took place in my childhood home. More specifically, the home I lived in between the ages of 5 and 13. In the dream, I open the closet door in my bedroom and find torn plastic wrap and wrapping paper all over the floor. I stomp into the hall and find a girl I don’t recognize, and my two sisters. My sisters are adults in the dream, but they aren’t really my sisters, they are weird versions of my sisters, much more matronly than my actual sisters and sort of 1950s-ish. Suddenly, I am an adult, too (in my bedroom, I had been my child self opening my child’s closet), and it becomes clear that the unfamiliar girl is the culprit: she has a roll of wrapping paper in her hand. Then I am a child again and I tell her to please not make a mess in my closet. She rolls her eyes and folds her arms and starts talking. One of my sisters also starts talking, and then the other. I can’t make out exactly what they are saying, they are talking loudly over each other, but basically, they are making it all out to be my problem for being fussy about my closet floor. I grow angry – that dream-anger that is so frustrating, because you can’t express it, like you’ve got lead in your throat, akin to running dreams where you’ve got lead on your ankles. Finally, I manage to spit out these words: “What I really need is to be able to come out here and say that there is wrapping paper all over my floor and to...” And this was where I woke up. But the dream – and this is weird, too – sort of continued as I woke. I finished my sentence – possibly out loud, but more likely in my head – “...and to be able to just state it as a problem. Without anybody telling me that the problem is my fault.” The feeling of anger – what I needed to spit out as a result of the dream – was so clear, so sharp. I am always humbled by how transparent, psychologically speaking, my dreams are. After the dream, and the half-waking continuation of the dream, I drifted into a slightly yet more conscious state, though still in bed and not completely awake (probably I rolled over and scrunched up the pillow under my head); and I started to feel sad. Sad about the dream, and my “issues,” and all the ways in which that particular species of anger pervades my life. 2. But that’s not what I want to say about this dream. The dream continued on (or I guess it ceased to be a dream at this point, strictly speaking, more like an involuntary imaginative exercise) as a journey through that childhood house. I haven’t thought much about the house in recent years; there were three houses after that during high school and college, none of which I really lived in, since I was away at school, moving from dorm room to dorm room, summer sublet to group house (and then after that on to a string of apartments and houses, the west coast then back to the east coast, etc.). I remembered all the rooms and different areas of the house: the wood paneling on the walls and the scratchy synthetic carpet and the musty coolness of the basement TV room where I used to watch What’s Happening and General Hospital after school. I remembered the burn marks on the ceramic stovetop and the medicinal smell of ginseng tea simmering overnight and the pantries stocked with Ichiban ramen and Chunky Soups and the sliding doors that looked out onto a pebbled patio we never used and the yellowing mattress skirts and the plastic suction noise that the doors between the kitchen and the family room made when you opened them or shut them and the fake crystal chandelier hanging over the dining table that was always missing crystals because my sisters would climb up on the dining table and pilfer them so they could pretend they were earrings. I lay there, and all of it washed over me; I moved through the house, like a ghostly cinematographer. I was recalling to consciousness what it felt like to live in that house, emotionally, sensorially – as a six year-old, an eight year-old, an eleven year-old, and everything in between; alone, with parents or sisters or school mates, doing something, doing nothing, in this room, in that room; every moment or image that had, for whatever reason, stuck around in my brain. And then I grew sadder. Because no matter how hard I tried – and I was really trying at this point; I was all in, working at it – I could not bring forth a single good feeling. Happiness, peacefulness, joy, warmth, comfort, silliness, wonder. Not a single one. Evidently that house, wrapping paper or no wrapping paper, was for me a place only of fear and unease. It was not exactly a new revelation to me that my childhood was not a happy one; but the way in which the Me who has been formed by those feelings and memories lived all those moments and days and years in those rooms, in that place, was something new. The dream, and the semi-conscious journey that followed, made stark (in that slanty way that probably only a dream can effect) how placeless and out-of-body modern life can be. At the risk of stating the obvious: isn’t it strange, I mean, this thing about being a human being breathing and thinking and sensing and dwelling always, always, in a place? 3. My estrangement from a happy or anchoring childhood place – that is, my estrangement from place as home – seems to have propelled me toward literature that is rooted in what American southerners sometimes call “home place.” Early in my literary reading life, my bookshelves were stacked with regional literature – Thoreau, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of Wendell Berry’s Port William novels and stories, Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce's Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Stuart Dybek, Mary Oliver, Tony Earley, Jane Kenyon’s poetry and prose, Donald Hall’s Life Work, and Jimmy Carter’s An Hour Before Daylight – all of which spoke to deep, spiritual ties between soul and land, individual and community. I read all these for antidote, for counterweight: for, beginning with my parents’ immigration from Korea to the U.S. – no, before that, when their families fled this city for that city, this region for that region, because of war – my life was all but fated for disconnection. From place, from community, from home-ness. In those days I read – as many people do, I think, and as I still do – for consolation. So while New York City became a logical place to live, because so many New Yorkers are from elsewhere, or nowhere, like me, my reading life for a long time was populated by people of place, people who consider themselves very much from somewhere. 4. But writers, as a breed, are no strangers to either literal or psychic exile. At The Faster Times, Josh Garret-Davis writes: We moderns seem to have developed an exceedingly complicated, ungrounded relationship to place — and, if I had to guess, I’d say readers of literary magazines probably have some of the most balkanized inner geographies. Few of us live where we grew up [...] We experience place through research or through evocative photos, movies, and — most to the point here — works of literature. It is from an external vantage point that a writer captures the essence and authenticity of a place he knows intimately. The writer of place is most often both member and outsider; skillful straddler; translator. He has split loyalties, between the flesh-and-blood people of here and now, and an abstract, timeless humanity. He has left the home place for a time, then returned (Berry, Hall, O’Connor); or has left and revisits by memory (Joyce, Carter, Earley); or has arrived later in life and stayed a long time (McCarthy, Proulx, Kenyon, Norris). Two central challenges confront the writer of place: “Caught up in life, you see it badly. You suffer from it or enjoy it too much. The artist, in my opinion, is a monstrosity, something outside of nature.” (Flaubert) “And he said, ‘Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.’” (The King James Bible, Luke 4:24) In other words, in order to see a place, its essence, the writer can never be a full member; he must stand apart, see into the heart of the place, its beauty and its demons, and he must report truthfully. Given this, his work will always be regarded with a measure of skepticism by the inhabitants, the subjects of his penetrating gaze. 5. What is a modern sense of place? Jennifer Acker, editor of The Common, a new print and online journal that takes the phrase as its tag line, has given this a lot of thought.  In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, she says: The increasing use of digital technology does not mean place is no longer one of the most fundamental forces in our lives. It is. Where we are from and where we live and how we embed or distance our selves from our environments and their cultural influences are central to our relationships and perceptions, and therefore our art. And in the introductory note to The Common’s first print issue, she writes: Where are you from? is still a relevant question [...] We can’t extricate our selves from our places, nor would we wish to. Themes of place, including exile and exploration, provoke us to reflect on how we live; they fascinate, unsettle, and comfort [...] our mobile modernity creates a hunger for place-based ruminations. Literature provides the vehicle for these travels. Appropriately, the editors' commitment to publishing The Common in print is, in Acker’s words, “unwavering.” A print version “reinforces the fact that we live and read and create in physical communities.” Not to mention that Issue No. 1 – which features prose and poetry by the likes of Ted Conover, Fiona Maazel, Sabina Murray, Lauren Groff, Mary Jo Salter, Rafael Campo, new translations of Marina Tsvetaeva by Catherine Ciepiela, Honor Moore, and newcomer Maura Candela, among others – is a beautiful book-object indeed (design by Gabriele Wilson). I’m glad for the emergence of a journal like The Common and agree with Lisa Peet of Like Fire who wrote that Issue No. 1 is “both dense and lush, something to take the time to read through and then revisit. It’s a keeper, well worth the $20 subscription price for two issues yearly.” But strangely, after spending some time with it, both print and online, I found myself most absorbed in an online-only feature called “Dispatches” – short evocations of particular places. In these 30 vignettes (and growing), “dispatched” to us from Cairo, rural Texas, Alaska, Santo Domingo, Ethiopia, Poland, Baja, Tuscany, et alia, we are reminded that when a writer evokes place, she evokes an entire way of being, seeing, navigating existence – the enormity of human experience via finely observed particulars. As much as I long for a real home-place, some coherence to my own balkanized inner geography, it’s ultimately in this scattershot pointillism – the experience of reading these 30 elegant blips not unlike that of a vivid and layered dream (though exhilarating not saddening) – that I seem to find my nowhere-somewhere, a peculiar feeling of home; my modern sense of place.   Image credit: bean*mama/Flickr
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