I am reading a set piece from Jules Renard’s “Journal.” He is at a party for Edmond de Goncourt. All of literary and political France is there: Paul Claudel, Georges Clemenceau, Alphonse Daudet. Reading his descriptions of them, the “ashen head,” the “abrupt voice,” the way Daudet and Goncourt “pressed each other’s hands under the table” brought me there, put me in their midst. ‘When you shake his hand,” writes Renard of Goncourt, “it feels soft and wavering as though filled with the water of his emotion.” How perfect!
The Buxton School magazine came yesterday. It was a feast of honesty and humor. Excerpts from two graduates’ speeches:
“I made deals with God every night that I would be nice to my sister for an entire month if, at the end of said month, He would activate my latent psychic abilities.”
(His first impression of Buxton kids) “ They spoke to each other about intimate subjects and appeared overjoyed to be with each other in this shoebox in the mountains. Great, one big happy family. I wanted to leave immediately.”
Reading class notes energizes me. These human beings are so vital and extended: “I am alive and well in Olympia, Washington, moving away from camera repair, playing music with the ‘Fishtrap’ band,” “I’m a horticulturist at Battery Park’s Conservancy…” “I am very grateful and happy for my life,” “I’m in Pocatello, Idaho beginning the pursuit of a Masters of Sciences degree…”
These are lives ripening with fruit. Of course, the depressed alumni don’t write but it is energizing to read of the ones who aren’t.
I am always battling between hope and habit. In the beginning hope triumphs. Habit, realizing it is not a match, leaves the ring. But after awhile hope becomes complacent, doesn’t stay so alert and on its toes. Then habit steps back into the ring and starts to bring the weight of years worth of habitual footwork to bear. Hope is demoralized. But this is where memory can play a role. Memory reminds hope of what to do to regain itself, plays back the earlier days when habit was broken and the way was clear.
“What made you think about this?” asked my friend, Judy, when I read her the above.
“Gaining back lost weight,” I replied.
The other Sunday we drove by a storefront church in Ashland and I caught a glimpse of a little girl in a smocked dress with puffed sleeves skipping alongside her parents who were going to the church service inside. I thought of her as a child returning to a story, hearing new chapters from the pulpit from the minister. Good stories create good-sized congregations. Weak stories empty the pews.
September is a yellow month. The gullies by the road are choked with yellow daisies. The Papoulakos’ fields are full of sunflowers which I cut by the armful yesterday and distributed around town to friends. My own house has vases full in every room. Several times I returned to the Papoulakos’ with a camera but sunflowers are not photogenic en masse, or so I discovered. Like bathing beauties on a pier, they don’t stand out from one another. But put a few in a vase on a window sill and it’s a different story.
Last night at the Abbotts, the lawn was jumping with little children running around with flashlights in the dark. They will remember those late summer evenings, with their parents sitting on the deck at one remove, all their lives. There was something soft and privileged about the whole scene – a large house full of sunflowers and granite counters, bright faces and minds. I was full of affection for everyone there. The Abbotts and the Foleys next door are a nexus in the neighborhood. Life gravitates to them. They are like a field full of healthy plants blooming vigorously. Basketballs bounce, trucks arrive, doors slam, chickens lay eggs, jokes fly. Young Jimmy Foley spars with his mother about his driving too fast. “I’ve got eyes and ears all over this town” she tells him. “That doesn’t matter,” he exclaims. “Parents.com” says that doesn’t work.”
Spiritual problems: untying the knot of fear that surrounds my connection to two very difficult people in my life. I keep forgetting that at the very least I can pray for an answer. This opens me to enlightenment instead of shutting me down.
I reach for Wendell Berry, who writes of life as ‘this shadowed passage between door and door,” of “splendor and woe surpassing happiness or sorrow,” of “loss sweeping it as a floor.” (“Given,” p. 85)
A poem fragment by Jeanne Lohmann sums up the experience of losing so many friends to death:
“All around me the dead
Accumulate faster than the living
And the light of their darkness is everywhere.”
My circle simultaneously widens and shrinks. Kathy replaces Elizabeth, Christiane, too. But you cannot swap friends like paintings, or cover up the empty space with another picture. Instead you must leave the empty space and build new walls for new art. This is what is meant by constantly seeking to enlarge one’s life.
At the James River Writers weekend, I sat on several panels with the poet, Tom Lux. He is a tremendously likeable, sympathetic person. I wrote down some of what he said:
On famously obscure poets:
“Some poets are more afraid of being understood than not because if they are understood you realize there’s not much there.”
“Any feeling, whether it’s painful of pleasurable, is a blessing. You honor it.”