Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the Subway with Madame Bovary

           Tucked into a corner of my bookcase is a list of books I’ve read since I started keeping a record in 1982, now thirty years ago. The list is a reminder not only of what I’ve read, but also of what I’ve not found time to read. Favorite authors like Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are there, of course, as are Pat Conroy, John Banville, and Matthew Pearl. David Baldacci and James Patterson are not. Nor, curiously, are the Harry Potter books (there’s always been so much else to read), though I’ve recently read The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first book aimed at an adult audience.
            Old friends Annie Dillard and Joan Didion show up, and spiritual guides John O’Donohue and Thomas Merton are there. The list includes many titles on American history (Mayflower, 1776, Washington, John Adams, Team of Rivals), and a more universal taste in authors (Paul Coelho, Italo Calvino, Orhan Pamuk, Kaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri). There are books on my abiding interest in Irish history and literature, and reams and reams of memoir. Forays into contemporaryh fiction include Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbvach, and Denis Johnson, while the veteran Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement from writing, appears one last time. Some books by popular authors Ken Follet and Barbara Kingsolver appear, as do riveting reads like Ian Toll’s An Instance at the Fingerpost and Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
            The list suggests to me not only the diversity of my interests, but also their sheer parochialism. My reading is uneven at best. Titles range from literary criticism to fiction, from biography to memoir, history, and poetry. From drama to theology, from mystery to politics. This year I’ve begun to read e-books on my Nook, but I still prefer to feel the heft of a book in my hands, the pulpy texture of the pages, to smell the feint dark scent of the ink.
            In the end, the list provides for me a sort of time capsule. Just as it speaks to me of what I’ve read over the years, so too my list of books often conjures the locale where I was reading a particular title. Mention of Madam Bovary carries me back at once to a crowded subway car in New York City on a sweltering summer morning. Just where Flaubert, Emma, and I were going escapes me now, but I find us on the list of books for 1982. What’s more, it seems to me now that we are there still, rumbling along the tracks toward the next station on the Lexington Avenue line, as we always will be, until perhaps we meet again someplace else in time when I take up the book once more. In the meantime, I look forward to discovering the joys of Harry Potter with my granddaughter, Chloe', sitting beside the fire on a cold winter's night in the years ahead. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

To Climb a Mountain

          I’m thinking this morning of the extraordinary tension between distance and perspective, and I’m reminded of the series of paradoxes you encounter when climbing toward the summit of a mountain. I’ve never climbed the rarefied heights of the Himalayas or the peaks of the American west and have only scaled the foothills of the Adirondacks and the Appalachians in the northeast. Yet I have climbed the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in Ireland’s County Leitrim, Knocknarea outside Sligo Town, and Tents Mountain in County Cavan.

            A mountain reveals itself in layers as you climb. Just as you are about to reach what appears to be the summit, another incline yet to be overtaken comes tauntingly into view. And so on you trod, thrusting yourself forward as if pushing into a wind.

            The view from the summit is always worth the trek. From the top of Cuilcagh, a mere 2,182 feet above sea level, the view sweeps an astounding panorama of the valleys of Leitrim, Cavan, and Fermanagh below, and on into Sligo to the west and Donegal to the north. The smaller Knocknarea, at 1,073 feet, is capped by Queen Maeve’s legendary burial cairn at the summit. It overlooks Sligo Bay to the north and the little seaside village of Strandhill to the west. On a clear day the 360 degree view is stunning. If the clouds hang low or a haze obscures the valley, wait a while, as they say in Ireland. The weather truly is that changeable, and usually before long a blaze of sunshine washes over the landscape.

            We climbed Tents Mountain in Cavan, my son Liam and I, following the long slow roads through tracts of bog where his grandfather had "won the turf" as late as 1972. Wanting to see what views of the landscape the mountain would yield, we lugged the camera equipment up the slopes. It was a fine clear summer day. Well before the summit, we felt the first drops of rain and turned to see the dark clouds sweeping in behind us. We paused at a large concrete slab atop the water supply that trickles down to the valley. The limestone slopes of the mountain were devoid of any trees, sprouting only the occasional small brush. As the rain began to lash, we did the only sensible thing. We covered the camera bag, the tripod, and ourselves with our jackets, and—caps pulled over our eyes—lay down on the concrete bed for a nap.

            When the rains had passed we awoke to the utter solitude of the mountain, what Jack Kerouac once called “the reassuring rapturous rush of silence.” Then, lifting our caps from our eyes, we looked about. For just a fleeting second or two we felt disoriented, that sense of not knowing where you are when you awake. Our eyes swept the horizon, scanning patches of sunlight on the slopes, shadows of clouds on the valley below. How insignificant we and our petty cares seemed amid the sweeping majesty of it all, how humbling the moment.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Remnant

                  I recall as a boy of maybe six or seven, walking down a street in the South Bronx with our mother, the six of u­s in tow. We ranged in age from nine to infancy, and—as children will do—the older of us gawked as we passed at the stack of furniture piled at the curb.
“Don’t stare at those poor unfortunate people,” our mother chided. “Something terrible has happened to them.”
                  As with the other times we’d witnessed such a scene, someone always stood guard. A man, someone’s neighbor, having been evicted for not paying his rent, watched over his worldly possessions, his face masked in a steely frown or grimace. Perhaps his wife had gone off with the children to ask some relative to take them in. Or it might be the mother and children who kept the watch, the father himself having gone in search of lodging or work. They were, by all appearances, just like us.
                  “Say a prayer,” my mother urged us as we passed by, seeming not to notice so as to avoid embarrassing them. 
                  I realize now that such an eviction with a family’s possessions piled on the sidewalk was about the most disgraceful calamity that could befall the Irish-Americans of the South Bronx in the early 1950s. The fear that one’s own family might be only a paycheck away from a similar fate was at times nearly palpable. “It could happen to anyone,” was a common refrain among those proud, poor, hard-working people. “There but for the grace of God . . . .” But the searing shame of such misfortune was inescapable.
                  Irish-American families by the mid twentieth century were four generations removed from the horrors of the Great Famine that ravaged the population of Ireland in the 1840s. Yet the cultural memory of those dark times a century ago had been kept alive, eventually passed down in history and song in succeeding generations. One searing image that lingered in the folk memory from famine times was the spectacle of a tenant farmer and his family, unable to pay their rent because of the potato blight, being evicted from their cottage by the agent of an absentee landlord accompanied by the British constabulary and some Irish housebreakers, themselves desperate for work.  To avoid paying taxes on the empty cottages—or at times to clear the land for the more profitable expansion of sheep or cattle raising—the landlord would then tumble the cottages, forcing the evicted family to live in a ditch or take to the road, foraging for food along the way.
                  A century later, in the streets of the South Bronx, such images of dereliction among the famine Irish had largely retreated to the realm of the unconscious, fading like the sepia tint of an old photo of ancestors no one even recognizes anymore. Yet--despite the years--the treachery, fear, and shame of eviction still lingered in the folk memory of their descendants. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I Remember When . . . Or Do I?

            In her essay “To Fashion a Text,” Annie Dillard says that “if you spend a week or two laying out a scene or describing an event [when writing memoir], you’ve spent more time writing about it than you did living it. The writing time is also much more intensive. After you’ve written,” she says, “you can no longer remember anything but the writing.”
            How curious that the writing of a memory should reduce to ashes the experience that sparked it. The memory itself becomes codified, recorded in a fixed form, and more “real” than the original experience. Yet how much, by its very nature, is the recorded memory the product of conscious or unconscious embellishment or even forgetfulness? Is it ever possible to recall a moment with absolute fidelity to the facts of what had actually happened? Or must recall necessarily be flawed, imperfect, a mere rendering at most?
            The writer Susan Richards Shreve says, “So much of memory comes from the beginning of our lives when we know the world for the first time with a kind of clarity.” I think the immediacy of impression that first experience stamps upon our consciousness can provide this “clarity,” searing it into our memory.
            Why else would I recall so vividly now, more than fifty years later, walking up the ramp to the loge level at Yankee Stadium as a boy and spying for the first time the vibrant green grass of the field? In our world of black-and-white TV I had only ever known it as gray. It was a world in which everything on the screen—from Gunsmoke to The Flintstones—was white or black or shades of gray, as if we were watching photo negatives come to life.
            But oh, that grass! I had never seen such green, and I was taken aback by its sudden vibrant appearance when it came into view as I walked up the ramp. I realized at once what I had been missing. Even today I recall the “immediacy” of that first impression with searing clarity and entirely without embellishment.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Break in Key West

       Perched on a wall outside a restaurant, the rooster squats then launches himself into the air, hurdling over a bus and alighting on the other side of Duval Street. It is one of the countless feral fowl that prowl the streets of Key West, protected by law, tolerated by locals, and gawked at by tourists. A flock of hens and chickens guarded by two roosters scurries about on a side street off Duval. As a woman walking her dog approaches, the cocks perceive a threat and charge. The woman retreats, yanking her yelping dog—his  paws dug in for a fight—in another direction, and the hens and chickens trot about in the road, clucking undisturbed. They are the descendants, these roosters, hens, and their broods, of fowl that escaped from ships docking from Europe and the Caribbean in centuries past. Like the cats that fled the same ships, generations of feral progeny have benefitted from the tolerance for which Key West is renowned.                             
The day we arrive on the ferry from Naples, a three-hour journey over the Gulf, downtown Key West is teeming with college students on Spring Break. It is one o’clock in the afternoon along Duval Street’s main commercial avenue. Many are already reeling. With thumping music blaring onto Duval Street, young people pack themselves five deep at the bar, beers and tropical drinks in hand, rollicking to the beat and pouring out onto the street. Not quite the girls gone wild scenario one might expect on the beach, yet these young girls and the hordes of strutting males they lure parade like the flocks of feral chickens just a few blocks south.
            “What?” the guys shout over the din of the music. “What? . . .”
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck ,” the girls reply.
“What the cluck? . . . “the guys proclaim as they scurry about on the road in pursuit of the girls.
The tourists stroll on by, perhaps wistfully tolerant.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gliding Softly, Softly Gliding

           The slow tight swoosh of the Zamboni brushed across the ice in large sweeping loops as the Bridgeport Sound Tigers prepared to take the home ice on a Friday night against the Springfield Falcons at Webster Bank Arena. An American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL New York Islanders, the Sound Tigers, in second place in their division, were enjoying a successful season.
            While the arena rocked to the rhythms of big time hockey, throughout the night middle school choirs, tee-shirt promotions, and recognitions of hometown heroes returning from the wars peppered the breaks in play. But the action on the ice was as fast paced and rollicking as that of the NHL. This was, after all, minor league hockey, the proving ground of the majors, and one hoped-for call away from playing in New York.
            We sat, my two sons and I, in the second row behind the glass, near the penalty boxes. As the game began, the players glided over the ice with the precision and grace of ballet dancers, arms swaying, skates striding in great sweeping arcs. The lyricism of their moves was contrasted only by the brutality of their contact as they hit the boards, charging and checking, smashing their opponents against the glass with a thrump, the puck caroming away down the ice.
            David turned to me sometime during the first quarter of play. “Liam just said Whitney Houston died,” he told me. I looked over to see Liam tapping away at his smartphone, a lifeline to the world beyond the arena.
            “What happened,” I asked, already knowing the answer.
            “She was found by her bodyguard,” he replied.
            “Too soon for details,” David added. “It’s always like that.”
            Beyond the glass the game continued at its alternating pace of graceful glides shattered by frenetic, raucous collisions, the roar of the crowd surging loudly crunch after crunch, and loudly surging goal upon goal. The Sound Tigers were on their way to a season-high 8-1 trouncing of the Falcons.
            But as the night wore on, I thought of how strikingly similar to the tempo of this game the shifting rhythms of Whitney Houston’s years had been. From “Saving All My Love for You,” when she burst upon the music scene in 1985, to one of the biggest hits of all time, 1992’s “I Will Always Love You,” in her notoriety she had seen it all. During her finest years, the strength and range of her voice, the liquid trills gliding across a note defining it anew, spoke of the promise of much more to come. No one ever before had lifted a melody aloft quite like Whitney. But then came the crashing collapse to the dark depths of her battles with addiction, the ultimate desolation that ensued and the ignominy of her dying, as Whitney’s life had swung from beauty and grace to brutality and anguish, and a gifted voice was silenced.
            I suppose in the end we all know in one way or another, at various times, the paradox of life’s alternating rhythms: in moments of glory sweeping gracefully across the ice only to be checked by the brutal crushing impact of an impediment that sends us reeling, perhaps collapsing in a heap. But most of us, by the grace of God and our own resilience, are blessed to pick ourselves up, right our footing, and skate off gracefully into the next play. Here’s to gliding softly across the ice and averting those crashing blows; here's to Whitney, softly gliding over the notes of the songs she has left us.