"… so perhaps the work is the arrow, flying from the writer towards what she will become…" This may not be the exact quote, but it’s more or less what I remember from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which I read some thirty-five years ago. It was a book I found self-indulgent even then, but the idea behind the quote above (whatever it was precisely), stayed with me.
What I understood Sarton to mean was that often, for writers, the work is more "advanced" — matured, richer in wisdom — than the writer herself may be.
Friday night my plans for a quiet, car-free weekend — gardening, spring-cleaning, bringing my home to order, writing — got up-ended. My Aunt Dorothy, 98 (pictured left, September 2007), went into the hospital. I drove down from Vermont to New York that night, uncertain of what I would find there.
Driving down, I alternated between audio books, my own noisy thoughts, and NPR. The news was unbearable and incomprehensible. "Official death tolls: 78,000 in Burma, with another 56,000 reported missing. 34,000 confirmed dead in China… An estimated 4.8 million homeless following the quake… aftershocks and mudslides hamper relief efforts…"
Is it possible to remove the "numb" from "number", I wondered (and wonder still, and I suppose will always wonder)? How do you even think about that much suffering and loss? I know that to those on the ground, it is not "4.8 million", but person, person, person, one, one, one, one… each of whom has or had a life as important to them and those they love and are loved by as mine is to me and those I love and am loved by… as important as my Aunt Dot’s life is to me. I grieved for those lost lives unknown to me, I shook my head at the vastness and seemingly random cruelty of it. Yet those lives were as unknown and unknowable to me as "4.8 million". Where my deeper emotional attention lay, of course, was with Aunt Dot, and as I drove I kept turning over not only what I knew of her current medical status but the long journey of our side-by-side, sometimes intertwined, lives. Her life had existed for perhaps 40 years before I entered it, via her sister, Charlotte; now, it appeared, my life might well go on for who-knows-how-many years, after she exited it.
As I mentioned earlier in these posts, I love to take, as well as teach, writing workshops. In one I took a couple of months ago, taught by the writer Elayne Clift, at the Rockingham Library in nearby Bellows Falls, Vermont, Elayne gave us a three-part writing prompt. It was something like, what I know is true, how I know it’s true, and… I’ve forgotten the third one, because I only got the first two done in the time we had.
The second poem I wrote that day is what had brought the May Sarton idea to mind. It was wholly unlike any other poem I’ve ever written; in one sense, much less personal. But it felt dictated to me. It was larger, or farther along, than I am at present. It was a gift, in the sense of something literally given. But who gave it? The muse? Spirit? God? Or perhaps, as Sarton implied, a self who is and isn’t myself. Who is wiser than I am yet. But I felt the words to be a trail of gingerbread crumbs through the forest. And maybe that forest was the dark one Dante wrote about, in which we "awoke in the middle of our life, where the true way was wholly lost."
A trail of crumbs to lead me to what I will come to understand, maybe, and maybe, eventually, be able to live with?
May Sarton used an arrow analogy; I, the food writer, gingerbread crumbs… no matter. "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," wrote Shakespeare, speaking as Hamlet, sorrowing over his own dark and unanswerable questions. Yet Shakespeare also wrote, in a much lighter vein, as the word-play loving Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, "Had I but tuppence in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread." He had room for the tragedies, the comedies, and "the historical plays." Oh, and sonnets. This huge and timeless roominess, his genius — we call it genius, but isn’t that an outsider’s word? Must he not, too, have emptied out "William Shakespeare" from himself enough to become such a conduit? — in wording what goes beyond words: this is why humans read him still, and, each time, find something new.
I found my thoughts weaving in and out around Shakespeare and Sarton and the recent poem I had written in Elayne’s workshop as I drove down 91 that rainy Friday night, drove down with the news and the audio books and my own loud thoughts: hoping deeply that Aunt Dot would either recover to her usually feisty, hilarious self or leave this earth quickly and painlessly. Ninety-eight years is a good run, by any account, and she had had a terrific life, not without difficultly and sadness (from which no one is exempt) yet interesting and engaged. A beautiful woman, she was a honeypot; men buzzed arpund her like flies, and she always managed to have some rich, powerful, charming guy around to pick up the tab and grease the skids and take her to Europe or Asia. Yet she was a career woman (an editor of history textbooks at what was then Macmillan). She never had children, and this was by choice (I knew their were several abortions in her past, in the days when abortion was illegal, dirty, sordid, dangerous). She lived in Manhattan but spent much time in Vermont, on the very 35 acres I now live on, staring out rapturously at the same landscape of mountains, meadow, the white vertical punctuation of silver birches in that meadow.
All this was now her past, and forgotten, except in odd and often charming, poetic shards. But she was still my aunt, and she was still, in a non-linear way, having a ball. And no matter their age, we are rarely ready to let those we love go (unless they are suffering intensely), even when we must.
And at the same time as all this was going on inside, I was praying / thinking about/ realizing that there
was no way to think about adequately or helpfully, all those incomprehensibly suffering
Of course, given that I was driving a car at night towards Aunt Dot’s unknown outcome, it was probably inevitable that I also think about the justly famous statement of E.L. Doctorow:
that writing a novel "is like driving a car at night. The headlights
don’t shine very far, but you can make the whole trip that way."
To hang out with pain, uncertainty, the knowledge of all the terrible natural and human-made disasters in this life and yet to still love life and the world, passionately, on its own unspeakable terms: that is how, mile after mile, I am making the trip these days.
This is the arrow, or gingerbread trail, poem from Elayne’s class.
What actually happened
Safety went to work in the
World Trade Towers one morning.
Trust believed her husband when he said, “It was only one
Faith, with her tiny silver cross, her star of David, her om sign,
served the victims of the plague. “How,”
she asked God, “could this happen?
If God replied, it was inaudibly.
Belief clapped hands for Tinkerbell,
who did not arrive.
Certainty, the bough on which
the cradle rocked, broke.
The baby fell down, down, down
into limitless dark star-free space.
The baby falls still.
The baby will fall forever.
Mystery said: I am big enough to hold you all.
Mystery said: Are you big enough, small human,
to hold me?