A woman of hope

I’ve just read a small article about Alice Munro, born 1931, still alive, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Says she never started with a connecting theme in mind, or ideas about what kind of fiction. “When I’m writing, what I do is I think about a story that I want to tell.” Though this article mentions that she’s been credited with having “revolutionized the architecture of short stories, especially in the tendency to move forward and backward in time, and ‘embed more than announce, reveal more than parade,’ another article mentions that she never set out to write short stories. She wanted to write novels, perhaps, but being a mother, especially in the days before conveniences such as washing machines, meant that she had to write in very short blocks of time, and though others may have been able to write very successful novels under such conditions, she herself had not.

I think about these descriptions, as I sit in the heat of the attic bedroom, coughing with a summer flu; I turn them over in my mind. I forget what I’ve learned or tried from one day to the next. Writing requires only one thing to be successful, that is momentum, in my opinion; if I write each day I never need to wonder how on earth to do it. On the days I haven’t written it’s as though the magic has disappeared, I shall look back and think however did I do it? Lay so many words upon a page? And then I become hopeless, and I shall not write that day, nor perhaps the next.

I’ll now think, “ah yes, Alice Munro, she has it right, one must know the story one wants to tell. This is the golden key. If one has such a key, one can unlock the gilded cage and allow the trapped songbird to fly out, alight upon the branch and sing of all that its mind’s eye sees without the slightest hesitation.” But no, for that is but cliché. And untrue. And not what Munro meant at all.

The heat is climbing, climbing upon the ridge of my nose and prickling the hairs of my scalp. Any moment now the children will be banging on the bedroom door. Mama, will you enter the password, mama? Mama, will you enter the password, mama? Fledglings flapping out of their nest. Shall we continue the cliché? Yes certainly, why not. It is not yet seven-thirty, but I am far too late awoken to be original.

Such is the life we live now, that the children desire screens from morning till night, and life is no longer experienced with one’s whole body against reality, no longer felt with one’s hand upon rough bark, one’s foot upon the sand, one’s waist encircled by the lake, of a summer day; now reality is only experienced through one’s fingertips against plastic, eyes fatiguing as images race upon the mirrors of the cornea. Three times I asked them to come with me, yesterday; let us immerse ourselves in the silky waters under the sweltering sky, allow the lake to soothe us even as the sun bakes us, but not a one of them preferred that over product reviews, cartoon idiocies, and strategic portal-hurling. And I had not the strength in me to drag them. I become afraid of disturbing peace. Peace, peace at all costs…. all costs. I’ll resort to prayer instead.  *Universe, give me my children back, Universe, give me my children back…*

I imagine a story I want to tell, a story that shall win a prize, or gain publication. What of the petunias now struggling in the garden? They and their memories of cigarette butts and beer bottles. Does that story not need proper telling? And recent enough to remember well? But there again, she is paralyzed by the desire for an easy and monochrome life, one in which peace is preserved. Why dig up old graves? And for the sake of contests? That could never end well. She envisions any story she wants to tell completely and quickly, the story of the past surrounded by another story of the future, and then both stories end, as two concentric circles completed, white with black outlines, and what do we see in this object’s final form? A target. In the middle are thrown the darts. It will never do. For she herself is the story. She is the dartboard. No! She has given up on martyrdom. Let the martyrs beautifully bear their crosses. She shall only be there, at Mary’s side, to weep for them later, and smile sadly upon the wholeness of the world, in a swirl of black and white.

The only way is the blind write. We begin with the pricks of sweat upon the ridge of the nose, the dull ache of a virus in the head. Melting clocks in a red landscape. Water hovering tabled, in the background. The children not yet having knocked, giggling and concocting a mischief in the hollows of the house outside the attic room. The blankets balked to the side on the desert of the bed, the skylights tipped wide, the propeller seeds of the linden tree strewn along pine floorboards. A book carton from a country across the ocean lain open on the desk for weeks now. A novel, unrelated, “Unless.” The calendar says June, though the month is July. A handmade jewelry box of oak, a small note attached to the back of one of its oiled drawers; the hand that wrote it is now ash. A fine art drawing affixed to unfinished plaster above the desk, black and white, a woman, naked, blinded by a soft crown of flowers, hands crossed over her chest, a butterfly illuminated in gold above and below.

The only way to properly make a circle, said a wise monk, was to dip the brush in black ink, place it upon the page. Inhale, draw the first half, exhale, continue the second half. The breath is the circle, all life is housed within it.

 

=====

The door opens. “Hi mama. I need to—”

“Always knock first on a closed door.”

“Okay. I—”

“Train yourself. Go back out, close the door….”

The child backs out. The door closes. Knock knock.

“Come in! Hi!”

A monkey’s grin. “I need to hide this coconut.”

Moments later, another child, knocking with a treasure map.

Prayers answered. *Thank you, Universe…*

Today, it will be lake before passwords.

======

08:15  I didn’t even finish the way I wanted to… i was going to include the line about melting clocks…

there, now I’ve added it in.

====

Credits:

Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Zone of Emptiness, France. Thank you for reading. ❤︎

22 thoughts on “A woman of hope

  1. Alice Munro–yeah, she’s one of the real ones. And her stories always leave me feeling like I’ve read a novel. They create that rich a world.

    Your essay, though, made me think of another short story writer, Tillie Olsen, who had to wedge her writing in around child rearing. And Grace Paley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ellen… what a gift you’ve given here… I just looked up Tillie Olsen on Wikipedia, then read “I Stand Here Ironing,” from her short story collection titled “Tell Me A Riddle.” (For anyone else interested, this digitized copy does not appear perfectly transcribed but it transmits the story well enough:) https://facweb.northseattle.edu/jjewell/IStandHereIroning.pdf

      Heartbreakingly, jubilantly exact and true… any parent, I think, can relate to some element of this perfectly-told story. But the last lines… wow.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s the story that came to mind first. There’s another one from that collection, “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” that I wrote some sort of paper on when I was in college, so I read it through enough to remember it vividly, about a sailor, an alcoholic, visiting a family he’s friends with when he’s on leave. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and goes well beyond cliches with the alcoholic. He’s a guy with depths–and not a wealth of language for them.

        Olsen (somewhere) wrote that at some point she was given a week or two at a writer’s colony, which sounded like everything she’d ever dreamed of–uninterrupted time to write–but she found herself stuck. Without repetitive work, her mind closed down. If she could have washed a few floors, she said, stories would have come to her.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sounds amazing; researched it a little… just bought the collection, “Tell Me a Riddle,” second-hand online. (For anyone else interested:) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/424959.Tell_Me_a_Riddle (click through to your country’s bookseller link.)

          I love your mention of the writer’s colony and Tillie Olsen’s difficulties in writing under such perfect conditions… very likely would be the same for me. Nothing like a bit of cleaning, to get the story juices flowing.

          Though I have to admit, based on this morning’s cleaning activities chez nous, that getting four boys involved in toilet washing (rather than taking the easy route and doing it oneself) is absolutely draining and more conducive to dreaming about burial chambers such as the one in your latest piece, than it is to inspired writing.

          But on the positive side of perhaps that same coin, I loved this description I found online of the sailor in the story, “Whitey”:

          “He is not an exaggerated masculine figure, but rather one who seeks to understand both the man and woman in the family. Especially through his relationship to Helen, Whitey complicates traditional masculinity, by helping her clean the house and take care of her children. Whereas a sailor like Whitey might otherwise fade into obscurity, unknown and limited by stereotypes, Olsen’s portrayal breathes life into him, giving him a voice to compete with that of the nuclear family.”

          (source: https://www.gradesaver.com/tell-me-a-riddle/study-guide/summary-hey-sailor-what-ship)

          Thanks for all your awesome inspiration, Ellen; I’m getting a fantastic education here, thanks to you.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I appreciate the chance to promote a writer I love. And I’d forgotten that he was called Whitey. It was a different era, when a blond-haired guy could be called Whitey and nobody (who was white) would think twice about it, although it might have promoted some guffaws among black people.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I remember some of the language in “Heart of Darkness” was quite a shocker for us kids, in high school… our lit teacher had a hard time convincing some of us that Conrad’s novella actually *questioned* racism and colonialism…

              Liked by 1 person

              1. .That would be hard a tough one, although I do think it’s true. Ditto Huck Finn. They have to be seen in the context of their times, and the reader has to understand the difference between the writer and the characters. All of which is a lot to ask of most high school kids.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Funny, that’s what our lit teacher said… and I agreed. (such a kind and dedicated teacher, Mr. E was one of my favourites of all time). I did today see a piece on wikipedia though, which gives counter-argument:

                  “Heart of Darkness is criticised in postcolonial studies, particularly by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.[22][23] In his 1975 public lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe […] argued that Conrad […] incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilisation, ignoring the artistic accomplishments of the Fang people who lived in the Congo River basin at the time of the book’s publication.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_of_Darkness#Reception

                  But in terms of context of the times, I’d say the book was quite in opposition to the rampant racism back then… and as a piece of literature, which our wonderful lit teacher guided us through so thoroughly, it still rings in my consciousness quite clearly… I wrote a paper on that one. Bless all good lit teachers for exposing us to something better than Harlequin romances.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. I agree with Achebe. And with Mr. E. And with you. So much of our literature is saturated with racism, and with sexism. I think the best we can do is acknowledge it, understand its limitations, understand what it contributes, and understand why many readers will simply throw the book at the wall and look for something else to read, in spite of its value. Sometimes I just don’t have the emotional distance, or tolerance, or whatever it takes right then, to read around those limits. I want something that doesn’t insult me in the process of creating great fucking art. (Sorry. Obscenity’s called for now and then.) Other times, and with other writers, I can manage it.

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, such a wonderful swirling of though and emotion, abstraction and specificity, and moving images, especially: “A handmade jewelry box of oak, a small note attached to the back of one of its oiled drawers, the hand that wrote it is now ash.” Chills!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aeryk, thank you… comments like these truly make my day. You have such a knack for detailed feedback! Please always feel free to share your criticisms as well, if the mood ever strikes you… :)) Thanks again. With respect 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

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