Archive

Spring 2015

Archive

Spring 2015

 

(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)

 

Archive Spring 2015: Kim Dana Kupperman, Lauren Slater, Jill Kandel, Jacqueline Haskins, Lee Martin,

David James Duncan, Heather Weber,  E. B. White,  Kate Carroll de Gutes.    

 

April 17, 2015

 

from “Pregnant Madonna Scrubbing Floor”

in I Just Lately Started Buying Wings

by Kim Dana Kupperman

 

“So in this paragraph when Kim Dana Kupperman pictures her mother as a ‘pregnant Madonna’ on her knees cleaning the kitchen floor, she knows what haunts her.”—THE

 

Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of a critically acclaimed collection of essays, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence (Graywolf, 2010), which received the 2009 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and was longlisted for the Indie Booksellers Association Choice Award. She is the founder of Welcome Table Press, dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay in all its forms. Ms. Kupperman currently teaches at the Fairfield University low-residency MFA Program.  You can learn more about her work at her website.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In my vision of the pregnant Madonna scrubbing the floor, I am about to emerge from my mother and am restless; after all, she is restless, washing a floor she has probably cleaned five times in the last two days.  Gone the softened smile of the woman in that photograph taken by my father.  In its place, my mother’s lips are tightened into a swollen line.  She wants to get this birth over with, and though she’s been through a lot of pain already—from the operations on her spine to the maintenance and consequences of a beauty that hurts to the ache in her back from pregnancy—she’s unsure if she’ll be able to handle all the pain she thinks will come flooding out of her when she delivers her baby.  She suspects she carries a girl, and this belief overwhelms her:  to carry on a tradition of hurt across these generations of women—her grandmother deaf and widowed at twenty-something; her mother dead at thirty-eight of multiple sclerosis; her own spina bifida and consequential drug addiction—it has to stop somewhere.  Perhaps it is at this moment, on her knees, shirt wet, embracing every hurt she’s ever known, that she prays her child will be the last in this line.—Kim Dana Kupperman

 

Commentary

 

“Beauty hurts,” Kim Dana Kupperman’s mother, who was “naturally pretty,” liked to say.  In one photograph, taken when she was pregnant with Kim, she “smiles as one just roused from sleep—a soft-at-the-edges expression” not hidden under makeup.  Most of the time, though, she did not trust her unadorned looks and worked hard to improve them.  “Why not change the things you can,” was her motto.  “Half-Catholic and half-Jewish,” she “tried to bleach out the darker side and soften the angles with peroxide, strict avoidance of the sun, a nose job.”  The litany of self-inflicted wounds is long and runs from “masks, toner,” and “astringent” to “[s]tarvation or forced vomiting.”  The irony here is that she grew weary of “being beheld” by her husband, blaming his attention to her appearance for problems in the marriage.  Later we learn that “men had harmed her because of her beauty” and she “carried the pain of that hurt,” Kupperman explains, “in the same way she carried me.”  It is a matrilineal legacy of sorrow, of “women whose beauty hurt.”  These pains to look good get mixed up with others: the deafness of Kim’s great-grandmother windowed young, the death of her grandmother at thirty-eight of multiple sclerosis, and the surgery for spina bifida and “consequential drug addiction” that her mother had to endure.  So in this paragraph when Kupperman pictures her mother as a “pregnant Madonna” on her knees cleaning the kitchen floor, she knows what haunts her.  Afraid that she cannot stand the pain that childbirth will inevitably bring, and suspecting that she is carrying a girl, she bemoans the dolorous family history of beauty.  Overwhelmed by the conviction that “it has to stop somewhere,” she “prays that her child will be the last of this line.”—THE

April 24, 2015

 

 

from Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir

by Lauren Slater

 

“When we read Lying by Lauren Slater we fall into Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole where nothing is as it seems or can be taken at face value.”—THE

 

The Paragraph of the Week goes to Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater, a book published in 2000 that sent writers and critics of the genre down a rabbit hole of self-questioning about the nature of truth in nonfiction. The selection of Slater is a result primarily of reading the book with my wonderful thesis class students in the Ashland MFA program: Samantha Frye, Elizabeth Franz, and Denise Wilkinson. The book was their choice. The result was a wild month of on-line discussions about a text that challenges readers to think hard about what is real both in life and in nonfiction.

 

At times, we seemed to tumble into a swirl of jabberwocky like Alice in Wonderland which is a central image in the book. "I am lost in this web of Slater's," one student wrote. The Commentary below drew on these discussions and is my attempt to come to terms with this beguiling and bedeviling text, but in some ways the questions the book raises are what really matter. "What is this memoir about, really?" one of the students asked. "And if it is about our ability (or our inability) to remember our own past … or, more fundamentally, if it is about whether our memories of our past really matter as much as the stories we choose to tell about our past, does that really constitute memoir? Or is it some other – perhaps equally valuable – kind of writing, but not really memoir?"

Good questions, eh? 

 

Lauren Slater is the author recently of The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals and Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother. A psychologist and writer, Slater is the author of five other books of nonfiction: Welcome to My Country, Prozac Diary, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, and Opening Skinner's Box, as well as a collection of short stories, Blue Beyond Blue. Slater has received numerous awards, including a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts award, multiple inclusions in Best American volumes, and a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Like this.  You throw your legs out at the hip and give in. You say “snow,” and turn into snow.  You give up the ground, which you never really had to begin with, and something else takes over, and that something, with or without a face, beyond proof or even theory, that’s the one fact I will ever and only have.  I have the fact of falling, this is a story, finally, of falling, thank you Sister Julia, thank you Sister Patricia, I can stop seizing now; so can you.  Open your fists.  Go girl.  Cheer for me madly.  I will not win.  If I am on a horse, we will both fall into the hole.  If I am a gymnast, I will miss my mark, and fall, in my pale blue leotard, straight into the hole.  Alice is there.  The queen is there.  My mother is there.  Oh, Mom, I miss you.  Give me a kiss good-bye.  Cheer for me madly.  Out in that field, I heard it happening.  The trees cheered, the stars cheered, the monks and nuns and friends and family cheered as I went down, legs hurled out at the hip, I fell, and gave up the ground, and for that split second, spinning in utter space, I was nowhere, I was nothing, my mouth open round, like a zero, like 0, out of which the baby is born, the words spill, the planet pops, the trees grow, everything rising; real.

—Lauren Slater

 

Commentary

 

Lauren Slater has gone to a convent to learn from Sisters Julia and Patricia how to fall safely because she has epilepsy, a condition bringing on seizures which cause her to collapse—except that in this nonfictional text called Lying we are not sure that the nuns exist, that there is a convent, or, for that matter, that Lauren has epilepsy.  It may be Munchausen’s disease in which patients pretend to be ill to gain attention or depression which colors so many of her perceptions.  At one point, for instance, she enters an Alcoholics Anonymous program even though she is not alcoholic and enjoys the attention of others in the program.  The illness may also be a complete literary fiction as the title suggests.  When we read Lying we fall into Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole where nothing is as it seems or can be taken at face value.  What happens is not what matters here, and the author feels no obligation to be true to facts because facts—and the words that convey facts—cannot tell her story.  Medical terms such as OCD, depression, bi-polar disorder and autism, which were used in addition to epilepsy by various doctors to describe her condition, miss the mark as she “falls straight into the hole” of this book.  What she does hope to be true to is the intensity of her experience, the “something else...beyond proof ” that “takes over” and is the only fact she trusts.  It is not her life, but her story:  what it felt like to be her as she grew up with a mother who was both witch and wonder in her mind, and the one person she can never get a true bead on.  “Oh, Mom, I miss you,” she writes, using several meanings of the word “miss.”  “Give me a kiss good-bye.”   Writing the metaphors of her life as it they were facts allows language to do its transformational magic.  “You say ‘snow’, and turn into snow,” she writes in a memoir “shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.”  It is a story she can get to only if the words fall free of the facts they seize allowing truths they release but cannot capture to rise.—THE

.

 

May 1, 2015

 

from “The Woman of Sikongo:  A Lament”

in So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village

by Jill Kandel

 

“What happened to their ‘wonderful plans,’ she asks?  ‘Refugees.  Kwashiorkor, starvation.’”—THE 

 

 

Jill Kandel is the winner of the 2014 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize for So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village. In 1982, she and her husband traveled as newlyweds to Zambia.  She gave birth to two children, bridged a cultural divide with her husband from the Netherlands, and was emotionally devastated by a car accident that took the life of a Zambian child.  For years Kandel struggled to find her voice and herself, a struggle that her book records.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from “The Woman of Sikongo: A Lament,” a chapter from her award-winning book.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

A young woman, clutching a tiny baby, stands barefoot before me.  We stand eye-to-eye looking at each other.  She is perhaps in her very early twenties, a few years younger than I am.  Her emaciated body is wrapped in a grimy chitengi, which leaves her thin shoulders exposed and bare.  A wet streak, starting near the baby, runs down the chitengi.  I lift my hand inadvertently and cover my nose.  A toddler, with patchy red hair, clings to her leg.  His stomach bulges, but he is not well fed.

—Jill Kandel

 

Commentary

 

“Some memories come unbidden,” Jill Kandel explains in So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village.  “They stay and stay and stay.”  This meeting with a woman from Sikongo is one of those memories that she “does not seek” and cannot escape.  The baby in the “grimy chitengi” strapped around the mother’s emaciated body suffers from kwashiorkor, an extreme state of starvation in which the “muscles dying from lack of protein aren’t strong enough to hold in the abdominal cavity.”  Kandell knows the disease from her days as a nursing student when she and her fellow students called it “kwash,” reducing the ugliness of the condition by “shortening its name.” But here in the Sikongo there is no hiding from the horror, and Jill involuntarily covers her nose.  She and her husband came to Africa when they first married, idealistic and hopeful, but “[r]obberies, deception, despotism…drought, bribery, tribalism,” as well as the challenge of spending day after day keeping her house decent and her family clothed and fed, turned much of her time in Africa into a nightmare.  What happened to their “wonderful plans,” she asks?  “Refugees.  Kwashiorkor, starvation.” After returning home she tried to put these memories behind her, submit them to her control, but some—such as this face-to-face encounter with a woman from Sikongo—are like the shifting sands of the African desert and will not be contained.  There is beauty for her in Zambia, the land of Victoria Falls and nights “lit by the Southern Cross and the village fires,” but like the acacia karroo tree native to the land, the bloom and thorn come together.  Her task, she came to understand in time, was not to control or forget, but to look into the eyes of the woman in her nightmare.  “Finger the thorn, feel the point, mark out the blood. And write.”—THE 

 

 
 

May 8, 2015

 

from “Looking Up”

by Jacqueline Haskins

 

Jacqueline Haskins’ essay is filled with such “paradigm shifts”—shifts she asks us, as readers, to make with her.—THE

 

According to the Fall 2014 volume of River Teeth where “Looking Up” first appeared, Jacqueline Haskins “is a biologist of watery wilds, from cypress swamps to cirque swales.  Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest.  Haskins received her Master’s in Biostatistics from U. of Washington, and her MFA from the NW Institute of Literary Arts.  Visit her at JacquelineHaskins.com.”

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Every life is beaded with transformation points, some ephemeral as dew on spiderweb, some immutable as prison doors.  A second-week college student stares into a washing machine, puzzling out where to put the soap.  The six-year-old eldest child of alcoholics pushes a chair over to the stove and climbs up to make dinner for her brothers.  A man who never interrupts takes his mother’s hand and cuts across her monologue: “Mom, Mom, look at me, I don’t think you can live here alone any more.”  A boy runs for the back of a train and leaps on.  A widower who for weeks has fallen asleep on the couch, on a deck chair, in the recliner in front of the TV, and once in a pile of clean unfolded laundry, puts fresh sheets on his marriage bed and lies down in that enormousness alone.

--Jacqueline Haskins

 

Commentary

 

The hardest part about raising Cherry, a fledgling robin kicked out of its nest by a cowbird, was not teaching it to fly, but teaching it to look down where the food is.  “Cherry’s whole life, food had come from up,” Shannon, a friend of Jacqueline Haskins who found the bird, explained.  “Food was up.”  Shannon tried unsuccessfully to entice the bird to look down until one day, “just like that,” it “looked straight at the floor.”  Haven’t we all, at these "transformation points" in our lives, “suddenly looked down?”  The college student at the unfamiliar washing machine, the child of alcoholics pushing the chair toward the stove, the son of an aging mother who takes charge, the boy who hops a train, and the widower who puts “fresh sheets on the marriage bed and lies down in that enormousness alone”—all have made a sudden and necessary switch in perspective.   Haskins’ essay is filled with such “paradigm shifts”—shifts she asks us, as readers, to make with her.  The cowbird may be a bandit, but when we learn that its survival rate is so low that each female “has to pump out seventy eggs, two summer’s worth, just to replace herself and her consort” we register a shift, our resentment yielding to sympathy as we come to understand that even “[v]illains…sleep on the same hard ground as the rest of us.”  All natural systems, Haskins explains, tend toward a dynamic equilibrium with “feedback loops that, like pendulums, help them come back toward the center.”  No sooner do we master looking down, than we are called upon to look up again.  The good news is that change “doesn’t have to wait.”  In the face of “what’s the hardest,” it can happen “just like that.”--THE 

 

May 15, 2015

from “Never Thirteen”

in Such a Life

by Lee Martin

 

“In Lee Martin’s world—in our world—every caress shelters a hook...and love does not come unadulterated by pain”—THE

 

 

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including Break the Skin. His other books are the novels, River of Heaven and Quakertown; the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “Never Thirteen” in Martin's 2012 collection Such a Life.  In the collection Martin describes the accident that caused his father to lose both hands and speculates in the featured paragraph about why that loss may have been part of the allure for a Peeping Tom who peered into their window.  What he imagines offers insights into the daily intimacy between his parents that he was blind to as a boy. 

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Perhaps it was this that kept the Peeping Tom at our window—those naked stumps and the intimacy my mother and father shared, not the intimacy of lovers but a tenderness and familiarity that became theirs because of my father’s accident.  So maybe it was my mother’s delicate movements as she undressed my maimed father that captivated, as it does me now, the voyeur, and made him feel the sensuality that was so privately theirs.  I wonder if they themselves were even aware of it.  I had always thought them sexless, without passion, until now when I stand at the window with the Peeping Tom and realize that all along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair.  I remember the way he gave himself over to her ministering, his frequently gruff voice going soft, his arms, which could jerk so often with bluster and fury, relaxing.  I can never fully know the accommodations they had to make after my father lost his hands, but I can remember their murmurs behind closed doors—the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves, as soothing as the rill of a brook hidden in a deep woods, a private code between them—and know that all the while I thought them impotent and numb they were making love each day right before my eyes, and I was too blind to see it; I was too busy being young.—Lee Martin

 

Commentary

 

Lee Martin’s father lost both of his hands in a corn picker when Lee was a baby.  One hand caught when he started to shut down the machine and the second hand caught as he attempted to free the first.  The accident turned an “affable man” into a bitter father who often beat his son with a belt or yard stick.  These beatings which his mother could not stop mixed with the tenderness of his mother—a reserved schoolteacher resigned to her fate as caretaker of an angry husband—shaped Martin’s life and blinded him to the love his parents shared.  He thought of them as “sexless” and “without passion” when he was young, but now as an adult considering the fact that a Peeping Tom had been caught gazing into the room where they slept causes Martin to reconsider.  Perhaps it was his mother’s tenderness to his “maimed father that captivated.”  While we watch, he joins the Peeping Tom by imagining the scene, picturing his mother’s “delicate movements as she undressed” her husband, removing his glasses, unbuttoning his shirt, and “helping him slip his arms from the flesh-colored plastic holsters, the hooks screwed into their ends.”  He remembers what he knew of their private moments, the “murmurs behind closed doors—the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves,” and realizes that the intimacy he could not see as a boy was always there in the “gentle way his mother touched” his father when ministering to his needs, a touch that calmed the demons in the man.  “The truth is, the beautiful and ugly bleed together,” Martin explains, and “the distance between the two is never as wide as we’d like to think.”  In Lee Martin’s world—in our world—every caress shelters a hook with a belt or yardstick attached, and love does not come unadulterated by pain, but the love is there, a fact that he as a boy was “too busy being young” to notice.  “I step into my adult life," Martin writes at the end of his essay, “wondering how long I'll need to live, how much I'll need to lose, to learn to love like this.” —THE

 
 

from “River Teeth: A Definition”

in River Teeth

by David James Duncan

 

“These are our 'river teeth'—the time-defying knots of experience that remain in us after most of our autobiographies are gone.”—David James Duncan

 

On the weekend beginning Friday, May 29 River Teeth magazine will hold its annual writer’s conference at the Ashland University campus in Ashland Ohio. The featured guest speakers are Cheryl Strayed and Jerald Walker, and many of the other presenters and participants have appeared on this page.  You can learn more about the conference here:  www.riverteethjournal.com/conference. To celebrate this event, THE will run a paragraph from David James Duncan who coined the term “river teeth” along with a paragraph of commentary he wrote about the phrase.  When I read his commentary I realized that The Humble Essayist could not have done it better.

 

The feature will run for two weeks while I am at the River Teeth Conference doing a presentation called “The Essay in Parts” with Ana Maria Spagna and talking with students about manuscripts at the conference.  I will be away from my computer, but still hope to keep the twitter feed going if possible.  I’m looking forward to this conference—and all of its talented participants—and I hope to talk with many readers of THE while there.  THE will be back as usual on May 5 with a new writer.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from the 1995 collection of stories and essays by Duncan named River Teeth.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

There are, however, parts of every drowned tree that refuse to become part of this cycle. There is, in every log, a series of cross-grained, pitch-hardened masses where long-lost branches once joined the tree's trunk. "Knots," they're called, in a piece of lumber. But in the bed of a river, after the parent log has broken down and vanished, these stubborn masses take on a very different appearance, and so perhaps deserve a different name. "River teeth" is what we called them as kids, because that's what they look like. Like enormous fangs, often with a connected, cross-grained root. It took me awhile to realize, when I found my first, that it had once been part of a tree. Having grown up around talk of 'headwaters" and "river mouths," it was easier for me to imagine it having washed loose from a literal river's jaw than having once joined a branch to an evergreen.

—David James Duncan 

 

Commentary

 

I’d like to piece together a metaphor:  our present-tense human experience, our lives in the inescapable present, are like living trees.  Our memory of experiences, our individual pasts are like trees fallen in a river.  The current in that river is the passing of time.  And a story—a good shared story—is a transference of nutrients from the old river log of memory into the eternal now of life…. There are, however, small parts of every human past that resist this natural cycle:  there are hard, cross-grained whorls of memory that remain inexplicably lodged in us long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away.  Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they’re self-contained moments of shock or of inordinate sympathy; moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery; of mystical terror; lust; preposterous love; preposterous joy.  These are our “river teeth”—the time-defying knots of experience that remain in us after most of our autobiographies are gone.

— David James Duncan

 

June 5, 2015

 

from Dear Boy, An Epistolary Memoir

by Heather Weber

 

“Dear Boy…is a series of letters, a reaching out by Heather, a one-way plea for connection in a family marked like so many American families by estrangement, resentment, and missed opportunities.”—THE

 

Heather Weber blogs about life, faith, and parenting at www.onravenstreet.com and writes for ForeWord Reviews. She lives with her husband and three daughters in North Liberty, IA, where she works as an associate pastor at LIFEchurch.  The Paragraph of the Week is from her epistolary memoir, Dear Boy.

 

Paragraph of the Week

 

Her stomach knotted. The onion rings she'd eaten on the way to the visitation tumbled inside. Dread's what it was, really. She was going to sit for four hours in a room with the Boy's dead body, feel his absence more acutely than she ever had in her life. And she was determined to feel it. She sat down a few feet in front of the coffin, in the front pew next to little Josh, who stared zombie-like at the flower arrangements and the video display. The Boy's body was all dressed up now. Flowers everywhere. Number One, the Boy's other brother and sister, Peaches, cousin Karen, Gram—they stood and sat and hugged each other and stared at the Boy. Soon, the visitors came, walking down the main aisle, pausing at the box, beholding the Boy, bending their heads down, sometimes dabbing eyes with Kleenexes, and walking out. Peaches' lavender blouse blended in with the flowers. She spoke with guests she knew and some she didn't while the Girl kept sitting silently next to little Josh and didn't speak to anyone if she could help it, didn't want to speak to anyone, wanted to let these hours wash over her, wanted to own every thought, every feeling before it floated by into the next week, next month, next decade without the Boy.

 

Commentary

 

One of the odd, but thematically appropriate, elements in Dear Boy by Heather Weber is that she addresses each of the characters in her letters and text with pseudonyms creating an unsettling sense of anonymity within the family.  Peaches is her mother, Number One is her mother’s first husband, she is Girl, and Boy is Weber’s brother who died in a car accident as a young man.  The generic names create a sense of familial disaffection that is fitting.  Yes, there is love and forgiveness in this book about a troubled and difficult mother whose problems created tensions between Heather and the Boy.  “Pity he didn’t like you much in the end,” she imagines her mother thinking after her brother died—a cruel thought which Heather thinks was one of the ways Peaches hoarded grief.  So in this paragraph at the funeral, Heather is isolated—alone with her thoughts—as others in the family “sat and hugged each other and stared at the Boy.”  Despite this alienation that colors the book, Dear Boy is about love.  The characters may be anonymous, but the book is a series of letters, a reaching out by Heather, a one-way plea for connection in a family marked like so many American families by estrangement, resentment, and missed opportunities. “Your family went through some hard times,” Number One, the Boy’s father, told her. “But underneath it all, he loved you, Heather.”  It was, Weber writes, the first “true thing” she had heard during the week of the funeral.  The Boy “wasn’t perfect and neither was she,” she eventually realizes.  “And underneath all that imperfection was love.”—THE

 

June 19, 2015

 

from “Once More to the Lake”

in Essays of E. B. White

 

“It is an illusion—a trick of the tongue and mind—this repetition of ‘summertime’ with an ‘oh’ dropped in the middle that we hear in the phrase ‘summertime, oh, summertime.’”—THE

 

The Humble Essayist has packed up his swim trunks, t-shirt, and ukulele and is headed for the beach somewhere along the coast of South Carolina for a family vacation.  To celebrate, he has chosen a paragraph from the best summertime essay he knows, “Once More to the Lake,” by E. B. White, and will let it run for two weeks since he does not intend to drag his computer with him onto the sand to write a new paragraph.  E. B. White, who worked for many years at The New Yorker, wrote elegantly, and this little essay is his masterpiece.  It is THE’s favorite essay. Nearly a year ago we ran a different paragraph from it as the Paragraph of the Week in the second issue of The Humble Essayist (you can find it in the Summer 2014 archives), and THE would like to make it a summertime tradition—until he runs out of paragraphs.  I figure that gives him eleven more summers! The Humble Essayist has every intention of tweeting quotations from White twice a day as usual, but I know the guy and suspect that he will not live up to good intentions once he hits the surf.  Still, he will try to eke out at least one tweet a day. The Humble Essayist will return with a new paragraph and commentary on June 26.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the Juniper forever and ever, summer, without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottagers with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths lending back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers in the camp at the head of the cove were "common" or "nice," wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken.

--E. B. White

 

Commentary

 

The pattern of summertime does seem “indelible”—in reality and in the mind.  The vacation spot that E. B. White and his son return to after years of being away seems to have changed little.  The lake is “fadeproof,” the woods “unshatterable,” and the cottages forever charming with their tiny docks and flagpoles.  All in this mental picture, even the outhouses with “the can of lime for sprinkling,” says “forever and ever, summer.”  The story of the “American family at play” appears to be an eye of stability in the cyclone of modern life.  It is not true of course.  White himself notices changes:  the triple tracks of horse and buggy on the road leading into the camp have given way to the twin tracks of car tires, the sleepy lub-lub-lub of inboard motorboats has been replaced by the “nervous” rattle of boats with outboard engines, and the waitresses, though still sixteen, wash their hair more frequently after being exposed to television.  Summer vacations have changed even more in our time.  The roadway to the cottages of White’s lake is no doubt paved by now, jet skis probably zip across the waves adding to the jarring sound, and the waitresses, though still sixteen, are more likely to check their cell phones than watch TV.   Many families, I hear, no longer take summer vacations and often bring work with them on mobile devices when they do.  It is an illusion—a trick of the tongue and mind—this repetition of “summertime” with an “oh” dropped in the middle that we hear in the phrase “summertime, oh, summertime.”  The pattern of the eternal summer may resist change, and the “design” persist in tranquility in our memories, but I’m not sure how durable it is since the people “escaping the summer heat,” whether “common” or “nice,” have come and gone, replaced by many who, sadly, would just as soon spend their lives in conditioned air.

—THE

 

from Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

by Kate Carroll de Gutes

 

“One striking characteristic of Kate Carroll de Gutes’ memoir is that it moves backwards in time.”—THE  

 

On the surface, Kate Carroll de Gutes’ debut collection of essays considers her sexuality, gender presentation, and the end of her marriage. But, as her editor Judith Kitchen writes, “peel it back, begin to take it apart, semantically and linguistically and personally, and it all comes clear.”  What is clear, as the objects of her past come closer, is that Kate is more than a survivor.  She is a powerful writer with a winning voice that, thoughtful but unresigned, usually gets the better of her woes.  She gets to me on every page.—THE

 

THE Paragraph of the Week

 

I didn't ever expect to have an ex-wife. Of course, I didn't expect to have a wife, either. At least not one I talked about openly. Wrote about. Introduced as "my wife Judy." The prefix "ex" is from the Latin for "out of, from; to remove from, without." This woman helped make me who I am. I am from her. We grew up together. Came out together. Figured out roommate, spousal equivalent, partner, and wife together. And I have removed myself from her, as well, expurgating my history as well as my heart.

—Kate Carroll de Gutes

 

Commentary

 

One striking characteristic of Kate Carroll de Gutes’ memoir is that it moves backwards in time.  It begins with her choosing Ikea furniture for a new apartment after her breakup with Judy, her wife of twenty-three years, and ends with the complicated waltz steps her parents did to keep the dance of their difficult marriage together when she was a girl.  This passage about the “ex” in “ex-wife” comes somewhere near the middle, at the heart of both the book and her story.  She takes apart the definition of the Latin prefix—“out of, from; to remove from, without” to show that she has been redefined by a single syllable.  She is “out of herself” away from her wife, and at a “remove” from love that has left her bereft, completely “without.”  She takes a gloomy comfort in the fact that she is part of a larger problem that has little to do with her sexual orientation, “that relationships fail for gays and lesbians just as they do for straight people.”  Calling herself “the lesbian Woody  Allen” she uses humor to take away the sting—and her book, which is in some ways a romp, is very funny.  But it is sadness that fuels the tale from a beginning, which is the end, to the ending where it all began.  Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear serves as a reminder that even those who risk so much to break taboos in an attempt to find love are as susceptible to heartache as those who lead more conventional lives.—THE 

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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