Slow rising stories

 

One autumn we went to visit my sister where she was cooking for a lodge in Cigarette Cove. Her partner ran the place and took visitors on fishing trips. We stayed for a few days, enjoying the remote location on the coast. The boys went fishing while I stayed with my sister in the warm kitchen, talking and laughing, catching up after months apart. I decided to make bread, but after all the preparation and long kneading, it didn’t rise. Disappointed, I threw the white blob atop a pile of food waste in a garbage can.

That night, we walked down the L-shaped dock to our rooms, the water lapping, the dogs running up and down among our legs, the moon laced with moving clouds. In the morning, we woke to the loons calling. When I went to make coffee in the big kitchen, the white blob had risen to a huge balloon of dough. My sister and I carefully removed it from the heap. I scraped off a few coffee grounds, punched it down, formed two loaves, let it rise again, and later that day we had the most delicious fresh bread for lunch.

My sister and I sometimes laugh about the legendary “garbage bread.” I love the slow riser, the late bloomer. The way that stories and bread and flowers surprise you when you least expect it. The way that people grow yeasty and bloomy in their late years, amazing us by finally doing what makes their hearts sing.

So I don’t need to rush the stories. Forget about the goal to have ten written by Christmas. Why?  I can let go of the expectations that academia trained in me: Always write to a deadline. Keep sending stuff out. Succumb to the pressure to publish. I don’t need to operate on that schedule. I can slow cook stories for months, if I want. Who cares?

These last few weeks I have been dipping into short stories by Raymond Carver (Where I’m Calling From) and Sharon Butala (Fever), two very different authors who do not satisfy. They leave me yearning and wondering. And yet in the wanting, there is such pleasure. They make me realize that I can let go of my need to have “closure” or  to “wrap up” my narratives. I was reminded of this as well when I saw more than one student in the Writing Centre this week asking for help in understanding Alice Munro’s “Gravel.” Wondering, feeling, not knowing—this is what stories by all three of these writers engender in me.

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From a story I am cooking now: The swimming pool came in and out of my shifting vision. White lights shimmered up through the blue water. The rest of the yard was in shadow. “Guys, c’mon,” I whispered behind me as we all scaled the concrete blocks like monkeys. Soft rock played through the open verandah door. “We’re going to get caught,” I said to the boys ascending behind me. And then suddenly I went over with a thud and red pain on the other side.

The boys leapt over to help me, saw the weird tilde of my white arm against the black grass. “Shit she broke it, I can tell by the swerve of it, look.” The other boy felt my arm near the elbow and I cried out in pain.

The soft rock clicked off and we heard clip clop steps from the pool deck. The walker was wearing heels. “What the hell is going on over here?” came a woman’s shrill voice. Soon she came flapping over to our huddle in a diaphanous gown, her perfumed head dunking into our circle of bodies. “You kids are trespassing, I should call the cops,” she cried again, trying to rouse the boys to lift their shaggy heads to look into her eyes. One of them, Pete, said, “Sorry, ma’am, but our friend has a broken arm. Can you call the ambulance, please?” Pete labored at enunciation, trying to pull up the sloppy vowels so he didn’t seem so wasted.

I was met at the hospital by my mother, who sat with me on a hard wooden bench in the hallway. “How could you be drinking? You’re under-aged. Like way under-aged! You’re 13, for god’s sake! Where the hell did you even get the booze? Who booted for you? I’ll wring their necks, the fuckers,” she spit-whispered into my ear. The crisp nurses clucked their disapproval as they passed. “No painkillers for you until the alcohol is out of your system,” said one when I groaned in agony. I was being punished. I could see it in their amused, accusing eyes.

 

 

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Inter Art: Scarcity and Abundance

I recently re-read Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth,” about the sisters Flora and Ellie who are Cameronians, a “freak religion from Scotland” (p. 152). When Ellie is confined to her sick bed, Flora puts her sister to sleep by reading to her from old books of their faith, “all the stuff that was in their monstrous old religion” (p. 157). Sometimes those readings were leavened by stories about Scotland, about “urchins and comic grandmothers” (p. 157). The only title mentioned is Wee Macgregor, about a Glaswegian lad and his family narrated in Scots dialect by J.J. Ball. These mawkish tales were first published in the Glasgow Evening Times around the turn of the century then gathered in a small book. As I read about the few books Flora had on hand, I thought of my mother’s house and how an early impoverishment of books shapes minds and lives.

Then I turned to Richard Wright, an important twentieth-century African American writer, whose 1961 short story “The Man who was Almost a Man” contains another kind of paucity. The only intertext in this story is the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Dave doesn’t have his own copy—he has to go to the local store and borrow the catalogue so he can pore over the pictures. It’s doubtful he can read. Getting a gun from the catalogue, thinks Dave, will make him a man. A persistent theme in Wright’s work is the black man’s struggle to be seen as fully human.

“Howdy, Dave! Whutcha want?”

“How yuh, Mistah Joe? Aw, Ah don wanna buy nothing. Ah jus wanted t see ef yuhd lemme look at tha catlog erwhile.”

“Sure! You wanna see it here?”

“Nawsuh. Ah wans t take it home wid me. Ah’ll bring it back termorrow when Ah come in from the fiels. ”

“You plannin on buying something?”

“Yessuh.”

“Your ma lettin you have your own money now?”

“Shucks. Mistah Joe, Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!”

Joe laughed and wiped his greasy white face with a red bandanna.

“Whut you plannin on buyin?”

Dave looked at the floor, scratched his head, scratched his thigh, and smiled. Then he looked up shyly.

“Ah’ll tell yuh, Mistah Joe, ef yuh promise yuh won’t tell.”

“I promise.”

“Waal, Ahma buy a gun.”

“A gun? Whut you want with a gun?”

“Ah wanna keep it.”

“You ain’t nothing but a boy. You don’t need a gun.”

“Aw, lemme have the catlog, Mistah Joe. Ah’Il bring it back.”

When Dave takes the catalogue home, his mother thinks it will provide toilet paper in the outhouse, but is quickly disabused of this notion. Dave pores over the pictures during dinner and is told to put the catalogue away. In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath farm labourers are suspicious of the written word because it may be used to manipulate and deceive. And here, similarly, Dave’s parents see the catalogue as dangerous—putting ideas into their son’s head. All those glittery objects they cannot afford.

Dave gets his gun and of course the results are catastrophic.

What is it like to grow up where there are no books in the house? Where you have to borrow a catalogue from the corner store? Or perhaps there is only one book: the Bible. This poverty is hard for me to imagine. I grew up surrounded by books and received books for every birthday and Christmas as I was growing up.

However, my mother grew up in a strict German Lutheran home with seven siblings and no books save the Bible. Born in North Dakota in 1929, my mother Virginia was so grateful when one of her much older sisters—my Auntie Fran—gave her the gift of her first book when she was 7 or 8, Shaun O’Day of Ireland (1929). She remembers this gift fondly because it unlocked the door to literacy and a lifelong hunger for books and reading. She mentioned the book to me again when I visited her last Easter, and she is 87—so this is an indelible memory. Curiously, the author of Shaun O’Day is Madeline Brandeis, with the same spelling of Madeline that I use. Although my mother says she named me Madeline because she “liked the name,” I wonder if it was this author’s name—author of a treasured book—that partially inspired the choice?

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The words and pictures in books might give people ideas about having a better life. My mother started reading about Shaun, imagined how life was in Ireland, and soon she had her eye on a different life. She left her parents’ farm in Lodi, California to move to LA and then to Berkeley. She met my dad on the Berkeley campus where she studied Art History and he studied Sociology. Both of them surrounded themselves with books, just as my sisters and I do. From scarcity to abundance.

If you have any ideas for future blogs on inter art/ intertext please use the comment section or email me at maddyruthwalker@gmail.com Thank you for reading.

Work cited

Munro, A. (1990). A friend of my youth. In L. Chalykoff, N. Gordon, & P. Lumsden (Eds), The Broadview introduction to literature: Short fiction (pp. 150-167). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Note: I use APA here even though MLA is expected. I have used and taught APA for the last while (working in a School of Nursing), so I need to re-learn MLA now.