The Mothers of Rinaldo

A short story by Madeline Walker

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Ainslie Birchoff had a son, and then she had another one two years later. A week before the second birth, the bigger boy, Rinaldo, was moved into his own bedroom, with his own bed.  The chocolate brown curtains had pink embroidered pigs on them, by Ainslie’s own small talented hands, and there was a sturdy box of wooden blocks in the corner. Ainslie’s husband Tom had tried to get Rinaldo used to the room for a few nights before the birth—lying down with him and singing the boy to sleep on the cosy little toddler-sized bed made up with soft flannel sheets and topped with a bright yellow duvet.

The first night at home from the hospital, Ainslie nursed her new son to sleep in the big bed. They had named him Colin after her grandfather, and after an easy birth he was an easy baby.  Rinaldo had fallen asleep finally, after fussing and crying with his father for what had seemed like hours.  The little family was finally at rest. Ainslie, Colin, and Tom lay together in one room, while Rinaldo slept in the room next to them. The big clock on the wall in the kitchen tick-tocked, and their German shepherd Portia twitched her flanks in sleep.

Come 3 a.m. and Ainslie roused herself to nurse Colin. There were the usual lip smackings and slurpings of the sucking newborn, but then something else. An uneven patter in the hall.  Ainslie carefully slid Colin off of her breast and sidled out of bed, moving very slowly so as not to wake her partner and her infant.  In the hallway, lit only by the golden glow of the night-light, Rinaldo was walking up and down—more like staggering—dressed in only his pajama top. The white cotton nightshirt covered his protruding taut belly and just skimmed his tiny wagging penis.

“Rinaldo, darling, back to bed. Come with me lovey,” She leaned over to scoop up the little boy, when he turned and looked at her, startled.

His face began to crumble into the beginnings of a wail.  “I want my real mommy,” he screamed, then with a long trembling intake of breath he began to sob.   Ainslie felt scared. “But darling boy, I am your real mommy,” she tried again to gather him up, but he backed off.  His face contorted in distress and he continued to cry piteously.  Ainslie was unable to catch him—he fled and hid under the couch, flattening his little body onto the floor. Colin heard the fuss and started to cry from the bedroom, and then so did Ainslie. Finally, Tom was able to extract his son. He rocked the quivering sobbing boy to sleep.

Tom and Ainslie were shaken. They took Rinaldo to their pediatrician the next day, and he examined the boy. “Strong as a pony. Nothing wrong with this kid,” he pronounced, giving the two-year old a high five.  “My professional opinion is that is was an isolated case of night terrors or sleep walking. Ignore it.” And he sent them off to his receptionist to collect a “prize” for Rinaldo from a plastic tub of dollar store items such as kazoos and small stuffed toys.

There weren’t any more instances like the night waking terror, but starting at around age four, Rinaldo started to say a very precocious and oddly hurtful thing: “I was born into the wrong family.”  You may think it impossible that a four year old could say something like that as it seems to presuppose a level of self-awareness that a child that age simply does not have. But that’s because you’re thinking that the statement is metaphorical. Four-year old (and five-year old, and six-year old) Rinaldo was not speaking metaphorically. He was stating a fact, it seemed, when he pronounced this. And pronounce it he did. Not terribly often, but at interesting moments, with a kind of faraway look in his eyes. The statement and the look, together, made Ainslie’s gut drop, made her feel like she was on a broken elevator, shooting down, down.

Rinaldo’s parents weren’t Italian—the Burchoff name was originally from Tom’s paternal grandfather who was German. So Rinaldo was christened Rinaldo because his father liked the name. He had come across it in a novel he was reading, turned it around in his mouth a few times, and asked his wife, Ainslie, “what do you think of Rinaldo for a boy?”

“It’s different, I like it!” she shouted from the kitchen where she attempted to chop vegetables with her arms extended, as her enormous girth kept her well back from the counter. Later on, she had done some research and found that Rinaldo, an Italian form of Reynold, meant “wise power.” Nice, she thought.

Portia the dog died when the kids were in their teens—it was surprising she lasted so many years.  At the end, they had to carry her from one part of the house to the other because she slid on the hardwood floors. Tom got killed in a car accident when the boys were 29 and 27, and precisely one year later, Ainslie was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of inflammatory breast cancer. Colin was married with a new baby, and Rinaldo was single, living on his own in a cramped bachelor apartment across town. He was barely making ends meet with his blog “Outersphere,” about metaphysics and people and places that operated on different, higher energy levels than other folk.  The advertising revenue from the blog kept him just solvent. Soon after his mother’s diagnosis, he gave his notice at the apartment and moved back into the family home, back into his boyhood bedroom.  At a point late in his mother’s cancer, after every treatment had failed and she was back at home to live her last days, Rinaldo taped a sign to the front door of the 1920’s character house, carefully lettered with a black sharpie on lined paper:  “My mother is dying in this house.  Please respect this sacred space. Remove your shoes. Speak softly. Don’t bring negativity here, only love. Let us make her passage to the other side one of peace.”

One day he sat beside her bed, holding her hand, rhythmically pressing down the raised blue veins with his huge thumb, crying quietly.  She looked at him—so different from staid Colin, his wild brown curls tucked behind big ears, his beard scraggly and rough. His hazel eyes were red-rimmed from so much crying.

“Do you remember, Rinaldo, the night you had the bad dream, just after Colin was born?”

“No, tell me.”

“Well you were wandering around the house in just a nightshirt, and when I tried to take you back to your bed, you looked up at me so scared, and said ‘I want my real mommy!’ Oh my, that hurt me so much.  I still feel a stab in my heart, even now” she said with a grimace.

“You know, I finally found my real Mother,” he said to her, looking into her eyes.

She looked confused. She was expecting some reassurance from her son. She was dying here, a youngish widow, the tragedy was compound, the air was thick with the sadness of it all. And here he was saying she was actually not his mother?

“I’m your real mother,” she said sharply. I should know, I spend nine months with you in utero. I birthed you. I should know.”

“Oh, I know all that. But that’s not what’s important. Of course you are my biological mother, but my spirit Mother is somebody who has been right under my nose, all along, and I only found out last year.”

Ainslie, though very weak, pulled her thin body up in the bed. Her sharpness continued. “What the hell are you talking about?” This tone was uncharacteristic for her. She had been such a soft, giving soul all of her life.  Those uncanny times when Rinaldo had said he was born in the wrong family, those tore her heart to shreds, but she had suffered silently. And now, this? She had thought when he moved back home after her diagnosis that there would be only closeness, only intimacy, only mother-son love.  Now this?

Rinaldo did not draw back, nor did he release her hand. His big hand was very warm, enclosing hers, and though he had tears streaming down his face, he was very composed, very calm. “Mom, it’s okay, it’s okay. I know it’s upsetting. But my spirit Mother is no rival to you. You have been a wonderful mum—always there for me, always loving.  But my spirit Mother—well She is the one who guides me, who has been guiding me, in spirit matters all my life. The story about my night wandering at two is very telling. I have been looking for Her, and She is right here.”

“Right where?” murmured Ainslie. Her eyes were closed now, as she felt a sharp pain in her chest, where her breasts had once been.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich.  He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed.  Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in.  Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

“In there, my Mother is in there.” He paused.  “And your own spirit Mother is in here.” He slowly moved her hand out of his shirt and placed it on her own flat chest, where two radical mastectomies had razed her body.  His hand, warm and firm, held her own fluttery one down flat on that scarred place, separated from her skin by only a thin layer of violet cotton.  They both felt her heart beating rapidly, a bird’s beat in comparison to his.  A thought flashed through Ainslie’s mind. I’m not embarrassed. I wonder why? But then her attention was back on the hands, her son’s and her own. The place under those hands grew warm as her rapid heart began to slow down. Now it sounded like a little pony going from a canter to a trot. A palomino pony trotting across a green meadow, wild yet serene.  Free.

 

Four things

 

“I think your financial guy is the same financial guy as my financial guy.”

Oh my god, thought Shig, did I really just hear that sentence? She took another twenty from another customer for a double Americano, and—making change—placed the plastic purple and blue bills in an outstretched hand. Her septum ached from the new piercing. Was it getting infected? She kept touching it throughout the morning, moving the ball closure ring back and forth through the tender hole. It was akin to the tongue going to the sore tooth. Is it all right? Am I leaking snot?

Shig, tall and willowy with short-cropped dark hair, drove her life in lists of four. Her manner since childhood had been to hold back and plan her movements, which imbued her with a tentative grace. She approached people with a protean, mobile face—she was ready to smile if you smiled, ready to turn away if you ignored her. There was a guarded, wait-and-see look in her brown hooded eyes.  She often took her cues from others in the life outside her skin, yet her interior life felt mostly like a cathedral, orderly and spacious, filled with light, demarcated by quartets of pews.

The cathedral image had formed when she was fifteen and they had read Raymond Carver’s story in English 10.  Two pictures stayed with her: One, of the full-bearded blind man enclosing the narrator’s hand in his own as together they drew a cathedral.  A cathedral is a place built, the narrator said, because men want to be closer to God. And the other picture was what she imagined the interior of the cathedral was like—her interior, really. Instead of blood and bones, a heart, a liver, a pancreas, she had ribs of stone, an airy dome, stained glass windows, warm coloured light, cherry wood pews with velvet cushions.

Right now everybody wanted Americanos. The head barista Blondie is working quickly, expertly tamping down coffee into three brew baskets, plugging portafilters snugly into La Marzocco (they called the big espresso machine Zocco for short).  When Blondie interviewed her for the job on Skype, Shig wanted to ask were you named for Blondie in the comic? Or were you named for the other Blondie, the  singer?  Shig’s mom had an old Parallel Lines L.P. in a milk crate in the basement, and she liked to look at it sometimes. She liked it that Blondie didn’t feel the need to smile in that photo whereas most of the goofy looking men surrounding her had grins on.  Or maybe Blondie was called Blondie simply because she was blonde, dyed blonde. Blondie did look a little like the fifties comic with her glossy wheat-coloured wave curving over her brow and her shapely figure and tight clothes. But comic Blondie didn’t have tattoos, thought Shig.  Or at least visible ones.

As she took orders and made change, Shig started thinking about her own name. It started when she was four and had hair long enough to put up. She was mesmerized by the women with chignons that she saw in magazines and on billboards. “I want one!” she told her mother, and from then on, for perhaps two years, Chelsea would ask for a chignon every day, and her mother complied. The only girl in kindergarten with her hair up in a fashionable do.  Her brother, two years older, insisted on calling her Shig, short for chignon (yes, the g is silent, but he was six at the time and just starting to read). The name stuck.  And now Chelsea was a thing of history, and Shig was her identity, even though her hair was super short now, and she hadn’t worn a chignon since high school.  Sometimes she was even Shiggy when a friend was being affectionate.  Back on task, Shig, she told herself. Change, cups, two Americanos, one machiatto with legs.

Shig rhymes with dig, and her first boyfriend, Aaron, had written a ditty for her on the back of a McDonald’s napkin: My sweet Shig, You I dig.  But Shig also rhymed with prig.  Aaron had called her that when she didn’t want to remove her clothes in public. A group of her friends took Ecstasy after graduation and had ended up dancing around a bonfire in the woods, semi-nude.  Sure enough, she had taken the Ecstasy, greedy for the experience, but then she was the only one who refused to take her shirt off.  Oh Shig, You’re such a prig. The boys and the other girls tore off their tops and flung them into the bushes, laughing.  She remembered the blur of coloured bras in the firelight.  And the boys’ chests, bronzed and luminous.

Still, there were times when the cathedral flung open its doors to outer life, and she let that interior glow guide her.  That was happening more often.

Just after her nineteenth birthday, Shig started to think about leaving her hometown of Kamloops. She and Aaron had broken up, and she had no interest in going to Thompson Rivers University like her brother.  She was ready for a change from the job at Starbucks and the home routines that had played out since childhood.

Shig imagined how it might go if she announced her intention. There would be an argument about why she should stay, followed by grudging acceptance, the U-Haul rental, arranged by her Dad, the choosing and packing items, supervised by her mother, and maybe a family party to say good-bye, to which her friends would be invited via her mother’s Facebook page. To Shig’s dismay, all of her friends were Facebook friends with her mother.   Basically her parents would take over.

She wanted to do it alone, to start over, to strike out. Her parents’ love felt like a hoodie that was warm and protective, but starting to feel too warm.  The hood blinded her from seeing peripherally, and she was aching to throw it off.  Shig started by searching Victoria Craigslist every morning before work. That way, she thought, I will catch the right job and nab the room in the best shared house before someone else does. Around that time, Shig’s cathedral started to bloom with light.

Always disciplined and methodical, at age six Shig had lined up her beanie babies in categories (cats, dogs, reptiles) at nine, kept her pencils and felties organized by colour in Bonne Maman jam jars on her bookshelf.  She had decided at age eight to get better at gymnastics and forced herself to practice every day for 30 minutes. Soon she was winning medals.

Now she applied the discipline to a secret plan—to find a home and a job in Victoria without assistance, and to make it all happen with minimal parental involvement.  Loco parentis, she thought. In the place of my parents: me. I can be responsible for me.  And I can do it all in lists of four.

She had made it happen—saved her money, found a place to rent in a shared house—all arranged without her parents’ knowledge. Nailed a job online after a Skype interview (she had Starbucks experience and that counted for a lot).  Decided not to bring anything but herself and a few books and clothes, thus no need for a U-Haul and her father’s interference.  She took the train two months ago and here she is.

Shig makes lists in her mind, four things at a time as she moves throughout her day. It might be, for example, teeth, boots, cat, earrings. That meant first she would clean her teeth, then put on her boots, then feed the cat, then choose earrings.  (She missed the family cat Ollie the most, followed by her brother, then parents.) This listing kept her focused on the tasks at hand. One of her father’s favourite sayings was “be where your hands are.” That was good. She couldn’t get too far ahead of herself. It kept her on task and in the cathedral when she needed to be.

Sometimes she wrote down her lists of four. She had her little coiled notebook, but when it wasn’t near, she used scraps of paper. Listing was private. Once her brother found a list of four on the floor in the dining room—it must have fallen out of her pocket. “What’s this?  Dishwasher, library books, toast, make-up. Shig, this is your writing. What’s it about?”  She was embarrassed. “Just a list of things to do.” “What? You need to make a list to remind you to eat toast? To put on your make-up?” He laughed and put the list in her palm.  “You’re a sweet strange one Shig.”

Another thing Shig does is wonder about sayings—where did they come from? What’s the meaning? Her grandmother had given her a book for her seventh birthday: Mad as a Wet Hen and other funny idioms.  She loved that book. She still had it—stained and dog-eared, it was one of the few books she had brought with her on the train. And since then Shig had kept a running list of idioms and their meanings. First in notebooks in her neat cursive, then transferred into a Word file when she got a laptop.

And so here she is at Caffe Fantastico, taking orders.  She used lists, determination, the cathedral, her borderline OCD-ness to get here, get this job, get that room, save enough for the septum piercing for her twentieth birthday last week (a gift to myself, she thought). On task: order doppio, take money, make change, clean cups up on Zocco.

The latest idiom on the list troubled her. After she got her nose pierced, she posted a picture on her Facebook page.  Her mother commented, “You look like a bull, Shig. Watch you don’t get led by the nose.” Whoa! She wasn’t prepared for that. Yes, she knew that her mother, though appearing supportive, loving and cool to all of Shig’s friends, could also be sharp and mean in private. But this was public—right on her timeline.  Was this to get back at Shig for taking responsibility for her own move to Victoria? Was this a subtle revenge tactic?

Her parents had been shocked when at dinner one night she made the fait accompli announcement she was leaving. It was as if she had betrayed them. All she was doing was what they had told her to do all of her life. Be responsible for yourself. They were surprised because they were used to her taking her cue from them. Both parents had been hinting about TRU—what would you like to take? Why don’t you do a “fun” year taking classes you are interested in, a try-it-on year?  That’s what we both did, then we found our majors.  We’ll pay for it, honey.  Just figure out what you want to study. But what if she didn’t want to go to University at all? What then? Would the world end?

Domestic cattle, usually bulls, often had their septums pierced and rings inserted, the easier to lead them and control them. To be led by the nose meant to be easily controlled by others.  So was her mother, then, suggesting she was weak, gullible, liable to be controlled? Why the fuck did Shig care so much? The irony, she thought, was that yes—she had been controlled by others, and those others were her parents. She had taken their cues all of her childhood and teenage years. She had been led by the nose. And she had taken steps to change that by executing her plan to move away. And now here she was.

Why did she even friend her mom on Facebook? Because it seemed unkind to ignore the friend request, and she was a kind person, she reminded herself.  She touched the nose ring yet again and noticed the next customer in line looking at her with—what was that—disgust? It looks unsanitary, me touching my nose all day, Shig thought. She asked Rose to take over the cash. “I just need five minutes,” she said, taking off her apron and shimmying around the back of the horseshoe shaped counter. She went out into the bright light of day.  People were scattered over the patio, sitting at the spindly tables, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, some jiggling babies on their knees.

Okay, I need to list, thought Shig walking purposefully down the road away from the cafe. I have five minutes. This is the Shig way—listing makes things better. There is no try, said Yoda, only do. Her father had a t-shirt with some Yoda saying that had shaped her childhood. Don’t try, just do. Just do it. No, that was Nike, not Yoda, but both ideas prevailed in her house.  And now she had to undo this discomfort, this feeling she had somehow capitulated to the “system” by getting a nose ring. She was pissed off at her mother, she was embarrassed, and she was resentful.  Tell Siri set alarm, five minutes, then breathe, then stride, four: turn back at the corner. Shit shit shit shit, it’s time to go back in. She slipped behind the counter, pulled the apron back on, tied it absentmindedly, and started in again at the cash. I don’t need a list of four things to do. I need to just tell my mother to fuck off.  Take the bill, make change, clean cups, put the order slip on Zocco.  One, two, three, four.

“You alright?” asked Blondie, nudging closer to her. “You look upset.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s a stupid thing. Just mad at my mother.”   Then a funny thing popped into her mind. “Gird your loins,” her father used to say, jokingly, as he drove their Jetta around town dropping them off at school or gymnastics. She even remembered him saying it to her as he escorted her into preschool when she was three and still in diapers some of the time. “Gird your diapered loins, Chels.”  My father is so weird, Shig mused with a smile.

That saying, that particular idiom, popped into my head right now because it’s a sign, she thought. I need to gird my loins, I need to protect myself from my mom. She can be mean, and now I need to protect myself. Maybe not my loins, exactly, but she does get me where I am most vulnerable, my sense of autonomy.

During her lunch break, Shig got her iPhone and looked up “gird your loins” in her running list (alphabetical).  She had been thinking it meant to protect oneself as one went into battle. Well not exactly. It means to prepare yourself mentally to do something difficult, and it came from the Bible, where girding up your loins meant to tie up long loose clothes to get them out of the way when you were working or going to war.  In effect, you made a kind of diaper out of those robes men used to wear. So it was still relevant to her situation, she thought. Yes, that’s it. I need to mentally prepare myself to confront my mother and tell her something. . . .  But I’m not sure what yet. But yes. Gird my loins.  Tie up my loose apron and focus.  Except the idea of the diaper kept interfering with her image of being fierce.

At 3:30 p.m. Shig was standing on her front porch, digging around in her deep leather purse for the keys to the house she shared with three others. After letting herself in, she took off her helmet, dropped her stuff and sat on a stool at the kitchen island with her notebook. Lists had been formulating all the way home. When she got anxious, as she was now, the lists got granular.  When she really needed to calm down she would lay out the four things to do on the cathedral pews, like they were little bits of paper, one on each pew. So, one on the first pew, get laptop from room. Two on the second pew, go to Facebook and sign in. Three, on the third pew, take three deep breaths (a way to gird my loins). Four, on the fourth pew, re-read the post. Then I’ll need another list to figure out what to do next. But that’s okay. One thing at a time. Be where your hands are. Cathedral.

Wait, I didn’t eat at lunch. New list. One, bread out of fridge, two, two slices into the toaster, three, cut cheese, four, mayonnaise.   As she sat at the stool chewing her sandwich and swallowing, she started wondering about Raymond Carver and what he had meant.  She had loved the story, but a tug in her solar plexus told her she was missing something important. She wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Mrs. Romney had given, that the narrator had finally realized true sight at the end, a kind of spiritual vision that the blind man already had.  Somehow there was more to it than that.  She liked to think about the blind man’s big paw wrapped around the smaller hand of the narrator, the two of them sitting close together on the couch with Robert’s full beard grazing the narrator’s neck. They had just smoked a big joint. And the wife in the doorway yammering, “what’s happening? What’s going on?” Shig chuckled aloud just thinking about it.

She started working through the list she had made prior to the sandwich, running up to her room, grabbing her laptop, and bringing it back to the kitchen island. She liked sitting here in the afternoon because the sun splashed into the room like a big stream of honeywater.  She logged into Facebook and paused, taking her three deep breaths. As she completed each of her numbered tasks, she picked up the paper from the pew and crumpled it, putting it into her pocket. Not really, of course.  There was no actual paper, no cathedral, but she went through the actions in her recessed interior, where light played over the mosaic floor, the rood cross.

Okay, my loins are girded. She went back to the post she had made to accompany the photo.  Lulu, the woman who had done the piercing, had offered to take a picture of her. Though her nose hurt like hell, Shig was radiant in the photo, proudly showing off her jewelry, eyes sparkling, huge grin, her gamin hair pushed back on her sweaty brow.  She checked the comments underneath and breathing slowly, read through them all to find her mother’s.  “Shig – way to go you wild woman!” “Shiggy you are so brave.”  “You look wonderful” “Shig come home we miss you!” “You look hot” “Hey I want one of those” “Can I come visit, Shig?” all peppered with brightly coloured emojis.  She exhaled, smiling. Her friends were so lovely.

But where was her mother’s post about being led by the nose?  Nowhere to be seen.  She read through the comments again, more slowly. Not there! She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the sunbath. My cathedral, Shig thought.  She opened her eyes, closed her laptop, and started a list of four.  Laundry, pee, shopping list, email.  No, that should be pee, laundry, email, shopping list.  She felt so good, so satisfied, so content, that she risked a second list of four before she went up to the bathroom. Part one of the shopping list: eggs, almond milk, avocado, kale.

Story and photo by Madeline Walkerimg_0776

 

 

 

Dilettante blues

dilettante |ˌdiləˈtäntdiləˈtäntē| noun (pl. dilettantanti |-ˈtäntē| or dilettantantes): a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge: [ as modifier ] : a dilettante approach to science.

I have long thought of myself as having a dilettante approach to intellectual and artistic projects. In our loving household, we put a slightly kinder label on it: “Dabblers unite” is one of our mottos. Yet on my more self-critical days, I wonder why I cannot commit to a path and get really good at one thing, whether it’s fiction, sewing, poetry, drawing, painting or making comics. I come into my room on weekend mornings, loving the light pooling on blond wood floors; the palm tree outside the window; my son’s, my husband’s, and my own paintings decorating white walls. The drawing table and swivel chair in front of the window beckon, “pick me! Draw comics today!” The sewing machine and cutting table are spread with a quilt I am in the middle of making, also calling out to me: “Play with us! Free motion quilting is so fun!” And my low wicker chair, lined with plump blue pillows, looks seductive, laptop not far away. “Write! write! you know you want to, you know you want to get better at this short story thing. . . . “ The tall cupboard might be open, with its treasure trove: glue gun, watercolours, scissors, charcoal, India ink, felt-tip pens and pencils in every hue. Whose birthday is next? Shall I make a card?

Yes, I want to create, but when I never commit to one path, I never get really good any one thing. Even when I committed five years of my life to getting a PhD, I don’t think I went really deep, and I didn’t continue my research in that area. I never got to really know my subject. I used to joke that I was getting a “PhD lite” because I would rather go horizontal, exploring many tangents, than go vertical, deep into the material. I’ve always read this way too: skimming and popping in and out of several different books, writing down the title of a new one, pursuing first this lead and then that one, rarely settling down for any length of time and achieving depth. Picking books off shelves, reading a line. This and that, this and that. I’ve celebrated my dilettantism too–deciding to write about film and gender and just doing it, making the plunge. It often feels liberating to follow my variegated passions.

And yet, deep down I know that if I put on blinders and really work at something, eschewing all the persuasive pulls at my attention, a jewel may be uncovered. So, my intuition tells me not to just accept my dilettantism. To choose one path and stick to it, to put aside the other things, simply breaks my heart. However, I sense that that is the way I need to go eventually. I won’t force it, but at some point, “big magic” (Elizabeth Gilbert) will  lead me to the vertical plunge. I can feel it coming.

For now, I will enjoy dabbling.  A little moon quilt, a little cartooning, a little short story writing.  A little of this, a little of that.

 

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Have a creative week.

 

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.

 

 

The work wants to be made

 

I usually write about reading and writing, but today I want to expand and talk about other stuff as well—all the sources that have been sustaining me through this horrible summer. Summer of accidents, death, sadness, and grief.

Reading. I am reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I don’t remember meeting a more wonderful narrator—orphan-boy detective Lionel with Tourette’s syndrome.   His verbal and physical tics lift this detective story out of the ordinary. Lethem gives a master class in first person narration. I am less interested in the story than in the brill narration.

Writing. I finished my seventh story. My goal is still 10. I like this one, though I don’t know if any of them are any good. Sometimes ideas emerge from a deep well I didn’t know I had access too. Sometimes the process feels like automatic writing. . . “where is this coming from?” As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” I am not even thinking as I write. The words just come out.

The latest, “Cones and Bottles” is about a woman Angela with a shitty childhood encountering a girl named Apeshit who is in the midst of her own shitty childhood. Angela confronts some of her demons around addiction and control. Ice cream cones and chocolate milk bottles figure in the story. Angela’s new neighbours invite her over for a barbecue.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y. “Her real name is Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase of a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic. “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling from this description. She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind – the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

* * *

Art making. I found the wooden end of an electrical spool by the side of the road, around 22 inches in diameter. I brought it home and created “Shimmer” a mixed media piece with paper, glue, watercolour, acrylic, spraypaint, coloured pencil, straws, duct tape, wire, found objects. Shimmer has two women who spin for you (well four women, but only two can spin). One expands into dance, the other has contracted into solitude. Jewels sparkle here and there from found objects. There is a little glittery holder for my own version of angel cards at the bottom. This may not be finished.

Spin the girl, pick a card. Shimmer away/ Contract/ Expand/ Change/Everything changes all the time/ pick a card any card/ you never know what life holds for you.

Sewing: Working on “full moon rising quilt.” I love the batiks. I am learning to sew curves, sometimes tricky. This quilt is for a friend that I love.

Painting and writing, sewing and drawing, reading and thinking, dreaming and loving, crying and hugging. These all sustain me during the summer of pain.

P.S. would you like me to pick a card for you? Reply below. I’ll pick it and tell you what it says. IMG_1052

 

Learning the craft: first person first

I have been enjoying Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. The first essay is Richard Russo’s defence of omniscience, and he is very persuasive in showing writers the advantages of omniscience with examples from John Steinbeck and Jon Hassler (and others).

Okay, I am convinced. Problem is, it takes time, doesn’t it? To build to omniscience?

I have completed six stories now, and two out of six are third person. One of the third person narrations is close (we go into the thoughts of one of the characters), and the other, I suppose is “omniscient.” But that one felt very weird to write.  First person narration comes naturally, like a river flowing through me.  Third person omniscient feels distant from me, like I have stepped out of myself.  The disembodiment perhaps brings new powers over time.

I would like to write more in the third person, but I want to see if I can keep the energy of the first person and translate it into third person narration.  This feels like a process that cannot be rushed.

After my book of poems was published, I felt squeamish about it–that I was too confessional, too much of me was exposed.  And yet there is energy there, albeit awkward energy. There is soul. In writing fiction, I need to transmute that richness of my voice, my experience, into the more subtle delineations of the third person narrator.

I started a new full-time job on July 18 after four months “between jobs.” I realize the job takes a lot out of me, though I love it, and I am so grateful for employment that fits my skills and my interests.  I remain committed to my story writing, to learning the craft, to carving out some time each morning. I arranged a 9:30 start so I can fit in my writing time. IMG_0435The blog, however, will be more erratic.

In closing, I offer two paragraphs from my stories, one from a first person narration, the other from my most “omniscient” narrator:

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now. I liked this corner. It felt safe. The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream. I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen. The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me. The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language. I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich. He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed. Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in. Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

 

Work mentioned

Baxter, Charles and Peter Turchi, Eds. Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.

 

 

 

 

Random acts of reading: Little free libraries and green-coloured glasses

The inter-art subject was fun, but the constraint became too constraining (I was searching too hard to find perfect material). So this week I am moving to another subject—the gems acquired through random acts of reading.

I have always enjoyed wandering around libraries or my own library and picking a book at random (often with eyes closed), opening it wherever, and seeing what I get.* Perhaps this practice is a secular version of Bibliomancy, where a sacred book is balanced on its spine, allowed to fall open, and a passage selected with one’s eyes closed. My aim in this practice is not spiritual, but it is purposeful: I do these random acts of reading with the intention of finding some serendipitous truth or significance in the words I land on. As Swedish detective Kurt Wallender says in the marvelous PBS series “there are no coincidences.”

This week I enjoyed wandering around my neighbourhood, treasuring the last weeks of leisure (my new job begins July 18). We have at least three little free libraries in a five-block radius of our house.

I passed the newest and most elegant of the three mini libraries a few days ago and chose a couple of books. The following day, I dropped by the glass-doored cabinet and replenished the library’s supply with two books I have enjoyed and am ready to hand on: John Updike’s, The Beauty of the Lilies and Rachel Naomi Remen’s, Kitchen Table Wisdom.

One of the books I took was Anthony Trollope’s Early Short Stories. I enjoyed reading Trollope’s Barsetshire series in my twenties—they are highly addictive. But I didn’t know him as a story writer. As I am now writing stories, I thought I would explore his shorter fictions.

I opened the book randomly and started to read “La Mère Bauche.” I found the plot grim—a sixtyish stern mother (proprietress of a hotel) prevents her adult son from marrying his childhood sweetheart, and coerces the young woman (an orphan) to marry, instead, a fifty-year-old one-legged man. The young maid subsequently kills herself rather than submit to the man. The moral, I suppose, is that one shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of others: La Mère Bauche “never again laid down laws for the management of anyone” (90). Apparently Harper’s Magazine, who had commissioned the piece, hated it and never published it. I can see why.

As someone trying to learn the craft of fiction, I found more interesting than this nineteenth-century plot a physical detail of La Mère Bauche that carries symbolic weight. We are told in an early description of La Mère that “her eyebrows were large and bushy, but those alone would not have given her face that look of indomitable sternness which it possessed. Her eyebrows were serious in their effect, but not so serious as the pair of green spectacles which she always wore under them. It was thought by those who had analyzed the subject that the great secret of Madame Bauche’s power lay in her green spectacles” (66).

Madame’s green spectacles are referred to again at strategic moments. When the girl, Marie, beseeches her benefactress to consider her love for Madame’s son, “Madame Bauche’s spectacles remained unmoved; but not her heart” (72). Later, when angry with Marie, Madame is ready to carry out “all the threats conveyed by those terrible spectacles,” and an “angry fire glimmered through the green glasses” (p. 83).

At one point, those green spectacles take on a life of their own. When Marie closets herself in her room to weep after the wedding and refuses to leave, “twice did the green spectacles leave the room, covering eyes which also were not dry” (89). And Madame begins to wonder if she had perhaps done the wrong thing in insisting on this marriage.

Trollope uses the detail of the green spectacles judiciously. He doesn’t hammer away at the symbolism. Only much later did I wonder: If cheerful optimistic folks are said to see life through rose-coloured glasses, perhaps Madame’s green glasses illustrate her view of the world through the lens of jealousy and possessiveness. She must have her son all to herself and in clinging to him, she ruins four lives. If the glasses are the great secret of Madame’s power, they are also the secret of her tragic life. The glasses prevent her from following her compassionate heart.

This was a good story for me to learn about using character detail in a story. As David Lodge says, “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole” (68). Trollope’s careful use of green spectacles is a great example.

Trollope’s story had another message for me about the dangers of mothers clinging to their sons. I said good-bye to my youngest son on Wednesday. Two months shy of 22, he is off for an adventure, destination Halifax, with just a backpack and his dreams. For that good-bye, I put on my rose-coloured glasses and I am determined to keep them on.

*I was charmed to see that Ian Brown, in his memoir Sixty, enjoys the same practice of opening books, reading randomly, and finding treasure.

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Works Cited

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London, England: Penguin Books, 1992.

Trollope, Anthony. 1859. “La Mère Bauche.” Early Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

 

Inter-Art: Highbrow/ lowbrow reading

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I remember taking a required class on bibliography in grad school. That was fifteen years ago. Our prof, young and bold, had us dissect a book right down to its spine. That exercise felt sacrilegious—deface a book?

Another activity was to list all the books and other material we’d recently read that we didn’t mind people knowing about in one column, then write that other list—the texts we felt squirmy or embarrassed about—in a second column. I listed in column one all of the classics or books considered “literature” I had recently finished. And in column two: Maeve Binchy’s novels. I felt uncomfortable admitting that I loved curling up with her squishy sentimental fictions and a box of Kleenex. That was like admitting I enjoyed O Henry bars (Binchy) more than Green & Black’s organic dark chocolate (James Joyce). When I met my husband he was apologetic about listening to John Grisham audiobooks. My mother’s love for Rex Stout is something she hides in the basement while all of the history and art history books have pride of place in the living room. These prejudices are deep-seated: Are we worried about appearing dumb? Undiscerning?

Book snobbery is captured at a gut level in my favourite Margaret Drabble short story, “The Merry Widow.”

In tight third person, Drabble writes about her “merry widow” Elsa. Elsa’s husband Philip has recently died, and she feels liberated. She is looking forward to a holiday in Dorset at a cottage alone. The holiday was planned when Philip was still alive. She would have suffered through it, under his critical eye, but now the getaway has an enchanting aspect to it. It will be her first vacation without him after decades of unhappy marriage:

“She had been absolutely fed up to the back teeth with Philip, she said to herself, gritting those teeth tightly as she wrote to increase the standing order for oil delivery, as she rang the plumber to arrange to have a shower attachment fitted to the bathroom tap. Why on earth shouldn’t she have a shower attachment, at her age, with her pension and savings? Her jaw ached with retrospective anger. How mean he had become, how querulous, how determined to thwart every pleasure, to interfere with every friendship.” (p. 152)

For her trip, Elsa packs her bird book, her butterfly book, her flower book, her Pevsner, and her Margery Allingham omnibus. One of her greatest pleasures is to identify birds, butterflies, and flowers, a hobby that had irritated Philip no end. “It had seemed a harmless pleasure, until Philip attacked it. Harmless, innocent, and proper for the wife of a university lecturer. An interest in flowers and butterflies. What could be wrong with that? By some sleight of reasoning he had made it seem sinister, joyless, life-denying.” (p. 155). Drabble is so good at showing how a critical partner can grind his spouse down to a stub through continual undermining, sarcasm, and mockery. The belittled spouse loses all confidence and, ultimately, loses delight in life.

But back to my topic: categorizing some texts as “lowbrow.” Elsa loves the little Dorset holiday cottage and the “modest wilderness” around her. She enjoys her solitude, her wanderings and walks, a gin and tonic in the evenings. She reads and watches the long-tailed finches, relishing the luxury of answering to nobody, of doing exactly what she wants. She revels in her own company, realizing she had been crushed under Philip for a very long time.

“Philip, she reflected…would not have approved her choice of novel. She was reading a Margery Allingham omnibus, nostalgically, pointlessly. Philip had despised detective stories. He had mocked her pleasure in them. And indeed they were a bit silly, but that was the point of them. Yes, that was the point. After lunch, she took Margery Allingham into the paddock, with a rug and her sunhat, and lay under an apple tree.” (p. 161)

Throughout the story, Elsa reflects on how Philip would have judged her choices, and the reflection makes her relieved and happy that she is no longer under his surveillance. She doesn’t have to defend her reading preferences any longer—for example, “pointless” and pleasurable detective stories.

After Philip’s death, she cancelled his subscriptions to scholarly periodicals, which comprised his reading matter.

Now she could relax: eat what she wanted, take long hot showers, watch what she liked on TV, listen to Radio 2, identify flowers and birds, look at the local architecture, indulge in Margery Allingham’s entertaining stories. Philip’s snobbery and psychological abuse died along with him, and she feels suddenly extricated from under the shadow that greyed out her life. (Another shadow emerges in the story, but I won’t spoil it for you.)

That two-column exercise doesn’t work for me today: I can write only one eclectic list—the books I am reading. I don’t need to hide anything; I don’t need anybody’s approval. I hope the same goes for you.

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Drabble, M. (2012). The merry widow. In A day in the life of a smiling woman: Complete short stories (pp. 151-168). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

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.

Inter-art and music

Today I am writing about Charles Baxter’s short story, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude,” a beautiful example of inter-art in the form of a short story wrapped around a piece of music. Baxter, like Ann Beattie from the last post, is an American writer born in 1947.

In this story, Kate, the protagonist, is in a tenuous relationship with Wiley. Wiley borrows money from Kate and can’t keep a job. He’s unpredictable and irritating. But he’s also a brilliant, charismatic guy—a great lover and a very funny man who keeps Kate amused with his clown antics. Kate is taking piano lessons from Mme. Gutowski, an ancient Polish pianist who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and knew Ravel, Bartók, and Cocteau. The story runs like two trains on parallel tracks. We switch from Kate and Wiley to Kate and Mme. and then back to Wiley again. When Kate finds a needle in the bathroom cabinet, Wiley admits he likes doing heroin. Kate asks why he does it. “I like to feel like God,” Wiley said. “I like to have the sun explode and then spray over my face” (p. 9).

Meanwhile over on the piano train, Kate is failing miserably at Shubert and Mme. instructs her to cease: “’No more Schubert,’ she repeated irritably. ‘You play like an American. You speed up the tempo to make a climax. This is Schubert, not Las Vegas’” (p. 2). She orders her pupil to play Gershwin’s Second Prelude instead. “’Gershwin?’ Kate frowned. ‘That’s trash’” (p. 3). But Mme. disagrees. Gershwin, she argues “’requires wizard, but teaches tenderness from first bar to end. You Americans have such trouble learning tenderness, I don’t understand. Learn to relax into calm’” (p. 3). Mme. talks about dead musicians as if they were alive and accessible. She encourages Kate to get to know Gershwin, “a nice boy. You two will adore each other” (p. 3).

Here’s where you stop to listen to Gershwin’s second prelude. This is Michel Legrande’s 1994 recording of all three preludes; you can skip to number two from 1:25-3:56. 

After Wiley leaves her, Kate shows up to her piano lesson drunk, and Mme. tells her a story about her lover in Paris many years ago who succumbed to opium and the delusion that you can be happy all of the time. That lover ended up committing suicide by leaping from the top of a cathedral.

Mme. describes those artists who grab at joy and happiness: “’Joy is infected. Joy for too long is infection. Cannot last’” (p. 14). Rather, it’s what appears to be mundane that has value: “’Boredom has its own tenderness, its own mercy’” (p. 15).

I cannot reduce Baxter’s complex story to one takeaway, but perhaps Madame has it right—what may seem boring, the day-to-day sitting at the piano bench (or writing desk) and working at making a connection with the composer/reader, is the key. Grabbing at happiness and trying to make joy last will make you crazy and sick.

At the end of the story, Mme. extracts a promise from Kate that she won’t keep striving to be happy and insists on a toast with imaginary champagne: “’You will become a hero. You will learn to face losses of giant size’” (p. 15). And they raise their invisible glasses to celebrate loss, boredom, and hard work.

I listened to Gershwin’s piece a few times, trying to understand what its presence meant in the story. I felt the melancholy of the persistent refrain. The minor notes seem to undercut the jaunty rhythm, and five notes repeated throughout the prelude seem to illustrate the boredom tinged with tenderness that Mme. spoke of.

This story reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s message about stubborn gladness. She writes that her “ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness” (p. 219). She just plugs away, trusting throughout losses and wins, ups and downs. Note she does not use the word happiness or the word joy; she uses gladness.

Stubborn gladness. Tender boredom.

 Works cited

Baxter, C. (1984). Gershwin’s second prelude. Harmony of the world. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.