words and homes and wars and love


I set out to read this book. It is experiencing a moment of popularity — every copy I found for miles was checked out. I read it in two days.

“The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult and the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class, who found a local habitation in a large university in Columbia, Missouri, and who walked unheeding in a midwestern air.”

I thought at first it would be like The Translator, and then later like Possession. There are similarities, but both those other books about academia written by academics are love letters to it. This is less of a letter.

“As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake away to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaired his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

You can resonate with things without liking that you do so. I run, but I am hesitant to bind up the idea of who I am in it — to always mention it to people when one’s private life or pursuits come up — because investing in something as fleeting as physical prowess, making it part of your identity, seems to be asking to be wounded. I liked to think I thought of buildings and structures and dwellings in the same way, with a knowledgable distance, but now that we are trying to buy a house I realize I haven’t been as distant as I’d like. I want a fortress, a Skyhold, somewhere I don’t have to hear the neighbors fighting with each other, making their little girl cry on my porch. (I can do nothing about that hurt. I tried.) I want somewhere deep, into whose cool shadows I can retreat in harsh summers, and into whose cocoon-like warmth I can retract in winter, and not always need to worry that the people milling around muttering on the sidewalk are going to have a psychotic episode and fling themselves into traffic or against the wall. (I can do nothing about that hurt either.)

“It was a world of half-light in which they lived and to which they brought the better parts of themselves–so that, after a while, the outer world where people walked and spoke, where there was change and continual movement, seemed to them false and unreal. Their lives were sharply divided between the two worlds, and it seemed to them natural that they should live so divided.”

I wonder sometimes if this is how some of the more constant Tumblr users feel. I’m not in a place to judge them on it — had Tumblr and smartphones been around 15 years ago I’d likely have retreated to it too, all the time — but I wonder if this is why I feel, not just old (for Tumblr), but like there was a emotional dialect shift that I missed. A meaning that people ground there that I was fortunate (?) enough to be able to ground in a world I can touch. I don’t mean games here, incidentally: they are contained narratives. This quote is couched within the context of a love affair, where two humans exchange words and meaning independent of the narrative others craft for them. Games aren’t comparable in this case. But online communities are. I think the window for our willingness to bring the better parts of ourselves out and about into the world closed rapidly, for people my age. There are now [ostensibly] less-risky alternatives. People are quick to judge youth on that account but I’m not sure that’s wise. One way or another, we’re all dividing ourselves up between worlds, whether it’s work and home, or between one group of friends and the next. I don’t know that one more division, between the virtual and the tactile, ends up being much different.

“Five days before the marriage took place the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor; and William Stoner watched the ceremony with a mixture of feeling that he had not before. Like many others who went through that time, he was gripped by what he could think of only as a numbness, though he knew it was a feeling compounded of emotions so deep and intense that they could not be acknowledged because they could not be lived with. It was the force of a public tragedy he felt, a horror and a woe so all-pervasive that private tragedies and personal misfortunes were removed to another state of being, yet were intensified by the very vastness in which they took place, as the poignancy of a lone grave might be intensified by a great desert surrounding it.”

This is one of the most accurate passages on living through a national tragedy I have read. I wish to add 9/11 to the list which includes “Japan” and “dementia” of Things I Talk About Too Much And Should Mention Less Often, but…that description of what happens to personal loss in the face of vast national loss. That is perfect. I wish my mom were still herself so I could ask her how she knew to deal with finding me, on September 12th, asleep in the armchair in front of the news at night, a spiral notebook fallen open in my lap with the same foolish prayer written over and over for some thirty pages. I was an idiot; I thought a former teacher’s husband worked in the Pentagon (he did not), and when she did not reply to my emails I worried something had happened to him (he was fine) but in the last flare of my blessedly brief phase of religiosity, I thought a notebook full of scrawled hope that he’d be okay would be helpful. And Mom never asked about it; never even mentioned it. Did she just take it in stride, or did she worry? It must have looked nuts. She was not one for prying; but there was no way she could have missed it — she dragged me out of the chair and up to bed, after all. How do you know what to do, as a parent, when every problem you have grows blurry and faint against the much-larger tapestry of war? Who did they think all of us kids watching this unfurl — who did they think we would become? Better people? People who could avoid this? If so, I think we have failed already.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

Says in one sentence what every wedding speech worth its salt takes many breaths to say.

“There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came on him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

The only songs I know by Feist are “I Feel It All” and whatever she played on the Colbert Christmas Special, which my dad taped and sent me when I was abroad. But her “1234” cropped up on a playlist at work today, and though I wanted to skip it at first (I associated its chorus with some commercial that played endlessly one year, I think for clothing) I let it play, entirely because of the way she says the line “Oh you know who you are.” I guess in the context of the song it could be read as an indictment but the way she says it, it sounds like a long-sought perk worth boasting about. And it ought to be. And that’s why I liked this line so much. There’s no sour undertone. “Oh, she knows what she is,” I heard someone snark once about an alcoholic friend. That’s not the way this line goes, not in the song and not in this book. It is something long-fought for, and not always obtained. And there is no bitterness. Just knowledge. Just the thing for which he aimed the whole time. With a kind of love.

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