Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Summer Day

This morning I took my younger daughter to her swim lessons at the lake we’ve been going to for I think seven summers now. She’s been doing these lessons for the past two weeks, but today was the first time I took her. Usually, in past summers, it was me taking my girls to these swim lessons, and so today I planned to approach it antisocially as I have been doing the past couple of years, which involved sitting way over to the side at these picnic tables and reading The New Yorker or whatever book I would be distractedly managing to work through the entire summer. But when I got there today I noticed that the picnic tables were not shaded as they usually were, but blazingly right in the sun. This is not the kind of day to be messing with sun. I took my magazine over to the shaded benches where all the other moms were talking about things their kids said and soccer tryouts and that sort of thing and I tried to read in my usual distracted way. I squinted way out at the dock where my daughter was practicing dives and I could just make her out.

Then I noticed someone sitting all alone at one of the picnic tables the way I used to do, not even minding the sun, and reading a book. I was immediately interested. Then I realized that I actually knew this woman, that we had talked over the years, mostly at picnic tables at this very lake, and I headed over there. As I approached I saw the name Mary Oliver on the book she was reading and I knew then that I was heading for something good.

The book was called A Poetry Handbook, and in it Mary Oliver kind of guides readers on how to write poetry, but in such a beautiful and graceful way, as she can’t help doing. And so this woman and I talked about Mary Oliver and poetry and Mary Oliver poems and writing in general (she too is a writer) and it was then that I began to realize that the knotted feeling in my stomach that I had brought to the lake with me was slowly unknotting. I have noticed something like this happening to me a couple times before in the past year, but the first time was last summer where at this huge retrospective Picasso exhibit at the Met, I literally felt something just lift up and out of my body. I mean, not to get all clich├ęd and everything, but it was a feeling of transcendence. When we got through the Picasso exhibit, I told my friend Alisa that I needed to go back to the beginning and go through it again, and so she went off to look at medieval paintings, and I lingered there, noticing, always noticing, the lightness that had come over me.

And so here at the lake, talking about the Mary Oliver book, it was happening again. I know that I’ve said this many times before, and even here, but there’s that line from Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” that I can’t stop thinking about: “I don't know exactly what a prayer is/I do know how to pay attention…” Which, exactly.

After a while of talking, our kids came out of the lake, and I said to this woman, this almost friend of mine, Hey, do you want to get together sometime? My question kind of took us both by surprise, and she said, Sure, that would be great. Before I left, she told me to look for this other Mary Oliver poem that I didn’t know called “Wild Geese.” I think you’ll like it, she said.

Here’s how it ends:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Scary Stories

One day when I was about 13 or 14 I stayed home sick from school and somehow came across the book Rosemary’s Baby on the bookshelf in our hallway. Several hours later I was to be found frozen in bed having read the book in its entirety and too terrified to move. The important thing to know is that it is a book about devil worshipers, and you’d think by then I’d have learned my lesson regarding this topic, but clearly I did not. Even now I’m not sure I can think of a scarier book.

I don’t know if it’s the devil-worshiping topic itself that was so terrifying to me, though there was that (and strangely being raised by atheists somehow failed to make me doubt the devil’s existence). But the one part that really stuck with me, and it's a theme you'll see again and again in scary stories, was the fact that Rosemary goes to her doctor and explains the whole story to him and you think that finally someone will believe her, but the doctor simply leads her back to the devil worshipers who have convinced him that she is simply crazy and needs their care. It’s like that short story, “I Only Came to Use the Phone” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which ends up doing the same sort of thing. I mean, take look at the title. A woman’s car breaks down and she gets a ride on a bus that’s going to a mental hospital. She gets admitted as a patient and no one believes that she isn’t. She is ultimately forced to stay there forever. Now, that’s scary!

But just the other day I found myself rereading Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which I’d first read about 12 years ago. I totally remember the experience of reading it on the subway and looking around in horror and wondering if maybe I had to stop reading it because it was so disturbing and creepy. It wasn’t scary exactly and yet, had I been alone in bed reading I might have remained there frozen for some hours. Yet reading it the other day was a totally different experience. Really I just took total pleasure in its creepiness. I could say that it starts like all Paul Auster books, but since that was the first book he wrote I guess I could say, It starts like all the Paul Auster books that would come after it but at this point it was still quite unique, in which an ordinary guy who just had some tragic event occur in his life finds himself in an extraordinary circumstance. And eventually he is plunged into madness. So it isn’t exactly scary, in the true sense of the word, but there is much to disturb the reader. At least there’re no devil worshipers in that one.

But what has gotten me thinking about all this is that right now I’m reading (and by reading I mean at the exceedingly slow pace of like five pages every three days, which is how I read books in the summer) Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. You probably know Shirley Jackson from her famous story “The Lottery,” but it’s almost a shame if you do because everything else she wrote is just so damn funny and purely a joy to read. But is it scary? This is what I keep asking myself and, to be honest, complaining about to my entire family. This book is so much fun to read, but it’s not scary. The quote from the New York Times Book Review on the cover says, “Makes your blood chill and your scalp prickle.”

Well, no, it doesn’t, really. Sure there are parts with doors unexpectedly locking and mysterious writing found on the walls of the house. But really I find myself more pleasurably distracted with things that the character of Eleanor thinks, to calm herself: “I have red shoes, she thought—that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons.” And really there are some scary things going on in the house, like a room that is suddenly covered in blood or an area next to the nursery that is unspeakably cold or the fact that Hill House itself seems to be alive. But it hardly seems to matter. So this makes me wonder: am I no longer so easily scared? Or is it just that I can no longer be scared by stories? Or is it that the last ten pages of the Jackson book are so terrifying that when I (finally!) get to them I won't be able to speak for hours afterward?

Coming soon: answers to these questions.