Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Tomorrow I will get to watch two little boys at the family Christmas. With one of them there will be wild excitement, barely disguised if he has an audience. With the other, a little younger, there will be long stretches of wide-eyed wonder. At least I think so. If I use this past Thanksgiving as a gauge, at some point tomorrow I will be ready to take my seat in an armchair and just watch the show. I would not miss it for the world.

Sometimes I watch them watch me. They never do it for long, but four weeks can still invest some mystery around Great Uncle John – so called to distinguish me from “Uncle John,” my nephew in his thirties. The older little boy enjoys screaming with fright when I do my slow-motion approach, predatory and – I like to think – deliciously menacing. The younger boy’s eyes just get wider until he takes the cue from his cousin and scampers to his grandfather’s side.

The opening of gifts. The preparing of the meal in a kitchen steamier than usual. The stolid glow of a Christmas tree that stands aloof and largely forgotten in the corner. All of these elements go into making up a child’s Christmas.

I recall, however, that even as a child I envied the adults’ Christmas. I wanted their sense that they could walk from any room into another and not ask permission. I wanted their freedom to touch any ornament on the tree and read any card on the mantle. I wanted their busyness and their self-appointed stretches of leisure. I wanted the history of preparations – some of them careful and steady, some of them recent and impromptu (maybe even a stop on the drive to Christmas dinner?) – that trailed behind each of the grown-ups holding a cocktail or stirring the green beans and almonds.

At an open house last night not far from where I live, I was singing Christmas carols and hymns with the other guests around a piano. I looked around at the women who had taken time to dress with a little more flair. I watched the men who sang with gusto and precision and those who didn’t. I thought of Judy Garland as we all melted into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Far from the life of my own parents, I have reached this Christmas of my own. Filled with gratitude for what my mother and my father made sure my brothers and I could recall of trees and lights and ribbons and fruit salad, I am ready to wrap the final gifts this Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fire on the Beach

A fire in the outdoors feeds on the wind.

Far from the updrafts that make fireplaces in our homes tamely rage, ocean breezes slap down a fire on the beach. They slap it down and rouse it all at once.

This past Sunday afternoon I got to watch someone who is used to starting fires on the beach. “Layers,” he had advised me when we were talking on Saturday about our venture, and so it was wearing a corduroy shirt, a sweatshirt and a canvas jacket that I watched.

From time to time I felt the pieces I was wearing tug and fill with air, but my cap stayed sturdy about my head. Moving our chairs from a growing heat, we leaned our faces a little closer and talked of family and early times in our lives. We tried out our tales, aware that a relentless energy in the air about us more than matched any energy that our stories unleashed within us.

A little lunch over, one stage of our visit over, we felt a colder air, a stronger wind. We packed, we looked up the beach and down as we collapsed the chairs, we smothered the wood and coals. We left the beach to energies it knew better than we how to handle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"A Chance Meeting" by Willa Cather

In 1936 Willa Cather published an essay in which she described the Grand-Hôtel d’Aix as “not at all smart, but very comfortable.” Anyone looking for “noise and jazz and dancing” could look to the newer hotels of Aix-les-Bains – Cather preferred “large rooms and large baths and quiet.” She might as well have been suggesting something about how she viewed herself – a woman of a certain age, a woman writer belonging to a literary world then well nigh past.

How do you continue to claim importance as a writer? How do you explain an inexplicable tendency on the part of current critics to relegate you to the minor leagues? How do you continue to want to write when you do not see the readers emerging whom you consider your equal?

Maybe you do what Willa Cather did in “A Chance Meeting.” You recount a meeting with a fellow hotel guest whom you began by subtly dismissing as “an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone.” You might have avoided conversation with her because your own linguistic talents are meager, and then one day you discovered she speaks English perfectly well. Your exchanges were courteous; her suggestions of things to do and ways to do them, nevertheless, did not always convince you to change your own plans.

The day came in the very hot summer of 1930 when Willa Cather discovered that for several days she had been unwittingly conversing with the niece of monumental French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Cather had actually been familiar with a published collection of Flaubert’s letters to his niece Caroline, and here was Caroline – "Caro" as she used to be addressed regularly by her uncle.

In the conversations that followed between the two hotel guests, the elderly Caroline revealed herself as the same astute reader and commentator on her uncle’s works that she had been in her earlier years. She knew her uncle’s works – really knew them and the characters in them. She maintained her opinions of what had been the successes and what the relative failures in Flaubert’s portraits of the men and women of his day. The towering achievement of Madame Bovary did not make it her favorite work by her uncle.

This close confidante of Gustave Flaubert might not have expected in her later years to find except by accident anyone willing to note her opinions much less agree with them. The authority that normally comes from long acquaintance and intelligence and personal experience did not automatically command respect. Like anyone else older and somewhat infirm in appearance, Caro might be overlooked, passed over, niece though she was. It would take a special reader like Willa Cather herself to admit her own slowness in taking the proper measure of this woman.

It would also take a special reader, Cather might have been suggesting, to take the proper measure of a writer like herself. Is it inevitable that a woman of a certain age, especially a woman writer of a certain age, become more and more invisible? How does she continue to want to write when she does not see the readers emerging whom she considers her equal?

The answer? She writes. She writes for herself. With luck she and what she writes become “not at all smart, but very comfortable.”

A worthy goal for any writer.