Not Progress, but Circulation

A couple of years ago, I designed and taught a nonfiction-writing course I called Object Studies, which offered (as the course description put it — take in a breath here) “a laboratory for writers interested in finding inventive ways to bring the concrete object to life in prose through attention to the interplay of associations, memories, and visual fact.” More simply, the course in essay-writing encouraged the telling of the stories that objects hold. I’d been compelled by poet Heather McHugh’s reflection that, depending on the viewer, “every object has a field of force.”

In the past week, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a related field of force in my own reading — an enjoyable one, because it seems an expansive one. The associations and memories I've had have caused me to reflect on the private nature of reading, or of some kinds of reading — that what really goes on in the mind as one (as any particular one) reads is not really shareable, not completely. But I’m going to share what I can, just to see where the experiment leads me.

It began with that “suede glove on the front-hall table,” the one William Maxwell points to in the passage I quoted recently, addressing home as an enduring source and resource for a writer. I remember that as I typed out that phrase and saw that single glove again, I let the object’s inherent question — whose glove? — remind me of Maxwell’s loss of his mother when he was ten years old, and the enormous and long-standing influence of that loss, that absence, on his writing life. And then memory brought forward another literary glove, from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which among seemingly countless other profound matters is about absence following the death of a mother. “What was the spirit in her, the essential thing,” thinks Lily Briscoe of the deceased Mrs. Ramsay, “by which, had you found a crumpled glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?” Woolf’s mother died when Woolf was thirteen.

Two gloves. Two mothers. Two writers of fiction greatly influenced by the loss and absence of their mothers. So what?

I didn’t begin to feel anything remarkable — that is, anything deserving remark — until I happened upon “Home, Dismantled,” the first offering of Olivia Judson’s eight-part exploration of the project she shared with her brother to clear out her parents’ house following the death of her father, in 2011. He had lived in the house for thirty-two years — remaining there for nearly two decades after Judson’s mother had died. Judson herself was eleven when her family had moved into the house.

In “the huge quantities of stuff” waiting in the silent rooms of the house — in the “casual detritus of my parents’ lives” — Judson, handling one curious object and the next, passed into and out of memory, perplexity, grief. As I read I recalled again Maxwell reflecting that “three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal” at home, and I found it interesting to juxtapose this with Judson’s overwhelming experience trying to determine what to do not only with the objects she encountered in her parents' house but also with the recollections and questions they prompted, the revelations they delivered.  

Judson closes her first installment with a description of the morning that she

opened a drawer in a chest that stood in the hallway by the front door. The drawer contained several scarves that had belonged to my mother. I picked one up — a square of red silk with a pattern in gold — and put it on, to see if it would suit me. As I did so, a faint scent wafted through the air. It was just a hint of a smell, nothing more, but I recognized it immediately. It was the perfume my mother used to wear. I hadn’t smelled it for years, but for a moment it conjured her into the hall beside me. The intervening decades disappeared; for one aching moment, I thought that if I turned, I would find her there.

Not a glove, a scarf. But the presence of the vanished mother. And the front hall.

I seemed to be onto something now — or, well, no: I wanted to be onto something, wanted to stumble into a purpose, wanted to make my grazing habits as a reader take some kind of meaningful shape. But what meaning was there to make of rather spare coincidences?

Then I remembered Robert Frost’s remark about reading poems, how reading one informs the reading of the next, and that informs the reading of the next, and so on until you’re back to reading the original poem and seeing more, maybe feeling more. “Progress is not the aim,” Frost stated, “but circulation.” Right. I liked that. I relaxed. I wasn’t necessarily making progress. There was no need to make meaning. I was just circulating.

I realized then that, usually, when I read the words front hall in an imaginative work, whether fiction or nonfiction, the front hall that my brain serves up, the front hall where I begin my mental seeing, is the one from the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Why is this? Because of the number of times I've read and taught the story, I suppose. I went to look at it again and found no specific description of the front hall. (Hmm... Then what is the source of my front hall, dim and narrow and cluttered as it is?) O'Connor gives only what is happening in that space: Julian’s mother “was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her hat, while he, with his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.”

Oh, yes, that hat — that hat that Julian finds so "hideous," that hat his mother had bought for $7.50, that hat upon which the story turns. Standing before the mirror in the front hall, Julian’s mother “kept saying, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have paid that for it. No, I shouldn’t have. I’ll take it off and return it tomorrow.'”

But if you know the story, you know there's no returning the hat, because there's no tomorrow for Julian's mother. And Julian, in the final sentence, as he runs away from her fallen body, screaming for help, will feel a “tide of darkness” sweeping him back toward her, “postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

If only he could go back to the beginning, to the front hall again. To when she was putting on her hat, however hideous it looked.

And now, feeling another tug from my reading memory and eager to follow wherever it might lead me, I reached and turned to a dog-eared page of Maxwell’s final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Ah — found it: there’s the boy, who, after the death of his mother, lies in his bed just a few feet from his sleeping brother, caught by the recurring idea “that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

I read on: 

“Actually, it was the other way around: I hadn’t gone anywhere and nothing was changed, so far as the roof over our heads was concerned, it was just that she was in the cemetery.”

I immediately pictured Olivia Judson in the rooms under her parents’ roof, surrounded by all those objects (including whatever waited inside her father’s fifty-four file-cabinet drawers). All still. Nothing was changed.

What was this all about? Grief, certainly. What could I derive? But then I remembered: Just circulate. And the next time I considered the suede glove on the front-hall table, my brain put together circulation and front hall and I was back in So Long, See You Tomorrow, in a passage that, as it happens, just precedes the dog-eared page. I read:   

My father was all but undone by my mother’s death. In the evening after supper he walked the floor and I walked with him, with my arm around his waist. I was ten years old. He would walk from the living room into the front hall, then, turning, past the grandfather’s clock and on into the library, and from the library into the living room. Or he would walk from the library into the dining room and then into the living room by another doorway, and back to the front hall.

And now, arriving again at the front hall (still with me?), and feeling another mental tickle that suggested there was yet another place to go, another page waiting for me, holding something relevant for me — another front hall, another grappling with a vanished past, a parent — I was understanding better, appreciating better, what Frost was talking about. The best reading is not linear. It's recursive.

But where was it I had to go? What was it that felt necessary, even urgent, to reread, rediscover? I went where we go when memory fails: the Internet. In a moment I was returned — ah, yes — to Peter Orner’s essay “Writing About What Haunts Us." I must have read it when it was published, a little over a year ago, in The New York Times. Orner writes:

I watched my father in the front hall putting on his new, lambskin leather gloves. It was a sort of private ceremony. This was in early November, 1982, in Highland Park, Ill., a town north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. My father had just returned from a business trip to Paris. He’d bought the gloves at a place called Hermès, a mythical wonderland of a store. He pulled one on slowly, then the other, and held them up in the mirror to see how his hands looked in such gloves.

(A private ceremony. I like that, by the way, to describe what a reader can experience by allowing himself to circulate like this.)

Orner’s essay, built around the mystery of why, as a boy, he stole his father’s gloves from the drawer of that front-hall table and kept them for decades, is about a writer’s failed attempts to make fiction from truth, and his discovery of the power of "coming clean" to arrive at "a better, if smaller, story."

At the end of the essay, we’re back you-know-where:

In 1982, my father wasn’t much older than I am at this moment. I think of him now, standing in the front hall. He’s holding his hands up in the mirror, pulling on his beautiful gloves, a rare stillness on his face, a kind of hopeful calm. Was this what I wanted to steal?

As far as I know, Orner's father is still alive, but I sense a similarity between the writer's final question and my reading experience over the past week — and between these and Olivia Judson's project. Granted, the difference between piecing together scattered, recalled fragments from one's reading and sorting through specific, potent memories of individual human beings is great. But there's a rising, recurring desire in each case to get a hold of some elusive, possibly gratifying and resolving and even beautiful whole, followed by a letting-go of that desire.

(Uh-oh. Another mental tug. Let me place it in parentheses: After the publication of To the Lighthouse, Woolf's sister, Vanessa, wrote to her: [Y]ou have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible.... You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. From her sister's perspective, fiction allowed Woolf to get a hold of her mother and not let go. Orner touches on the idea that there's a reason for when writers' imaginations fail them, and when they don't.)

When I let my eyes pass one more time over that suede glove on the front-hall table to see what my circulation will bring, I'm not rewarded with any clear sense of arrival but with ... I suppose with a pleasing and motivating recognition that there must be hundreds of front halls out there on printed pages with now-lost parents standing in them, beside tables, maybe looking in mirrors, putting on hats, scarves, gloves.

Now I look up from the page and out the window. Snow. Winter still. Well into the season of lost gloves. I wonder how many unmatched gloves I've seen over the past few months, on sidewalks, in streets, on subway platforms, in stairwells. Single gloves, some crumpled, with twisted fingers. Ungathered. Each once somebody’s.