The Threshold of Imagination

Given an opportunity to read Graham Greene on the veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I found it impossible to resist. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?

Greene, who spent time in Freetown both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer during WWII, drew on his experiences at the hotel in a variety of ways. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.
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Evangeline Memories

For weeks I’ve watched my blogging friend Proserpina entice her readers into accepting a simple concept – color-based blogs – and encourage them to help create a rich and expressive tapestry of personal preference. “Here is a color,” she says. “Here are its qualities. Here are some references to it in history and the arts. Does it remind you of something? How do you feel about it? How has it decorated your life?”  

Such simple questions, and yet the answers she receives build one upon another to form patterns of exquisite complexity. Readers contribute images of famous paintings, or their grandchild’s refrigerator art. They bring limericks and literature, poetry, personal photographs of beloved objects, memories from days of long-past travel and dreamscapes from journeys yet to come.

With each new color, discoveries are made. When Proserpina designated “Blue” as her first color, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve always considered blue to be my least favorite color and yet as images, videos and snippets of literature were posted, I realized “blue” is too general a term. While I dislike the primary blue of the color wheel, powder blue baby blankets, navy blue and electric blue, I wear denim and covet turquoise jewelry. I’ve reveled in the azure, aqua and cerulean of Carribbean waters and will sit for hours watching the smokey indigo of disappearing sunsets. Clearly, there are distinctions to be made. (more…)

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 4:11 am  Comments (26)  
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Victor Hugo Kindles Some Thoughts

Prejudice can be terrible to behold and worse to experience. In its most virulent forms – such as sexism, nationalism, ageism and racism – it can destroy communities and erode relationships. Sometimes its Medusa-like coils seem determined to wrap around every aspect of our lives. Prejudice helps lay the foundation for religious intolerance and class envy. Prejudice colors discussions of politics and sometimes renders problematic the most well-intentioned attempts at problem-solving. Even minor irritants like social snobbery and cliquish behavior have a soupçon of  prejudice stirred into their mix. All of us are prejudiced, it seems, but in a wonderful bit of irony, none of us wishes to appear so. It’s simply who we are.  (more…)

Published in: on September 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm  Comments (24)  
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The View from Uncle Henry’s

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time.

Uncle Henry wasn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name had become attached to the now-shuttered Mississippi landmark.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson. Known in those days as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost, then re-gained respectability when the locals cut its connections to the Chicago mob. Finally, in 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Wright.

Sarah and her son George (now deceased) transformed Uncle Henry’s into an Inn and Restaurant. Tourist guides referred to it as a Bed and Breakfast, but none of the common terms quite captured its dusty reality.

A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, the place was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. It was easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a “she” — the prototypical Southern Lady, temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

There’s no question Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. At dinner, more than a few locals gathered in the dining room, old-timers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking her polite question: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Some days later, I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House. They grinned, and one asked, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I admitted I’d not only stopped there, but had lingered for a few days, the other fellow said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But that’s the good news – it’s not the Holiday Inn.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival had left me scrambling for a room. Motels were booked, and had been for weeks.

When I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, they had a waiting list in addition to their reservations. But, with the solicitous kindness I was coming to associate with Mississippians, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.” Once I arrived, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “and you can’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down into the dining room.”

That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to hit the road for the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult, but Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped Williams transform the Club into Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, reading Williams’ work and pondering what it must have required of him to transform his sleepy, Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I amused myself with the thought that he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own first blog entry.

I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack and reorder to suit myself and perhaps others…
If I’m to share my words and my vision, it [will require] energy and perseverance.

The confidence and declarative force of the words still seems entirely inexplicable to me. But I had persevered during that first year, at least in the sense that I had written, and on that late Mississippi afternoon, I found Williams himself eloquently affirming the importance of perseverance as a first step toward success.

Before my trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay, The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as an addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag as travel reading. Originally published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, the essay was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, and Williams finally was receiving recognition as a playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not only because I was in Tennessee Williams’ country, but because his words rang out with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

The essay is filled with truth, memorable and recognizable truths that demand retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams did succeed, marvelously well. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable.

The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every ince of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading the essay today, I find myself once again drawn through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I imagine Uncle Henry, and mourn the closing of his Inn. I remember Yazoo Pass, sluggish and narrow, winding its way toward Vicksburg, and consider my great-grandfather’s Union Regiment — the 34th Iowa — trembling there at the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like a riff of breeze across the Delta.

Where I sit, rocking in the late afternoon warmth, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.

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Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth

 

José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked,  “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy assumption that people write essays  because they are less difficult than novels.  They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured.  But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”  The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth.  I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”

The word essay  itself comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”.   Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best.  When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first.  (more…)

Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm  Comments (5)  
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