A visit to a place I once knew


She was sitting at the receptionist’s desk of my parents’ workplace, at the same desk I had walked past hundreds of times before. The reception area had barely changed since fifteen years ago. I think that the fishtank which used to occupy the corner was gone, replaced by some inoffensive and lower-maintenance indoor plants, and the chairs had probably been replaced. She herself bore the same mixture of familiarity and subtle change. When I last saw her she was eighteen, the same as me, we were freshly graduated from high school, uncertain and young. Now we were both in our thirties, on the other side of marriage, with children in our homes and the first lines of age on our faces.

We had never been close friends, much less romantically entangled, so the reunion was less fraught than it might have been. Nonetheless, we had attended the same school and the same extracurriculars since middle school, so the sheer length of acquaintance had fixed the memory of her in my mind. I recognized her immediately, but she was just different enough that I hesitated a moment. She had aged, not badly, but not quite in the way that I would have expected. Perhaps I had misidentified her, and perhaps she was somebody unknown whose identity I had mistaken by sheer coincidence. But she said my name, and I said her name, and then we laughed and I explained why I had hesitated so long before greeting her.

“It’s worse,” I said, “if I said the wrong name rather than taking too long to say the right name.” She agreed. We took a few minutes to trade the names of spouses and children, and later, when I had finished my business and picked up my kids, she came by to see them and show me one of hers. Aside from the momentary disorientation, it was a pleasant reunion and a reminder of someone that I had known kindly for many years, but hadn’t thought of much in the meantime.

This proved to be emblematic of my entire trip home. I was visiting my parents in my hometown, the city where I grew up. I hadn’t been back for six years, and my previous trip was a brief jaunt in the middle of winter. This felt like the first time that I was truly back in town since I had left after graduating high school, nearly 15 years ago. Everywhere I went, things were recognizable, but just different enough that I hesitated before identifying them. Farmland and prairie at the edges of town had given way to housing development and strip malls, and at the eastern edge of town an enormous shopping complex still smelling of crisp new money had devoured… what? I can’t even remember what had been there before. Yet the parts of town which hadn’t been redeveloped had grown ugly and shabby, with boarded windows and weedy lots crowding together around liquor stores.

It didn’t feel like a homecoming, I told my mother. My parents live in a different house in a new neighborhood, and the hometown I remembered no longer exists. There are bits and pieces of it still, little island of precambrian rock jutting up between the volcanic channels of reconstruction, but the whole is gone. I don’t miss it. My hometown was a pleasant place but never a picturesque one, not the sort of place whose character deserved to be preserved.

On my last day there, however, my dad took me on a drive up the canyon to see the damage that last fall’s floods had wrought. The parks and the green bottom land that had filled the floor of the canyon had been scoured away and replaced by sandy silt. A few of the canyon’s old landmarks were still visible, but others had been wrecked beyend recognition. But despite the obvious and overwhelming evidence of destruction, the canyon felt like the least changed place that I visited. The same brown stone rose up in knobby terraces above the road, and the same brown scrub and bristly pines guarded the walls. Even the river which had ruined the valley was unchanged, its fury not something new but a repetition of the climactic note it had sounded now and again since its birth. And the canyon opens into the mountains, which were old before men knew their names.

A song for Good Friday


When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

“Nail your trials to the lightning tree”


spouse ringed spouse with cold pointed words, dishes bled down walls
we hid where we could to keep warm
mostly behind statues of ourselves
doors were cheap umbrellas for that sort of storm
books were best, hardbound deep cover
hear us reciting the logic of myth:

nail your trials to the lightning tree
ink them in crimson on the folded boat
whisper to a crack by the salt-clean sea
feed them to the bird with the ruby throat
sneak grief in a crate of smuggled tea
box damage in alder and pile with earth
banish pain with a dagger or sharp bit of bone
willow binds trouble in a fairy crown
burn notes on the ground by the upright stone
petition the bent man at the far edge of town

worn talismans break with heavy load, crow’s feather frays
so walk until you find a fire
circled strangers with the bent hearts and the worn hulls, making light
warming their hands over the embers
of the crooked timber that comes from family trees
from time to time

Stefan S.

This poem appeared, of all places, in a comment thread over at Making Light. Too lovely not to share.

My own family life was (and is) nearly idyllic, but this is offered as a gesture of sympathy for those whose homes were a battle zone and not a refuge.

Merry Christmas

Coptic nativity icon

Since therefore all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice. I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival. But I take my part, not plucking the harp, not shaking the Thyrsian staff, not with the music of pipes, nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ. For this is all my hope, this my life, this my salvation, this my pipe, my harp. And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels, sing: Glory to God in the Highest; and with the shepherds: and on earth peace to men of good will.

(From the Nativity Homily of St. John Chrysostom)

More Orwell


I’ve been reading George Orwell again. It’s hard to stop: Orwell has to be one of the most winsome and charming writers in the English language, and writing, as he did, in the crucial years of the early 20th century, his writing seems to have permanent relevance, even 75 years later. And he provides a wonderful window into the mindset of the British during WWII, when the outcome was unknown and the stakes seemed enormous. It seems obvious to us now that of course the Germans were going to be defeated and of course the Americans would eventually get into the war, but none of those things were obvious at the time. There’s an atmosphere of sincere alarm in many of the parts from the late 30’s and early 40’s, and it’s quite bracing to read.

But he has his foibles, his socialism which is quite sincere and quite disastrously mistaken. He makes this statement, as part of a long essay about penny dreadfuls:

In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons. That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

“Taking the long view”? Somehow, I don’t think that the long view of history is judging the Reds Bolsheviks very kindly.

But who care about that? Here’s Orwell on a much more important subject, tea:

Lastly, tea–unless one is drinking it in the Russian style–should be drunk WITHOUT SUGAR. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

And finally, about the habits of a book reviewer:

At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder, while the cigarette smoke grows thicker and thicker, skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with the final comment, “God, what tripe!” In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases–”a book that no one should miss”, “something memorable on every page”, “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc”–will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetising books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this down-trodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.

Orwell comments that this description could be generalized, with little modification, to anyone in a literary profession. I’ll make no comment on that.