March 2009


A certain slant of light

It took me all of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, to figure out what the title referred to. Life doesn’t show much mercy on the tragic characters who people Morrison’s narrative, set in early America, when life’s cruelties were bleakly unforgiving. I initially assumed Morrison’s title was ironic, like that of Annie Dillard’s The Living, which seems to feature more deaths than it does lives. But Morrison’s novel is not a piece of irony, and neither is its title. There is a poignant mercy in A Mercy, even if it takes the entire novel for readers to realize it.

Mud season

Morrison’s novel opens with Florens, a lovesick teenage slave, setting off to find the object of her affection, a freeborn African-American blacksmith who had been hired by her master to construct an iron gate at the entrance of his palatial new home. Despite her infatuation, Florens’ mission is dire. Her master, a trader named Jacob Vaark, has succumbed to infection before occupying the new home he built with a fortune amassed from speculation in the slave trade, and now his wife–Florens’ mistress, Rebekka–is dying of the same illness. Believing the blacksmith who wrought the gate at the entrance to her husband’s doomed mansion will be able to heal her sickness, Rebekka sends Florens on a solitary errand to fetch him.

Gnarled tree

This is the linear narrative that underpins A Mercy. Florens starts her journey at novel’s beginning, and we follow her progress as the narrative continues. True to Morrison’s typically Faulknerian style, however, the narrative tells other stories, meandering from character to character and from present to past as it punctuates Florens’ journey with the back-stories of her compatriots. Florens tells her story in the first person, but a narrator tells the stories of her fellows. We see how Jacob Vaark became a reluctant participant in the slave trade. We see how Rebekka traveled to America specifically to marry Jacob, a man she’d never met. We meet Jacob’s other slaves: Lina, a Native American whose family and village were destroyed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a crazed and outcast orphan who survived the shipwreck that killed her father. We meet Williard and Scully, indentured servants who work on Jacob’s plantation, and we meet the freeborn blacksmith whom Florens is sent to find, hoping his mastery of medicinal herbs will save Rebekka.

Tombstones with trees

Meeting this disparate band of characters gives us an odd sort of insight into the nature of Jacob Vaark, a man who profits from the slave trade–and who owns slaves–without ever really condoning the practice. We want to believe that Jacob is a good man; we want to overlook the source of his fortune, the lavish way he decides to spend it, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with slaves and servants, most of them women, whom he has specifically chosen for their low likelihood of causing trouble. A house and plantation peopled by women, Jacob reasons, will be less rowdy and prone to riot than a plantation populated with randy young field slaves…and yet each of the orphans, outcasts, and survivors Jacob chooses carries her own hidden tragedies. There is no escape from trouble, Morrison suggests, regardless of who shares your story. This sharing of suffering is one of several subtle mercies that become beautifully apparent by novel’s end.

This is my long-overdue second review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

It’s been more than two months since I reviewed my first audiobook of 2009 (Marilynne Robinson’s Home), and during that time I’ve listened to more than a half dozen audiobooks. In other words, I listen to books far faster than I review them! I figure I will have time to catch up with reviews this summer when this living is easier.

In the meantime, the photos illustrating today’s post are similarly “belated,” as I took them in Salem, Massachusetts last month. I previously blogged Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery in October, 2005; if you want to see what it looked like this February, you can view the entire photo-set here. Enjoy!

Parking lot view

There is a strong, silent place I’ve found on retreat that lingers: once you’ve mapped the route to that place, you can return to it whenever you need to. That place is not distant, and it takes only a moment’s awareness–the span of a single breath–to return there. But the way to this place is elusive, and many spend their entire lives traveling far and wide to find it, to no avail. Like a dog’s own tail, it slips beyond your reach the more (and the more fervently) you chase it.

Rust never sleeps

There were moments at Saturday’s hockey game, for instance, when I felt myself retreating to that place of calm as I waited, watching and alert, for the precise moment to snap a shot. Photography is nothing more than target practice, and to hit a target, you need an awake and alert eye. It is the strength and solace of that silent place that gets me through overloaded semesters, grading all-nighters, or early-morning teaching prep; it is the strength and solace of that silent place that helps me juggle two jobs when many struggle to handle only one.

Geared up

The secret of this strong, silent place is not secret, but it hides under misleading names: calling it a place, for instance, is already a mistake. If you call it a place, you’ve already wandered from it; if you call it a thing, you’ve already mislaid it; and if you call it a person, you’re already estranged. “It,” after all, is not even an “it”: “it” is neither one thing nor two, incapable of either speaking or being spoken of.

And yet this strong, silent place is the most mundane location of them all: neither far nor near, it’s a place where we all dwell. Everyone knows it without realizing it, or has it without knowing. I think mothers know it best, this strong and silent place from which all things are born and the impossible can be done, but only with great love. Mothers know that life is borne from great pain, and mothers know that love never tires.

Click here for a photo-set of images from the grounds at the Providence Zen Center, where I went on a one-day retreat yesterday: a pilgrimage back to my personal power source.

Spring training

It’s another cold, bright day, with tightly furled crocus buds emerging but not yet daring to open. The light still angles deep, as in winter, and it retains a cold, sharp, colorless intensity. But you can almost feel the looming fecundity of the earth underfoot, even in places where the bare mud has refrozen to concrete hardness. Even through the earth’s obdurate solidity, you can almost feel the subtle rumbling of a tangled universe of roots awakening: spring in training.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might recognize today’s photo as being the inspiration for this morning’s Tweet.

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Tomorrow morning, J and I will take the T into Boston for an afternoon Bruins game, just as we have the past two Saturdays, and just as we will next Sunday. That’s how our 12-game Boston Bruins weekend ticket package was scheduled, with a grand finale of four straight weekend games to end the regular season.

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In the course of going to so many weekend Boston Bruins games, J and I have become practiced at our pre-game ritual. We leave home two hours before the game is scheduled to start, and it takes us about an hour to arrive at North Station, where the TD Banknorth Garden is located. Doors open an hour before the game, so we make our way to our balcony seats, stopping first at the restroom, Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and hot chocolate, and the concession stand near our seats for our usual game-day lunch of two hot dogs a piece. We always go to the same concession stand, so we know “our” concession workers by name: James and Allen. By the time we’ve made our way to our seats, we have just enough time to eat our hot dogs and start sipping our coffee and hot chocolate before our Winter Parents arrive and the Bruins come out on the ice for pre-game warm-ups.

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Winter Parents, you ask?

If you’ve seen the movie Fever Pitch with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, you might remember the scene where Fallon’s character (a diehard Red Sox fan named Ben) explains to Barrymore (a baseball-oblivious girl named Lindsey) that the folks who sit around his coveted Fenway Park season ticket seats are his “summer family.” Over the course of a summer courtship, Lindsey comes to appreciate the devotion Ben and other Red Sox fans have for “their” team, and she also learns how the simple act of sitting next to the same folks for a season’s worth of baseball games does create a kind of familial bond. By movie’s end, Ben’s summer family has “adopted” Lindsey just as surely as she’s fallen for both Ben and his lovable Red Sox.

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With a nod to Fever Pitch, then, J and I quickly dubbed the couple whose balcony seats are right next to ours–folks from Hartford who drive up to Boston for each of the weekend ticket package games–our “Winter Parents.” They have grown children, so they’re old enough to be our parents, but unlike James and Allen, they don’t wear name tags. We don’t know these folks’ names, but we know a bit about their lives: they used to be Hartford Whalers fans before the Whalers moved to North Carolina, they have grandchildren who play peewee hockey, and they traveled to Florida last year to catch some rays while catching a game between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers. We don’t know our Winter Parents’ names, but they still feel like a kind of kin to us, at least for a season: after next weekend, it’s possible we’ll never see them again, for there’s no guarantee that the balcony seats we had for this year’s 12-game weekend ticket package will be the seats we’ll presumably buy next year.

It’s a lucky break, then, that last Saturday our entire row of Winter Family members was named the Massachusetts Lottery “Lucky Row,” a turn of fortune that gave us each a prize pack of Bruins gear and got our cheering mugs on the TD Banknorth Garden Jumbotron: a few seconds of fame that are now preserved for cyber-eternity:

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Click here to see a larger version of that final Jumbotron shot: that’s J with his telephoto lens on the far right, me with my #37 Patrice Bergeron jersey and new camera on his left, and our Winter Dad next to me. Winter Mom is hidden behind Winter Dad, with only her upraised arm visible.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, The Weekend. Given the number of weekend Bruins games we’ve shared, J and I might as well call our Winter Parents our Weekend Parents. Click here to see my entire photo-set of pictures from last Saturday’s Bruins victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Enjoy!

Classic

There is something timeless about the classic beauty of a white marble bust, even if the “bust” is merely a jewelry store dummy and the “white marble” is molded plaster. The regal poise of such a pose is slightly diminished, however, when the motif is portrayed in snow by college guys whose taste in busts leans toward the “busty”:

Snow amazon

Standing tall

It’s a good thing I snapped several shots of this Amazonian snow-woman on my walk to campus yesterday, as she’d fallen prey to gravity by the time I walked home. Any woman-of-flesh would tell you that snow-breasts are destined to sag in time…even on a snow-woman with toned, gravity defying arms that would make even First Lady Michelle Obama envious.

Jet with contrails

On this snowy and sloppy day-after-spring, it’s easy to think the past few days were an anomaly: an isolated fluke through which Newton, Massachusetts took a quick weekend trip from the wintry Northeast to somewhere sunny and warm.

Cast-off

On Saturday morning’s dog-walk, a neighbor joyfully proclaimed “It’s spring” as she jogged past in a light jacket. “It won’t last,” I laughed in response, in part to warn myself against getting my hopes too high. March is the season of spotty-springs: intermittent bursts of sun, warm, and mud that give year-round residents the hope to weather another month or more of snow showers, storms, and slush. Saturday was spring, and so was Sunday, but Monday lands us right back in winter, with an inch or so of new snow predicted in Boston and four to seven inches forecast for Keene. “Don’t put away your boots and sweaters,” Mother Nature seems to whisper. “This weekend was just a tease, so I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.”

Left behind

And we did indeed try to enjoy it while it lasted. On Saturday, J and I left our coats at home while we ventured into Boston for an afternoon Bruins game, and it felt colder in the ice-cool arena than it did outside. On Sunday, we wore light jackets while taking a sun-drenched afternoon walk to Cold Spring Park and back, and we weren’t the only ones out for a Sunday stroll: along the way we passed dog-walkers, joggers, playground basketball players, and countless pedestrians who didn’t seem to mind getting their feet muddy.

“Did you get any good pictures,” one passerby asked upon seeing J’s and my cameras. “Not really,” J admitted; “Just pictures of mud,” I added. Under the spell of spotty-spring, even pictures of mud look wonderful: a mundane sight we’ve longed for over the seemingly interminable winter months. Mud season isn’t the loveliest time in New England, but we year-rounders relish it regardless.

Muddy fields

Spotty-spring is the season when abandoned objects emerge from months of isolation. Along our Sunday stroll, J and I saw a half-dozen weathered tennis balls that had overwintered in snow-drifts after having been dropped by neighborhood dogs; along muddy, melting curbs, we spotted sodden gloves, months-old newspapers, and other snow-soaked detritus. Knee-deep snowdrifts serve as a kind of time capsule, hoarding last year’s litter under a blanket of cold. These intermittent days of spotty-spring are when cast-off things and weather-worn humans alike come out of isolation, daring to bare themselves under the white-hot glare of an afternoon sun.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Isolation. Click here to see the complete photo-set from yesterday’s spotty-spring stroll. Enjoy!

Snowdrops

Less than a week ago, the sky dumped more than a foot of snow on this spot; today, a warm, spring-like morning revealed the first snowdrops, right on schedule. These mild, muddy, and unbelievably bright days are our reward for weathering another long New England winter: a reminder that underground, perennial roots have harbored hope that spring will return again, eventually.

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