"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Everyone Loves Stories --
Even Jesus, Even God

My son Sam with his 5th grade classmates, twins, Michael & Geoffrey
St. Peter's School ~ Philadelphia ~ 2004


“There is something deeply built into us that needs story itself.
Story is a source of nurture . . .
we cannot become really true human beings
for ourselves and for each other without story.”

Vincent Harding (b 1931)
Civil Rights Veteran
{Thanks to Jan Donley for first posting this quotation}

Tell me a story! Tell me about the day I was born. Tell me about that time. Once upon a time. In the beginning. Long ago and faraway. Long ago, in someone else's story. Be the hero of your own story. The Never-ending Story. Just So Stories. So many stories, so little time, so much time -- sprawling and interminable (see Buechner, below). I like Harding's assertion (above) that we need these stories to be "really true human beings" and Myerson's conclusion (below) that we "just want to connect." In fact, that's one of the founding premises of this blog:
Only connect!

Out of the vast number of stories about stories, I've picked Harding, Myerson, Buechner, and Myerhoff for this short post. These authors share the observation that our humanizing stories are never disconnected. The narratives may sprawl across time and space, but only say the word, write the letter, make the call, turn on the searchlights, sit in the chair, and tell the story!

Julie Myerson (b 1960)
Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House
"These letters and phone messages are peculiarly and unexpectedly touching. I realize that actually they're a part of what I'm trying to explore: the fact that all of us badly want to be part of a story, to be the Right Person, the One someone's looking for. Don't we all, at the end of the day, just want to connect our lives with the lives of others and experience that satisfying symmetry of time and place that comes from being notified, written to, called to account" (78 - 79; for more on Myerson's book, see "Our Island Home" on my Book List).

by Jessie Willcox Smith

Frederick Buechner (b 1926)
Listening to Your Life: "The Truth of Our Stories"
"In the long run the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. the stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round. . . . And my story and your story are all part of each other too if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other's faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other's stories.

"In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us are? Or is it as absurd to ask about the truth of it as it is to ask about the truth of the wind howling through a crack under the door?" (305)


Barbara Myerhoff (1935 - 1985)
"The Story of the Forest"
"There is a Hasidic story, repeated to me by Shmuel [a member of the Israel Levin Senior Center, the subject of much of Myerhoff's work] before he died, that sums up my feelings about nine years of work with the...Center people....

"When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple...had occasion...to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say 'Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.' Again the miracle would be accomplished.

"Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Lieb of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: 'I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.' It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

"Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: 'I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.'

"And it was sufficient." *

Why? Because God Loves Stories!

{Thanks to Melinda Stolz for sharing this story with me.}

*Myerhoff's Notes:
1. Quote from Mark Leviton, "Numbering Their Days," University of Southern California Chronicle Oct. 1980, 26.

2. This story of the forest is also told in Elie Wiesel,
Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters,
trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: The Bibliophile Library, c1972).

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, July 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, June 14, 2012

To Live Even One Day

On the Esopus, Meadow Groves, ca. 1857–58


Cows in the Meadow, 1878

both paintings by Scottish - American Artist
William M. Hart, 1823 - 1894

There are so many things to say about Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's elegant interior novel of one day -- plus flashbacks -- in the life of Clarissa Parry Dalloway. Is it my favorite novel? I always hesitate to choose only one, but it just might be, especially after I earned the nickname of "Clarissa / Mrs. Dalloway" a couple of different times:

1. Once by an old grad school friend who said: "Maybe you're not the life of the party in a class clown kind of way, but you are CLARISSA DALLOWAY" (this was after we had taken one of those personality profiles that placed me higher than I thought was accurate on the "social butterfly / loves company" scale).

2. And again by a friend who alluded to Mrs. Dalloway when she wrote to congratulate me upon being included in an historical house tour: "Congratulations! Glad you had a good house tour, Clarissa. Sounds like a lot of work, but you love doing it and wouldn't consider not. You go, super mom, super Mrs. Dalloway. Did everyone behave with proper respect, or were they touching your stuff and leaving their BIG GULP cups all over the place? Did you have to dress up like a house slave, or were you allowed to be Mrs. O'Hara? (Remember the "Designing Women" episode when Julia's house is on a tour?) Perhaps you wore an elegant Ann Taylor dress and cooly answered questions regarding the age of the fireplace. Or, in true British fashion, retired to your private quarters during the tour (pronounced too-ah). By the way, I have yet to read that book so I hope my Mrs. Dalloway hostess attribution is a good one!" I assured her that am always honored to be compared to Mrs. Dalloway and that, yes, her reference made perfect sense!

I vividly recall walking into the theatre (Ritz at the Bourse, Philadelphia, 1997) right in the middle of a preview for Mrs. Dalloway. Without any prior knowledge of this upcoming film or verbal hints (voice over or text on the screen), I knew, the instant I saw the depiction of London streets and houses and Vanessa Redgrave in her gorgeous Virginia Woolf dress and hat: "It's Mrs. Dalloway!" In that sudden "moment of being," I was transported to the last page of the novel when Peter Walsh looks across the room and says, "It is Clarissa."

So where do you start? How do you solve a problem like Clarissa? "Down, down into the midst of ordinary things . . . the supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that? Or love?" (193, emphasis added).

Mrs. Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) on the balcony,
glancing across the street into her neighbor's room

I'll begin with a letter I received from my sister Peggy last summer. I was excited when she told me she was reading Mrs. Dalloway. I hoped that she would love it as much as I do, and I gave her permission to go ahead and watch the movie version even if she hadn't finished the novel yet. I know some may disapprove, and I surely wouldn't recommend that in all cases, but this excellent movie is so consistent, so true to the novel word for word, and so beautiful, that I made an exception!

Soon after Peg finished the novel, she wrote: I've been meaning to write for several days now to tell you two of my favorite lines:

"She was for the party!"

[Response from me: What a great party quote! I have always loved Peter Walsh's comment, but after Peg's note, I began to think that "She was for the party!" is an even better encapsulation of the essence of Clarissa.]

and [returning to Peg's letter] Clarissa's description of Sir Harry:

"'Dear Sir Harry!' she said, going up to the fine fellow who had produced more bad pictures than any other two Academicians in the whole of St. John's Wood (they were always of cattle, standing in sunset pools absorbing moisture, or signifying, for he had a certain range of gesture, by the raising of one foreleg and the toss of the antlers, 'the Approach of the Stranger' --all his activities, dining out, racing, were founded on cattle standing absorbing moisture in sunset pools)" (266).

I just love the thought of such a banal subject as cows standing around in ponds at sunset "absorbing moisture." Still makes me smile.

Cows Watering

Seems that Woolf may have had artist William M. Hart in mind
when she created the character of Sir Harry.

I told Peg at the time that her observation about the cow painting was perfect for my Quotidian blog because she expresses so well the thought that the cows are quotidian! Sir Harry keeps us grounded -- maybe in a boring way, but also in a good way!

Peg went on to say: I've watched both of the movies, Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I liked them both, and they did play well with the book, but I have to say that The Hours was a sad movie. Brenda let me borrow her copy which had commentary by the various actors, writers, and producer(s) which explained some parts of the movie that I had difficulty understanding, but they didn't make it any less sad. The book had it's sad parts, but the movie seemed to be just one sad tale after another with no real joy. I think they needed Sir Harry and his paintings to lighten the movie a little.

My response: Remember Clarissa's thought right at the beginning of Woolf's novel: "she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day" (11). That's the one line that has stayed with me more than any other from the first time I ever read Mrs. Dalloway.

Perhaps it is also very very sad to live even one day. Clarissa conveys as much when she hears about the death of Septimus Warren Smith, and makes the startled observation: "Oh . . . in the middle of my party, here's death" (279). Maybe that explains the deep sadness of The Hours -- it concentrates more on death than on the party. [See also the conclusion of my post "American . . . Gothic," for a little twist on the idea of "death in the middle of the party, a successful allusion, I hope.]

I was thrilled with the movie of Mrs. Dalloway but skeptical to learn that Michael Cunningham's contemporary (1998) novel The Hours was woven around Mrs. Dalloway. I was filled with misgiving at first: how dare anyone touch Woolf's masterpiece! I love Mrs. Dalloway so much, I wasn't sure that I wanted to see it experimented with. However, it turns out that Cunningham's re - perception of Woolf's novel is equally and amazingly beautiful. I became a true believer in no time; after only a few pages, I was mesmerized by Cunningham's finely crafted novel and the way in which it honors Woolf. You may remember that Virginia Woolf's first title idea for Mrs. Dalloway was The Hours, thus Cunningham's choice of title. What he has done is use Virginia Woolf as a character in his novel, plus a contemporary New Yorker named Clarissa Vaughan, and a 1940's housewife, Laura Brown, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway just a few years after Woolf's suicide. The Hours is really a hymn -- can't think of a better way to say it -- to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.

Just as I found the movie of Mrs. Dalloway more beautifully done and true to the novel than I would have ever imagined possible, so too was the subsequent movie of The Hours, starring Meryl Streep and Ed Harris. It's hard, impossible really, for me to imagine what reading or seeing The Hours would mean if I were unfamiliar with Mrs. Dalloway. Possibly Michael Cunningham is such a genius that the reader can still love his story without the literary background of Woolf and her contemporaries. I can't say for sure since there's no way for me to go back and read The Hours without knowledge of Mrs. Dalloway. Of course, each book / movie stands alone as a complete creative expression; so I guess you could read or see them in any order: Mrs. Dalloway, book and movie; then The Hours, book and movie. Or maybe both books, then both movies. You pick! How can you go wrong?

Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan

Several years back (2004), Gerry, Ben, and Sam allowed me to orchestrate a Christmas Day Film Festival, to include Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. Both movies are so perfectly rendered and aligned with the books that the boys could follow every single nuance -- they were not too young for it. I hope one day they'll read the novels; but, if not, they've got those stories and a bit of Virginia's prose inside their heads now, one way or another.

Which is to say, if you absolutely can't find time to read Mrs. Dalloway, then go ahead and watch the film and consider yourself ready to view The Hours. Both books and both movies are now and forever on my list of all-time favorites; and I would happily recommend all four to anyone in search of a literary project for the summer. Anticipating the fact that you might miss a few allusions along the way, here are some to look for:

1. In addition to the Mrs. Dalloway parallels, Cunningham also includes an extended allusion to Doris Lessing's story "To Room Nineteen." Laura Brown's quest for personal space is taken straight from Lessing, with Laura even checking into Room 19 when she goes to the hotel to contemplate suicide and read Mrs. Dalloway for the afternoon.

2. Yet another passage in The Hours calls to mind the artist Lily Briscoe in Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. [See my post on Mrs. Ramsay: "A Little Strip of Time," 12 May 2012]

In Woolf's novel, while seated at Mrs. Ramsay's famous dinner table, Lily Briscoe's mind wanders away from the conversation as she thinks of her painting: "She remembered all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, sand thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That's what I shall do. That's what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree . . . There's the sprig on the table-cloth; there's my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters -- nothing else . . . her spirits rose so high at the thought of painting tomorrow that she laughed out loud . . . she would move the tree rather more toward the middle" (To the Lighthouse, 128, 130, 140, 154). Not until the last page of the novel does the idea for the final stroke occur to Lily, when she takes out the old rolled up painting and finally finishes it at long last.

Likewise, Cunningham's character in The Hours daydreams of the creative process while arranging the silverware: "As Laura set the plates and forks on the table--as they ring softly on the starched white cloth--it seems she has succeeded suddenly, at the last minute, the way a painter might brush a final line of color onto a painting and save it from incoherence; the way a writer might set down the line that brings to light the submerged patterns and symmetry in the drama. It has to do, somehow, with setting plates and forks on a white cloth. It is as unmistakable as it is unexpected" (The Hours, 207).

And then there's Clarissa Dalloway, who

"was going that very night to kindle and illuminate;

to give her party. . . .

All was for the party."

(6, 56)

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, June 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunset With Cows
by Scottish - American Artist ~ William M. Hart, 1823 - 1894