"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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Greener Grass Over There


Photo by Stan Lichens
Family Home of Louisa MayAlcott
Remember, in Little Women, this is the house of the "poor" family.
Yet by my standards -- when first reading the novel back in 1968 and,
even now, 50 years later -- Jo March lived in a dream house!

Just as the March girls were intrigued by the big house over there where Laurie lived, I imagined the enchanted life taking place right here in Orchard House where Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy embodied the creativity and romance that seemed hopelessly lacking from my painfully bland, uninspired split - foyer subdivision existence. It seems that there is always an over there, no matter where you are; and, in fact, it is always somewhere that you are not.

Double - Fronted Symmetry, Order, and Dignity
Everything I Longed For -- But Could Not Find

However problematic things may have been for the unprosperous March - Alcotts, their "humble" dwelling continues to represent beauty and perfection to countless readers and tourists who never cease in their admiration of the interior and exterior of this all - American New England home. The following selections capture the double bind of childhood nostalgia, ever convinced that the lawn next door had greener grass:
Over There

Although we know they may
not be better necessarily,
over there we know at least
things are different, and we

sense we would be different
ourselves all these years
had we been born, brought
up, nurtured over there,

been given opportunities
to play the barefoot games,
had we had the friends
with the perfect trochee names

who lived on streets with
no sharp corners but with trees
that grew, merged over roads,
melded light like arches,

in houses shadowed with
pianos and portraits in oil,
who went to the alabaster
school on the low, smooth hill

with a library on whose
shelves are only first editions
bound in leather and halls
echoing a bronze tradition

like a language stranger
than ours, older and stronger,
the language of flawless children
into which ours fades forever.

by J. R. Solonche
in New Criterion (February 1993, Volume 11 Number 6, p 44)


Yury Olesha (1899 - 1960)
from the novel Envy

"I would like to have been born in a small French town, to have grown up in daydreams, to have set myself some sort of high goal and one fine day to have walked out of that small town and come to the capital on foot, and there, working fanatically, to have reached my goal. But I wasn't born in the West. . . . I won't ever be either handsome or famous. I won't come walking from the small town into the capital." (17 - 19)

Bruno Schulz (1892 - 1942)
from the novel The Street of Crocodiles

"Goodwill knows no obstacle; nothing can stand before deep desire. I have only to imagine a door, a door old and good, like in the kitchen of my childhood, with an iron latch and bolt. There is no room so walled up that it will not open with such a trusty door, if you have but the strength to insinuate it.” (19)

from "Green, Green Grass of Home"
by American songwriter Claude "Curly" Putman, Jr. (1930 - 2016)
sung by Porter Wagoner (1927 - 2007)

The old home town looks the same as I step down from the train,
and there to meet me is my Mama and Papa.
Down the road I look and there runs Mary
hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It's good to touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they'll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly.
It's good to touch the green, green, grass of home.
The old house is still standing, tho' the paint is cracked and dry,
and there's that old oak tree that I used to play on. . . .

George Orwell (1903 - 1950)
from the novel Coming Up For Air

"But I’d wanted to come over Chamford Hill, the way we used to go when we biked home from fishing in the Thames, When you get just past the crown of the hill the trees open out and you can see Lower Binfield lying in the valley below you.

"It’s a queer experience to go over a bit of country you haven’t seen in twenty years. You remember it in great detail, and you remember it all wrong. All the distances are different, and the landmarks seem to have moved about. You keep feeling, surely this hill used to be a lot steeper — surely that turning was on the other side of the road? And on the other hand you’ll have memories which are perfectly accurate, but which only belong to one particular occasion. You’ll remember, for instance, a corner of a field, on a wet day in winter, with the grass so green that it’s almost blue, and a rotten gatepost covered with lichen and a cow standing in the grass and looking at you. And you’ll go back after twenty years and be surprised because the cow isn’t standing in the same place and looking at you with the same expression.

"As I drove up Chamford Hill I realized that the picture I’d had of it in my mind was almost entirely imaginary."
(Part Four, Chapter One, 175)
Binfield Heath

In every case, the tenuous belief in childhood innocence and unconditional acceptance is challenged by the reality of residual damage inflicted by careless adults and overbearing parents. Compounding the unreliable nostalgia of "the old home place" are the problematic parental units -- what a struggle it is to ever imagine them young, how difficult to know which memories are real, which perceptions accurate.
Yury Olesha (1899 - 1960)
from the novel Envy

"I saw myself in the mirror and suddenly I sort of caught a similarity in me to my father. In reality there is no such similarity. I remembered: my parents' bedroom and I, a small boy, am watching my father changing his shirt. I was sorry for him. It's already too late for him to be handsome, famous; he's already done, finished and nothing more than what he is can he be. That's what I thought, feeling sorry for him and taking pride in my superiority. But now I recognized my father in me." (19)

Julian Barnes (b 1946)
from the novel The Sense of an Ending

"In those days we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when the moment came, our lives -- and time itself -- would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.

"[Our teachers] and parents used to remind us irritatingly that they too had once been young, and so could speak with authority. It's just a phase, they would insist. You'll grow out of it; life will teach you reality and realism. But back then we declined to acknowledge that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life - and truth, and morality, and art - far more clearly than our compromised elders. . . .

"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents -- were they the stuff of literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen."
(10, 12, 16)

I have yet to visit Orchard House. It's on my Bucket List; and, when I finally get there, I expect to find some greener grass and a finer house than the one I lived in as a girl. I hope to encounter the co-existence of Life and Literature, the embodiment and security of Home, where a talented young writer felt equally the pull to stay and the push to go, the longing to depart and the desire to remain forever.

More posts, poems, songs, and stories
about the houses we used to live in:
Derek Walcott & Kenneth Koch

the streets we used to live on:
Frank Sinatra & Art Garfunkel

the places we've left behind
Joyce Barlow, William Meissner,
Robert Wallace & Howard Nemerov

the rooms we can't forget
Sam McCartney & Clement Long

the places we dream about:
Frederick Buechner, Salman Rushdie & John Denver

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, September 14th

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

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

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