Quiet and Careful

Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

Here’s what I noticed within two months of moving to Dublin: People here are considerably less angsty than Americans about anything identity related. Although I’m asserting this as an outsider, when you come from a place that necessitates pigeon-holing its citizens—for political reasons, mostly—less emphasis on categorizing sings to me. America: the land of Buzzfeed quizzes that don’t even make any sense! (What Country Should You Live In?/Which U.S. President Are You?/Which Super Power Should You Actually Have?) Ireland: the place where everything is “just grand”!

Ya Sure Ya Betcha
Ya Sure Ya Betcha

Obviously, a mere three years into our Irish domicile, I’m not a true Irishwoman (and I’m not so naïve as to think I ever will be), so my thoughts on Ireland are filtered through that lens. But as an American, I do have insight into my country’s obsession with identity politics. The Europeans I know are baffled by Americans’ fascination with genealogy and their supposed claim to a bit of Ireland, Sweden, or Germany. The idea of a “soccer mom” is met with a bit of a laugh. And the fact that the US welcomes, really, only two political parties and that most people choose between them? That is just unfathomable! As a whole, we’re loud, and we like to announce our identity in our homes, our food choices, and just about anything else. (Hey, I do love America a whole bunch. #youtakethegoodyoutakethebad)

A few years ago, just as I was beginning to find my place in Ireland, I wrote an essay for The Curator about the novel Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry. I marveled at the beauty in a piece of fiction that doesn’t rely on whiz-bang plot to move it forward and concluded that “perhaps a book – and a life – is not simply about the story, but also about how it’s told.” The longer I live in Ireland, I associate this type of book with the country. It’s a little bit how I feel about the scenery. With the pointy and extreme landscapes of my childhood forever informing any comparisons, I liken my experience with Annie Dunne to the first time I sat atop Bray Head: overpowering, yet gentle. This is not Mt. Rainier, just as Annie Dunne is not East of Eden, with all its beautiful drama and tragedy. I’m not sure which I prefer, but the Irish landscape leaves me pondering the subtleties of beauty a bit more.


Subtle and Not-So Subtle

Which is why I can now articulate why my favorite book is Carol Shields’ Small Ceremonies. If you’ve never read it, you still may have read her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries, but this compact novel—her first—is my favorite. Small Ceremonies was published in 1976, the year after I was born. So while the bulk of my childhood was a 1980s childhood, I feel a certain closeness to the scene that Shields presents. Even though I can identify with protagonist Judith Gill—40-year-old wife, mother, biographer—and her family better than a novel set in 16th century England, it is not just the era that presents me with a contented ease. No, it’s something more—when I read Small Ceremonies, I see a small glow, not a loud firework; the same precise, quiet, and careful language as found in Annie Dunne.

Here’s a musical version of “quiet and careful.”  And if you haven’t seen Once, you really must.

But I realized as I re-read this book for perhaps the tenth time, that by page 50, a substantial amount of information and description had already occurred. I was surprised because my reading felt slow and meandering. I was enjoying each word instead of deciphering motives, reasons for plot points, and crazy turns of phrases. It is sensible. Shields’ use of language is beautiful, just as Barry’s. It is precise, but not scientific. It is poetic, but not extravagant. She describes her teenage daughter, Meredith, and her friend: “…[they] rock back and forth between the rhythm of their misunderstandings; apology and forgiveness are their coinage…They interpret each other until their separate experiences hang in exhausted shreds.” And Judith’s subterfuge of another hopeful novelist’s plot: “The bones of my stolen plot stuck me out everywhere like great evil-gleaming knobs, accusing me, charging me.” Her words remind me of those in Annie Dunne, but the plot is surprisingly fast-paced. And, deceptively, even though Shields doesn’t waste words, there is a neutrality to her descriptions. They are timeless. Nothing is out-of-control crazy. Listen, it was a different time, as evinced by this analysis of a 1976 Good Housekeeping.

If Judith Gill Instagrammed. #justleftovers
If Judith Gill Instagrammed. #justleftovers

This is the world Judith inhabits, but she seems to be above it all. Shields hints at the ways we box people in: the newspaper columnist who writes “a quirky bittersweet saga of motherhood,” the party guest who describes “…nouveaus [and their] plastic-lined swimming pool[s].” Yet Judith observes it all. Seemingly unconcerned with which box she occupies, she would not be Instagramming her meals like her contemporaries—in an attempt to pitch a stake in an identifying box—if she lived in 2014. Her life is “just normal.” That’s a phrase I’ve used a lot lately. No, I don’t want to go to a church that asks me to brainstorm ideas with my pew mates. How about “just normal”? When my children started school in Ireland, did we need to make a special trip to purchase five pocketed folders (green for homework, blue for in-school work, yellow for “writing workshop”)? The correct brand of Number 2 pencil? What about 15 rolls of paper towels and red, green, and purple Sharpie markers? No, because it’s “just normal,” and they use regular copy books and handwriting pens. “Just normal” is kind of nice. Shields doesn’t trot out an angsty analysis of women’s roles, although undoubtedly these debates were firing and pinging at the time she was writing Small Ceremonies. Instead, she notes—rather matter-of-factly—what many view as universal truths of motherhood, of womanhood. “Husband, children, they are not so much witnessed as perceived, flat leaves which grow absently from a stalk in my head, each fitting into the next, all their curving edges perfect. So far, so far. It seems they require someone, me, to watch them; otherwise they would float apart and disintegrate.” It’s as if she’s conveying that a mother’s centrality to a family unit is both overpowering and beautiful all at once. It just is.

Shields’ words are careful and cautious. I don’t mean that she holds back. Rather, she is controlled and concise. Every word counts. But unlike Annie Dunne, Small Ceremonies is full of action. We have a surprise pregnancy, a hidden identity, a year in England remembered, the usual family squabbles, and some copyright issues. Not to mention the ruminations on what constitutes a fulfilled life. Yet everything about this novel is quietly striking; the events are almost muted. Nothing is frenetic. Rather, the plot moves seamlessly from action to contemplation and the reader is lulled into its melody. When I think of Judith Gill, I’m reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: Very subtle in their color choice, but a completely spectacular package overall. After all, Shields clothes Judith in a “long apricot crepe skirt,” or “fawn slacks or [her] bronze corduroy skirt.” I can’t even picture those outfits! Something tells me that even if she were transported to 2014, Judith would not be gallivanting around in Hunter rain boots (even when it’s not raining) and skinny jeans, sharing posed photos on her “lifestyle” blog.

Judith shuns reinvention, but she embraces the evolution of a life. Carol Shields died of breast cancer in 2003, the year my daughter was born. I was heartbroken when I learned of this, for Carol Shields provided me not only with a book to call “my favorite,” but a heroine who seemed to “have it all” while understanding that “all” is something that can’t be prescribed a label or identity.

Alone With My Books?

Helloooooo? Am I still the same person when I cross this very precise border?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Does loneliness look the same in Las Vegas as it does in New York?

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: The book left me simultaneously heartbroken and somehow optimistic for a happily ever after—but as far as settings go, her subtle sense of the ticks and tocks of a place, a region providing the backdrop for a culture and for a society, is one of the best I’ve read.

New York is New York; it’s an easy place to “get” even if you haven’t spent a considerable amount of time there. Or even going there at all—that doesn’t stop people from talking about the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or donning I Heart NY t-shirts. The unfamiliar version might be a little too Sex in the City or Friends, but if you’ve read any Salinger, or better yet, any Paule Marshall, you start to get a feel for the nuances and layers of this place that 8 million call home. The New Yorker and The Observer will help you out in decoding the marvels of a city where 34 train lines run nonstop and 1,700 schools house 1.1 million pupils. Not that those New Yorks are everyone’s New Yorks—not one media outlet, let alone one person, can paint a just-so picture—but the general gist? This is a zig-zagging behemoth of a place, where the intersections between people—one after another—create a cacophonous hum. It’s certainly not bucolic, and the stereotypical New Yorker’s neuroses only mirrors a place where the only “alone time” one gets is inside one’s head. Here’s a good NYC primer or how-to:

But Las Vegas and the greater expanse of perpetually sunlit developments of stucco houses with granite countertops, octagonal-shaped bath tubs, and pristine beige carpet—all those markers of a supposed luxury—well, that’s a harder thing to capture. There are busy parts, for sure. Las Vegas hosted 39 million visitors in 2012. But it’s a quick splatter of a city in the middle of a desert; that busy-ness ends abruptly.

I flew across the country at age 18 to attend university in the Boston area. A lot of my new peers didn’t seem to comprehend this idea of isolated cities. “I’m from a small town in upstate New York,” I heard a lot—from my now-husband, for instance. Your town’s population may be 10,000, but it is surrounded by a seemingly endless amount of “small towns.” They are all connected! Which, really, means that you almost live in a miniature version of a megalopolis. If you’re 45 minutes from Boston, you’re probably four hours from New York, and well, there are lots of good shopping malls and cute and quaint villages between here and there. Do you know what is four hours from Seattle? Not-quite Spokane. And in-between the two? Some beautiful countryside, enough of a relatively empty expanse for the terrain and climate to change from mountainous and cool to flat and hot.

My large suburb may have been far more “bright lights, big city” than another’s small town, but once you’re 45 minutes outside of the city, well, you’re certainly not in Boston. And when you get further south in the US, more entrenched in the wild west of the Southwest, you’re looking at cities as tempting oases in the middle of the dry desert. These cities in Western America—isolated pin pricks on a map weighted heavily to the other side—and I have a bit of a “it’s not you, it’s me” relationship.

Come Together!

The relative isolation of these cities breeds a loneliness; a sad reliance on oneself to provide entertainment, sustenance, and comfort. But I understand that is just my take. After all, I come from Scandinavian immigrant stock, people who thrived in the Western abyss.

To me, it made perfect sense that Las Vegas was where Tartt’s protagonist Theo becomes enmeshed in drugs. We’ll never know if it was just the coincidental ping of timing that laid his life out like that, but was his loneliness, heartbreak, and despair perhaps more shielded or concealed in a city of 8 million? Perhaps he would have been led to substances—anything—to handle tragedy no matter where he lived. But in a place where the sunshine isn’t fickle, and dreams are borne from a can-do, no-matter-what attitude and environment, appearances are deceiving. Inter-connectedness is harder to come by. And despite massive changes in globalization and the sociality of digital media, one has to seek more diligently for throngs of people to invade your space, your senses, and your ideas of normalcy. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Singing “All by Myself” in Las Vegas?

Yet Theo is rudderless. Mostly due to his father’s dysfunction, Theo’s isolation matches his new environment: “Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going on in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”

Further, “As we drove, the improbable skyline dwindled into a wilderness of parking lots and outlet malls, loop after faceless loop of shopping plazas, Circuit City, Toys “R” Us, supermarkets and drugstores, Open Twenty-Four Hours, no saying where it ended or began.”

This is not all there is to Las Vegas, of course. Lots of people actually do live there. In fact, it is still experiencing booming growth, particularly with young families and retirees. There’s simply been no time to prove this place beyond its dubious and manufactured reputation. Years and years of organic population growth leave more of an imprint than a spontaneous poof of development. And many people prefer this ability to quickly iron out the creases of their life amidst a well-organized palette.

However, it is the quick-paced buzz of New York that grounds Theo. When he returns to the Barbours’ apartment after returning to New York: “the oddest part of the evening was my blood-deep, unreasoning sense of returning home.” And in the hotel in Amsterdam, the elevator doors are “a very urban sound, a sound I associated with Sutton Place, and her.” But with his father, who readers associate with Las Vegas, we get this: “Yet if you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern (which apparently he had never taken the trouble to do), you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light.” As Theo mentally compares the two places, Tartt gives her readers this, via Theo: “In New York, everything reminded me of my mother—every taxi, every street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun—but out in this hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed; I could not even imagine her spirit looking down on me. All trace of her seemed burned away in the thin desert air.”

I get that: I’d rather have the whoosh of a large metropolis than a whoosh of a tumbleweed.

Funny thing about aging and maturity, though. Despite my inherent penchant for more populous places, if you give me a secluded backyard full of orange trees, a view of a dusty brown mountain, and a smattering of cacti, I’d be more than happy. But I had to know where I stood before I could ease into a comfortable chair that may prevent me from getting up again.

The view from my parents’ backyard.