The Better Way

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

As soon as we have our first experiences with the stage—waiting to go on for a piano recital or a nerve-wracking regional spelling bee—we learn the backstage rule of thumb that teachers and other official adults-in-charge have screeched for years: If you can see people in the audience, they can see you too. With little children, however, keeping away from the glow of those footlights is a tricky proposition; they all want to see, and although they may not be aware of it, their main goal is often to be seen themselves. As for the adults in the audience? Although they may be glad that their children are obeying, it is that lone excited child waving frantically to Mom and Dad whom they’ll all remember. And for those children too meek or too compliant to make their faces known? Well, the audience won’t see what they’re doing until they come on at the appointed time, in the appointed fashion.

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, the author writes, “Appearance paints itself on bright and sliding surfaces, for example, memory and dream.” We may think that we’re fully aware of everyone around us, but there are probably two types of people: Those who want to be seen and those who do not. Is it the people who don’t seem to care about “appearances” who cause us so much angst?

At the novel’s center is an exploration of what it means to reject one lifestyle for another, more socially acceptable, one. In other words, choosing a life trajectory that appears to embody “betterment” over one that appears stagnant. Ruth and Lucille, two sisters orphaned after their mother makes a dramatic exit from earth, live first with their maternal grandmother, then two great-aunts, and finally, their eccentric Aunt Sylvie. This aunt, who left the small community of Fingerbone as a young adult, is a quiet and hard-to-figure-out woman who sticks out in the town in which she was raised. She “always walked with her head down, to one side, with an abstracted and considering expression, as if someone were speaking to her in a soft voice.” Sylvie claims to still be married, but has no idea where her husband is. She prefers to eat in the dark. She takes long walks outside at odd hours to just sit and ponder.

Private Eyes: They're Watching You
Private Eyes: They’re Watching You

Not surprisingly, Sylvie doesn’t care much about appearances. The idea of “appearance” and “being seen” saturates this carefully worded book. Toward the beginning of their time with Sylvie, both sisters relish time in the woods, squirreled away from the spotlight of their small town, where their family’s numerous plights cause scrutiny: “It is accurate to say that Lucille went to the woods with me to escape observation. I myself felt the gaze of the world as a distorting mirror that squashed her plump and stretched me narrow,” according to Ruth. But a divergence soon occurs, and Lucille starts to care a great deal about appearance; Ruth, like Sylvie, does not. “In spring I had begun to sense that Lucille’s loyalties were with the other world,” Ruth reflects. “At times like this I was increasingly struck by Lucille’s ability to look the way one was supposed to look.” Lucille works at sewing new dresses for her wardrobe in an attempt to blend in, but when she is concerned about her sewing progress and requests her sister’s help, Ruth, instead, is concerned with some old flowers she finds pressed between the pages of a dictionary. Lucille’s distressed pleas to her sister include, “‘We have to improve ourselves!’…‘Starting right now!’” This is desperation. Stagnation—remaining in her current situation—will break her.

When Lucille finally abandons her aunt and sister to live a more conventional life under the roof of her Home Ec teacher, this division between one sister who tries to fit into society but ultimately rejects it, and one sister who wholeheartedly runs from a life that thumbs its nose at “acceptable” society, becomes complete and maybe final. One exchange between the sisters goes like this:

“’I know you can’t help the way you are.’” I [Ruth] thought about that. ‘I know that you can’t help the way you are, either,’ I said. Lucille looked at me evenly. ‘I don’t have to,’ she said. ‘I’m not like that.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like Sylvie.’”

She knows that if she truly wants to “move on,” Lucille must appear to be doing something. Otherwise, everyone will continue to associate her with her sister—and even worse, her eccentric aunt.

Niaqornat, Greenland
Niaqornat, Greenland, © Dogwoof

As fate would have it, I had just finished Housekeeping when I watched Village at the End of the World, a 2013 documentary that explores life in Niaqornat, a village of 59 people in Northwest Greenland.

The documentary follows the villagers as they make plans to re-open their shuttered fish factory in an attempt to remain economically sustainable and competitive in a modern world. (Make no mistake: Despite the slower and simpler way of life in this roadless village where the one person who can drive operates the forklift and where bucket toilets serve its residents, modern personal technology prevails.) It also follows the story of Lars, the only teenager in Niaqornat, as he struggles with his future. He does not want to be a hunter/fisherman and tells the camera, “I need to change my surroundings a little. I can’t stay in one place. [I need to] experience new things. I need to travel away from the village to move on.” He seems to be echoing the stance of those in the more populous areas of Greenland who claim if “[you] move to towns, [you’ll] be happier.” Lars spends a lot of time fiddling around with Google Earth (he enjoys “traveling to” New York City) and has Facebook friends from Denmark, Mexico, and America. His grandparents, who have raised him, encourage this personal growth and development. As far as the viewer knows, there is no strife between his village of birth and his dreams. Yet he desires to leave.

Village at the End of the World can be viewed as an exploration of the different journeys we all take in an attempt to move forward from a stagnant existence. Lars, of course, embraces this attitude in an obvious fashion—and in a way that many of us would see as the clear or “correct” trajectory. University education? Yes! Twenty-first-century job? Yes!

Housekeeping‘s Lucille, like Lars from Greenland, is compelled by some unknown innate disposition to push herself out of the world that she has been raised in and into a new one that others probably deem the “right” path. Just as Lucille states, the sisters are of two different worlds; they are two related people who somehow are wired completely differently. Robinson gives these words to Ruth: “When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain. Or it was at my conception.”

Which Way?
Which Way?

We all do what we need to do to continue moving instead of stagnating. It’s better to keep running with the treadmill than falling off, right? The problem is when we assume everyone’s programmed to point their treadmills in the same direction.

Village throws an interesting wrench in this notion that we can only run one direction toward a fulfilling life. One of the film’s most prominent subjects is Ilannguaq, who moves from Southern Greenland to be with his girlfriend, whom he met online: Here is someone who has chosen to move to Niaqornat when many people would ask, “Why?” If we’re going to view his life through the lens of a typical Westerner, Ilannguaq moves from a more conventional place to a location where his opportunities for “betterment” are limited. After all, for five years, he is the sewage and refuse collector (“the Village clock”). Someone has forfeited being “seen” and “progressing” in life to do that? When love is the motivator, the answer in this case is a resounding “yes.” Ilannguaq demonstrates that personal progress doesn’t have to follow the trajectory that society encourages us to follow.

Perhaps the problem is that we often see decision-making as a movement away from something, when the more positive way to look at choices is as movement toward something. We view a seemingly mentally and emotionally unstable Aunt Sylvie as someone to forsake, just as there would be those who undoubtedly see Niaqornat as a place that needs to be thrust into a perceived version of the 21st century.

Back to Housekeeping: Ultimately, Sylvie and Ruth do move on to a new life, but it is in a different fashion than Lucille’s progression. And very importantly, it is unseen. “For we had to leave. I could not stay, and Sylvie would not stay without me. Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping,” narrates Ruth. According to Ruth, she and Sylvie “had become conscious of Fingerbone all around [them], if not watching, then certainly aware of everything [they] did.” And so their journey to something “better” is done privately. As for the villagers of Niaqornat, they move toward continued sustainability in their beloved home, as they are able to strike a mutually acceptable deal with Royal Greenland. Will outsiders see how diligently they moved toward their goal? Probably not; they may choose to see only a “primitive” village.

We prefer to see physical and dramatic movement as the key to “betterment,” when movement toward something can be subtle and internal, and sometimes completely invisible to others. Humans are fixated on the visual, and Robinson knows that humans’ compulsions and innate desires might not be visible, but they are what inexplicably propel us.

We are so quick to bandy around the term “betterment” when talking about social policy, personal improvement, and most importantly, others’ lives. Is our frustration with others simply a result of not seeing their movement?

{You can watch the official trailer Village at the End of the World here:}

Motherly Love

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

“One thing about having a baby is that each step of the way you simply cannot imagine loving him any more than you already do, because you are bursting with love, loving as much as you are humanly capable of―and then you do, you love him even more.”  ― Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

I have an awkward admission to make: I read what are fondly known as Mommy Blogs. I’m embarrassed that I actually spend precious downtime reading these often narcissistic and sentimental odes to a Pottery Barn catalog version of life so I won’t even stoop to the level of sharing the ones that I skim—even if just once a month—because many of them embody so much navel gazing and consumerism. Let’s just chalk it up to the thirty-something-mother version of watching Saved by the Bell reruns after school. (Don’t deny it unless you’re going to admit to watching Charles in Charge instead.) Why don’t I like these online chronicles of motherhood? Let me count the ways: They commodify children. (Can you imagine having tens of thousands of people looking at your child’s mug every day?) They often take a sarcastic and demeaning tone. (Listen, I completely understand the trials of preparing meals for picky toddlers, but pulling out the big sarcasm and provocative-language guns and essentially poking fun at your offspring in a very public forum to generate sympathetic and commiserating laughs is just juvenile—and I can be a very sarcastic person. #soblessed) And lastly, these online snippets of “real life” are often viewed by their authors as tools to catapult to their fifteen minutes of fame. (Just hop on over to the Huffington Post and read the posts by mothers who are faux angry for this, that, and another reason and then watch all these posts go viral.) In short, many seem to me to be one-dimensional “soft” versions of what mothering truly encompasses; many mommy blogs present an ambience or a general feeling. So why, then, do I still read them? These blogs give me a peek into what makes my American contemporaries tick, sometimes they provide a good chuckle when I see how stylized every facet of bloggers’ children’s lives can be (even in attempts to “keep it real”), but often, it’s just fluff entertainment.

I need to blog this or it didn't actually happen!
I need to blog this or it didn’t actually happen! {photo via}

I’m going to postulate that the love that Lamott describes above happens for many privileged, Western women because they know it’s supposed to unfold like that, and the blogs I read only regurgitate that notion. But what of those outside of this self-reinforcing world?

That leads us to Frog Music, Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel. I think it’s fair to say that the author’s passion for motherhood (she has two children with her partner) fuels this novel as it did her previous one, the Man Booker finalist Room. And it leads us to Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer who lived and performed in San Francisco during the stiflingly hot and smallpox-infused summer of 1876 and who would never give Pinterest or Instagram a second thought if she were kicking around these days. Donoghue has created a fascinating historical fiction whodunit based on the true story of the murder of Blanche’s friend, the cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet. As she did in Room, the author has woven several meaty and thought-provoking themes into her work, but the one that struck me the most was the heaviness (in both good and hard ways) and all-encompassing nature of motherhood.

San Francisco, 1876
San Francisco, 1876

Blanche is a mommy blogger’s worst nightmare. The performer/prostitute who works her magic in the seedy and wild-west House of Mirrors in San Francisco’s Chinatown had “stepped into the life [of a showgirl] like a swimmer entering a lake, a few inches at a time.” Despite the submissive and exploitive nature of her job and the fact that her relationship with her lover Arthur is also one between pimp and prostitute, Blanche thoroughly enjoys her “work.” And although she adores the accolades and admiration from her constant audience, Blanche soon discovers a new role that casts a shadow over everything she does: Mother. The reader doesn’t even realize that she is a mother until it is revealed that her nearly-year-old child has been “farmed out” to a place similar to the types of orphanages that pop up in journalist exposés. Although she has obviously given birth and had the technical title of “mother” pinned to her from that moment, it is not until she sees for herself the deplorable conditions that her P’tit (as in P’tit Arthur, or “Arthur Jr.”) shares with other forgotten or burdensome babies that Blanche becomes a mother in her heart.

This is not a role without confusion, though. Despite a new maternal instinct in her heart, her body doesn’t really know what to do and fumbles to calm this misshapen and malnourished baby who one would assume has attachment issues. “The important thing, it seems, is for P’tit not to be confronted with his mother’s face. Any attempt at a cuddle horrifies him.” Similarly, although she feels a hypnotic pull toward her son and experiences that innate need to protect him, this newfound responsibility devastates her: “Blanche shudders. That’s a notion that shouldn’t occur to a mother. Much too late to wish this small life undone. And yet she does wish it, every time her eyes approach him.” Further, “Frankly, she’s sick of waiting hand and foot on this tiny, unsmiling stranger. She wouldn’t drown him in a bucket, but she can’t say much more than that. Guilt hangs on her like a lead apron. There are moments, tying a diaper or transferring P’tit from one arm to the other, when Blanche begins to feel competent at this kind of drudgery, but that doesn’t help; it only sharpens the feeling of estrangement from herself.”

If we were to encounter these sentiments from an acquaintance we would, at the very least, be directing her to a mental-health professional, and perhaps even calling CPS. But Donoghue is foisting a fictional persona onto Blanche, so we hang in with her and recognize that despite these dark thoughts, something new is brewing within this woman who is already accustomed to giving others what they want. This time, however, she has to teach herself to give even when no return pleasure or satisfaction seems imminent. Giving her will, her soul, and every ounce of her energy to her child seems more tricky and challenging than giving her body to strangers.

And, soon enough, she learns. Even though “Being saddled with a baby, Blanche feels as if she doesn’t quite count as a woman anymore,” her next separation from P’tit—as he is whisked away by Arthur and their friend Ernest—is unbearable to her. A quick study, Blanche learns one of life’s tricks of the trade: Fake it until you make it. “Mothers in the street who caress their children—they may all be faking it, it occurs to her now.” Because she has no other option acceptable to her, she fakes it as well.

The beautiful part is that Blanche, in fact, does “make it.” “The thought [of abandoning her son] makes her squeeze P’tit so tight that he howls even louder. She couldn’t walk away. Not now, not ever.” Similarly, “Whether [getting her son back from Arthur and Ernest] works or not, in years to come Blanche has to be able to tell herself that she tried, bet everything, for P’tit’s sake. This is what mothers do for their babies: they bite their tongues and let the world ride them into the ground.” She doesn’t “make it” all the way to blog-world perfection (in fact, according to Donoghue’s historical research, the real Blanche most likely lived only another few months after getting her son back in her possession), but her love grows so real that she can’t bear to live life without this little being.

Donoghue’s fictional reconstruction of Blanche provides a way for this great expanse of maternal feelings (whether overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative) to be unleashed. Fiction provides a safe place to explore just how powerful motherhood can be. Donoghue doesn’t make Blanche a sometimes-despicable character because she feels this way, and not even because she’s admitting that the majority of mothers feel this way. Rather, she’s illustrating how enormous and life-changing this role is. It is a safe place because the character that Donoghue has developed is not real. Blanche may have started out at the very bottom of the love-o-meter for her son, but her love seems to grow an awful lot like that of Anne Lamott, quoted above.

Show me a blog that features a destructive and wounded person who slowly but dramatically transforms into the best mother she can be while chronicling it all, and I may change my mind about mommy blogs. (Actually, don’t. This kind of love is the type of emotion that shouldn’t be sullied by voyeurism.)

A 2011 Mother's Day present from one of my children to me. It's a case for my glasses, and it sits on my dresser.
A 2011 Mother’s Day present from one of my children: a case for my glasses.



Lost in Translation

Stoner, by John Williams
Stoner, by John Williams

Sometimes as I’m browsing in an Irish bookstore, or perhaps as I’m eyeing what other people on the DART are reading, I wonder if an “all-American” title, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Tell It on the Mountain, or The Grapes of Wrath, translates well; do these books affect non-Americans the way they do Americans? It’s a one-half-simplistic, and one-half-sensible sentiment. Simplistic: Is the “American experience” really so incomprehensible? (No, because global media make sure it’s plastered over every continent.) Sensible: I’d argue that you can’t really feel intertwined with a particular culture if you haven’t spent a substantial bit of time there. (Eating at Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika/“Last Hotdog until America” in Sagres, Portugal does not count toward familiarizing oneself with America.)

So what do we make of the American book that Americans have virtually ignored until recently? (Well, that is, until the French got wind of it and seemed to unearth it from obscurity in 2011. Since they are known for their panache, we can just ride their coattails.)

It's Official: You're American
Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika. It’s Official: You’re an American Hot Dog Aficionado

Stoner, by John Williams—originally published in 1965—made a big splash when it was reprinted by Vintage in 2012. A relatively unknown compact novel, it cryptically arose as a posthumous breakthrough (nearly fifty years after its debut) for Williams, who died in 1994. At the end of 2013, Julian Barnes reviewed the book for The Guardian. What I find most interesting about his review is Barnes’ exploration of why the book has seemed to generate more enthusiasm in Europe (and Israel, apparently) than in America, Williams’ homeland. A couple of theories are presented, but the most prominent one is that Americans prefer tales of overcoming strife and embracing heroism, and Stoner is a book full of quiet sorrow without much in the way of redemption. Here’s novelist Sylvia Brownrigg’s response to Barnes’ inquiry: “The reticence [of Stoner] seems very not American to me. In spite of the American setting, the character himself feels more English, or European – opaque, fundamentally decent, and passive…Perhaps the lack of the novel’s taking hold in the US is because it doesn’t feel like One of Ours? We’re such a country of maximalists, noisy ones, and though obviously there are exceptions, even our minimalists are not spare and sad in this particular way.”

We're going to be happy after all of this...
We’re going to be happy after all of this…

I thought about this a lot because although what Barnes (and Brownrigg) is implying holds truth, I’m fascinated by the mechanics of shaping a national psyche. Why are Americans so intent on promoting “happiness” in such a loud fashion? The answer is multi-faceted, of course, and anyone can name a handful of potential reasons straight away: Ye Olde Pioneering Days (and all the turmoil and hardship included) are still considered relatively recent history, so the optimism and desire to push through adversity are fresh; Americans are “brainwashed” into this rah-rah attitude for jingoist reasons by the political machine; the US is a diverse land where groups and individuals need to raise voices in order to be heard over numerous other groups. The list is endless, as are the numbers of other national psyches. Why are the Chinese/Brits/Germans “the way they are”? The same types of reasons account for these varying cultural psyches as well. So, on the one hand, it’s straightforward: Citizens are products of all these different factors vying for attention, and the strongest, the most appealing, or maybe just the easiest will win and be passed down, generation after generation. Yet this sentiment goes against the notion that “people are the same” wherever one goes. The kernel of truth in this thought—that human emotions are universal—bears some weight, but the snippets of thoughts and ideas that mold our schemas are unique not just to individuals, but seem to change according to a seemingly arbitrary mark of delineation on a map. And these “cultural borders” aren’t just specific to countries. They descend in funnel fashion, from region, to state or province, to city, and beyond.

In short, Barnes’ theory for why Stoner hasn’t caused as much commotion in the home country of its deceased author: Lost in Translation.

Although Stoner is based entirely in the US, this inability to jump seamlessly from one culture to another is, I think, what the book is about. The only son of Missouri farmers, William Stoner is a product of a family “bound together by the necessity of its toil.” Until age 17, his life is simple: “From the earliest time he could remember, [he] had his duties” and “…he did his lessons as if they were chores.” His assumption is that his life won’t deviate from the lives of his predecessors, for what else could there possibly be? “At thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” Because this is what he has known, until the point when his father sends him to the University of Missouri at Columbia—specifically, to the College of Agriculture in an attempt to embolden the family farm with “book knowledge”—Stoner believes that his “country of origin,” so to speak, is irreversibly calling him to a relentless and mundane future. It is as a student that “for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness.” The understanding that the life mapped out for him is not where he belongs nor where he wants to be jolts Stoner.

Initially hesitant to embark on this foreign journey, he soon finds his calling in the English department. Stoner catches a glimpse of a potential life in a different culture. Although this admittedly awkward man eventually finds solace in words and texts as well as the solitary rigor of research as he embarks on a teaching career, he never quite assimilates to the worldly, educated, and cultured environment of academia. This failure is not for lack of trying, and this failure essentially sums up what is a very sad book. Despite a university friend’s contention that “…the University exists, for the disposed of the world,” for most of his life, Stoner doesn’t really have a place anywhere. He feels “security and warmth” in the academic world, but his failures don’t cease. Leaving one culture (the family farm) behind in an attempt to join another (the life of the mind), Stoner unfortunately remains in cultural limbo. The reticent and quiet professor lives in a no-man’s land, much akin to the vast ocean separating America and Europe. Because he never finds his place with his wife, his home, or even his own daughter, Stoner remains a man that nearly everyone finds impossible to understand or relate to. Instead of a message or a way of life that doesn’t make sense outside of its cultural boundaries, this is a human lost in translation. This is a book built upon the remarkable amount of disappointments thrown Stoner’s way, but the true disappointment is that the one person who provides a “homeland” for him—a fellow academic—must leave him, both physically and emotionally.

2013-08-01 19.01.39
“No man is an island…”

Does it ultimately matter if we are part of one camp or another? What if no one else shares our “cultural psyche”? At the denouement of Stoner, a book about not finding identity in a larger place, “A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” So I think I may disagree with Julian Barnes’ assessment a bit. When I reached the end of Stoner, I thought it a most American book indeed: Our disenchanted professor realizes that he belongs to himself, no matter where he resides. The power of the individual?

{As a fun aside, check out The Millions’ US vs. UK book cover analysis.}