Once upon a time there lived on a Saratoga hillside surrounded by lakes a tragic little family of wealth and privilege. Spencer and Katrina Trask lost every child they ever produced, but gathered countless friends, many of whom were artists and poets drawn to the couple’s generosity and toughness in the face of Job-like losses, year after sad year.
Henry van Dyke was one such friend who wrote the following inscription for Katrina Trask’s garden sundial dedicated to her four dead children:
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice,
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”
“Dr. van Dyke is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in.” Helen Keller said of him.
“I’m not an optimist. There’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more.” Wikipedia
There was once a time in America when it was quite fashionable (even among the intellectual elites) to see something good in America. Does this mean there was nothing bad? Surely not, but van Dyke’s poem always tickles my fancy especially when children recite it in schools that still teach that America is a pretty great place to be:
AMERICA FOR ME
‘Tis fine to see the Old World, and travel up and down
Among the famous palaces and cities of renown,
To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings,—
But now I think I’ve had enough of antiquated things.
So it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars!
Oh, London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air;
And Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair;
And it’s sweet to dream in Venice, and it’s great to study Rome;
But when it comes to living there is no place like home.
I like the German fir-woods, in green battalions drilled;
I like the gardens of Versailles with flashing fountains filled;
But, oh, to take your hand, my dear, and ramble for a day
In the friendly western woodland where Nature has her way!
I know that Europe’s wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free,—
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.
Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the bléssed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars
“Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.” Gustave Flaubert
Have any of you suffered through a three week flu? It’s awful, isn’t it? But there is a bright side. Everything I do is in slow motion so I’ve actually spent more time with my humans and animals–especially my animals who love sick naps.
I was once a misanthrope. How could I not be? I went to public school and watched PBS. It didn’t take a genius to see that as a white girl I was personally responsible for pollution, slavery, genocide and the deaths of baby harp seals. I stopped eating meat as many a white girl has done to distance herself from all evil. The moral high ground of starving oneself is a great thing for one’s self esteem until your body gives out and you realize you really don’t want to die. It is then that I realized that my idealized love for animals actually made me wish for the deaths of other humans. Humans I didn’t know. Humans out there who polluted.
Have you heard of the Georgia Guidestones? They are stones in the middle of nowhere calling for a mass reduction in humans. Scary.
I re-grouped after the doctors forced me to eat hamburgers and researched my family tree looking for Indian killers and corporate evil-doers. All I found were men and women who wanted to be free. They intermarried with Indians, fought against tyranny, worked for oppressive bosses at age sixand died in the fight against slavery.
Outside the classroom of my youth and when I was hospitalized for a serious condition that wouldn’t have materialized if I hadn’t hated humanity and loved fuzzy animals, I was amazed to discover that all around me were humans with the capacity for good. Of course I always knew my family members were basically good (though misguided for eating meat), but there were others! In the world beyond! Doctors and nurses, scientists and hunters. Activists and skeptics.
For a while I watched nature films. You know the ones showing a crocodile killing unsuspecting little Bambi. The I got a small farm. I’ve watched ducks brutally kill other ducks for no apparent reason. I’ve seen the aftermath of a fox killing frenzy. I’m pretty sure the fox didn’t pray over his prey.
So eating lettuce is now bad for the environment. Huh. Maybe we don’t get to live in Utopia. Yet as I sit at my laptop reading about misanthropes and cucumbers, I smile. I love western civilization even with its faults. I love its art, its music, its cinema. I like insulation in winter and an air-conditioned hospital room when I’ve eaten nothing but lettuce for weeks. I like napping with dogs (it’s what dogs do best), but I LOVE writing novels and reading blog posts and obsessing over Christmas gifts for people–yes those crazy characters who occasionally tell really good jokes (my dogs can’t do that).
I love loving people no one loves. So I can’t be a misanthrope.
When I wake up to this I tend to linger a little longer in the yard. Even the turkeys spend more time on their “deck.”
Before it gets too hot and guests arrive I pickle and can beets (my sister loves them so I grow and preserve them for her visits).
The guests arrive and want to do farmy things. I’m all for help finding potatoes with my nieces.
The girls meet Clare, the crippled chicken and fall in love with her.
They love riding on the back of the truck,too.
We decided to get a few lambs and the day comes to pick them up. Goats don’t pee when in minivans, but sheep do. A lesson learned. Does anyone know a good way to get the smell of sheep urine out of carpeting?
We also build a house for our new ram, Smash Williams. So while I’d like to say I write no matter what, every day without fail I really can’t. The sun sets and another Upstate New York evening enthralls me and my visitors.
We sit in the yard. Buck Crenshaw and his world wait for me to return, but for now I just enjoy reality.
Writers own time–temporarily. People own time temporarily and if you don’t believe in an after life then it makes perfect sense to speed on the highway and flip out after getting behind an old lady at the grocery store who only fishes for her checkbook at the very last minute.
My parents made lists to segment their time. My mother wrote in her perfect, artful script fantastically long and detailed lists. My father sat at the kitchen table talking his lists out, “First I have to finish breakfast, then I’ll read the paper, and then I have to go do the lawn and then a nap and maybe I’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts to bring Kenny some coffee later (his brother who worked nights cleaning the school).
We were ALWAYS given new watches for Christmas–I even got a silver finger watch with a blue face one year but it got in the way of my quest for my mother’s perfect penmanship while making my own lists. No matter how many clocks went off each hour in our house–the Birds of North America clock, the cuckoo clock from my father’s stay in Germany during the Cold War, the mantle clock with the sad chime that reminded my mother of her grandfather and the annoying clock radio set between stations all going off at about but not exactly the same moment– time slipped by anyway –the very time we were accounting for.
The thousands of old photographs framed on the dining room wall were mourning triggers. The clocks and watches were constant reminders that these happy times at the table vying for who might get the last piece of fried chicken would be over one day and even today would be gone in only a few hours. My father watched the clock for the last ten years of his life waiting for the game to be over–the game of knowing the hours, but not knowing the time when there would be no more time.
And so it is with my writing. Graham Crenshaw gives watches to his children–in place of spending time with them. He gives Buck the special watch that belonged to his brother who died of dysentery during the war–the saintly brother who nursed the other men until there was no one left to nurse him in a crappy field hospital run by a disreputable doctor. Graham stays busy with projects and studies and doctoring–hoping to stop time. Stop the onslaught of death. To be a doctor and to hate death, to give timepieces that always come back to haunt him–this is Graham’s quiet torture. To take part in his children’s life means he’d have to mourn their passing from childhood into messy adulthood and maybe death, certainly death at some point.
As a writer I control death. I control time, that is, until my time comes.
Every character has an idol–morphine, romance, money. My books are about idolatry. My life is about it too. Idols are interesting and different and not usually little sculptures made of wood. They’re insidious and lurk in the shadows of our consciousness.
Here’s the list of idols I’ve worshiped over the years: Perfection, thinness, my children’s success, my husband’s perfection, teaching success, 100% non-toxic food and at the moment a “successful” writing career.
How do I know these are idols and not just good old fun passions? It’s easy because at some point they fail. They don’t do that thing I expect of them. They actually have no power to bring lasting satisfaction or joy. Have you ever noticed how short the time is between a good review and worrying about the next good review? Have you noticed that after a long day of shelling organic almonds to make the perfect almond milk for the tofu dinner your family will hate robs you of the joy of even having a family? Has it bothered you to find out that after all those years eating soy that it’s the most pesticide ridden crop in the US?
Here’s some of my characters’ idols: morphine, family, approval, money and beauty. Nothing wrong with that list of things. I love money, but it’s one of the few idols I don’t have. I’ve learned to live with it and without it. But take away my writing! Watch me turn ugly. Writing is great. The excitement, the passion and even the fear in it brings me real happiness–until I let it become my idol.
Instead of having fun writing about people stumbling towards something higher I fret over not getting enough time with my idol. I feel extremely pissed when someone I haven’t seen in ages wants to have a chat. I stay up all night designing covers for a book, but have no time for anyone else. I snap at people, I annoy them with my despair, I impatiently wait for them to get done talking so I can relate their words to my writing. I turn inward (it’s very dark in there, by the way).
As David Foster Wallace once said (and boy, did people get pissed) everyone worships something. What do you worship? Does it give you what you need? Just curious.
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” David Foster Wallace
Okay, you non-history buffs–this isn’t really about a Civil War soldier railroad guy so calm down. Well, it is sort of. A while back I wrote glowingly of Grenville Dodge, but (and this is the good thing) he’s more complex than I originally thought, not quite so heroic in all things. In fact he was a hater. He hated blacks, Irish, Catholics (he really hated Catholics) and most other people. I don’t mind someone who hates with abandon–at least they’re being fair.
It seems he also may have painted a hand injury in a different light from the way it really happened (he forgot he had a pistol in his pocket or something). But haven’t we all had those moments? Once when my husband and I were obsessed with making stained glass( it was like working in a sweat shop but we were the bosses and the workers) I grabbed the wrong end of a soldering iron. In this case there was no hope of me dressing up the story–not with a hostile witness standing nearby 🙂
Back to Grenville. I shouldn’t have put the guy on such a pedestal. I mean, he’s still great for the things he accomplished but he had a bit of a temper–once he threw soup over a black waiter because the guy was staring at the gold buttons on his jacket for too long. Dear Grenville was proud of this story, so okay, he was a bit of an ass.
The characters in my series will get into railroad stocks, bonds and swindles in the late 1880’s so I’m not sure if Grenville will make a cameo but he does get high marks for character development, and I still adore him. Is that wrong? I think not.
Men and women of integrity, listen up! The popular opinion that most Americans during the Gilded Age were stealing land and involved in corrupt schemes has some holes in it. Maybe not too many–but some. Enter Washington and Emily Roebling. I’ve introduced them to you before from The Great Bridge, but damn they’re good.
It’s over a hundred years after their incredible life’s work was completed and they manage to make me want to be a better person. If you read only one chapter in the book go to the one about Emily because it’s not just about her, it’s about THEM. Talk about adorable couples! They even kick each others shins under tables for fun. After only six weeks Washy proposed to Emily with a diamond ring (he was still in the army, in uniform–sigh). She said yes.
There’s a few pages of this sweet stuff. Cynics, step away from me. I love this!
Now the book is about a bridge. Ho-hum and all–but not so. I tried to build a puppet stage with Elmer’s Glue once and even I came away with at least a vague sense of how the Brooklyn Bridge was put together and it was strangely very interesting (my husband the engineer glanced over at me shaking his head with a smile at my sudden obsession with bridges–after railroads).
And then of course there were scandals and hurt feelings. I kept waiting for the terrible shoe to fall–the one that said Washy took bribes or cut corners–but the exact opposite happened. I was treated to that rare ennobling feeling you get when you’re in the presence of people who live with great integrity and compassion. Washington, how is it that through every set back and through every horribly painful moment of your protracted illness that you stayed so decent?
Emily had something to do with it. She married a lively, strong and intelligent young man and now 14 years later he was irritable and housebound and still 100% in charge of the building of one of the greatest bridges in the world. He wrote that at one point he considered giving up. His physical and mental anguish too much, but then his best friend, Emily stepped in. She didn’t take over, but she refused to let him give up. She stayed with him night and day. Made certain that their house remained a refuge and made certain that despite what must have been a very heart-breaking turn of events that he knew that she loved him and admired him.
His mind–a brilliant one–worked overtime. His vision had turned against him so she wrote out his long, detailed orders and plans–pages and pages in her fine hand–every day for YEARS!. She read him the papers and became his eyes and feet traveling to the bridge site to report back what she saw as the many workers looked on admiringly.
I’ll never build a bridge, but I do have a marriage. I wonder sometimes if I would be self-sacrificing if something happened to my engineer. I’m not really known for my compassion and after reading about Emily’s devotion and even the way Washy didn’t just throw his hands up when wrongly accused of scandal but fought the good fight I wonder what sort of person I really am. We’re all always told were basically good, but am I really?
This is not the time to step in and tell me I am. We’ve been programmed to do that even with our kids when they suck at soccer. And it’s getting worse (maybe it was always this way). If every person’s way is as good as the next guy then there really is no need for history or religion or morality or excellence. We’re all just going to die anyway. Isn’t watching kids play soccer just as good as watching the World Cup? I wouldn’t know. I like American football.
Integrity, graciousness, self-sacrifice and abiding love often lead to lives of suffering and depth and in all of that is a gift to the world. When you stand next to or read about a hero there’s a bracing excitement, a thrill and wonder. I don’t know why but it makes you look at your own work differently. It makes you look at love differently.
People like the Roeblings should be our heroes, should be on t-shirts and coffee mugs. I know there’s going to be a movie and the Harry Potter guy is going to play dear Washington (ugh). I probably won’t go see it, but I will recommend you read this book.