Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mutterings and Tributes: What Must Have Been and Next Had Better Be

In 'Jutland,' the first part of Alice Munro's story The Love of a Good Woman, a reader can re-enter the era of the North American small town as it was in the farming heartland some sixty years ago. Walking across town or out of town was more commonplace, and so were kitchen gardens, home-canned food and formal meals around a table. Town folk walked home to noon dinners that some woman who tended the kitchen had cooked and dished out. I think I still catch whiffs of a few of those cook pots.

What I love about Alice Munro's characters is that they all, almost always, speak or act out of a sequence of memory and feeling, bold or subtle, clearly put and essential to the narrative, sometimes drawn from an anecdote tying back to earlier times. If a character acts on impulse, the story up to that moment has laid forth the preconditions so the impulse comes across as natural. The narrative begins to seem as interwoven as a normal person's thought process, even so that other stories unknown to the author seem to beg to be revealed with a like degree of detail, weighing of risk, surmise and defensive posturing leading to the considered outcome that we either already know or don't know.

In 'Jutland' three school-aged boys are walking into town from near the river where they've discovered a drowned body in a sunken car, belonging to the local optometrist. Alice Munro has already explained the boys in relation to each other: "...yet they hardly thought of each other as friends. They would never have designated someone as a best friend or a next-best friend, or joggled people around in these positions, the way girls did. Any one of at least a dozen boys could have been substituted for any one of these three, and accepted by the others in exactly the same way."

On the way downtown to the police they meet the victim's wife in her yard tending the forsythia bush.
     "Here you are," she said. "Take these home to your mothers. It's always good to see the forsythia,       it's the very first thing in the spring." She was dividing the branches among them. "Like all Gaul," she
      said. "All Gaul is divided into three parts. You must know about that if you take Latin."

     "We aren't in high school yet," said Jimmy whose life at home had readied him, better than the others,
     for talking to ladies.

     "Aren't you?" she said. "Well, you've got all sorts of things to look forward to. Tell your mothers to
     put them in lukewarm water.  Oh, I'm sure they already know that. I've given you branches that aren't
     all the way out yet, so they so they should last and last." ...

     The forsythia gave them something to think about. The embarrassment of carrying it, the problem of
     getting rid of it. Otherwise, they would have to think about Mr. Willens and Mrs. Willens. How she
     could be busy in her yard and he could be drowned in his car. Did she know where he was or did she
     not? It seemed that she couldn't. Did she even know that he was gone? She had acted as if there was
     nothing wrong, nothing at all, and when they were standing in front of her this had seemed to be the
     truth. What they knew, what they had seen, seemed actually to be pushed back, to be defeated, by her
     not knowing it."

In Part IV, titled 'Lies' the scene has long since shifted to a farm where Enid, a trained nurse for a dying young mother, sits up for a whole night in the breathless realization of what almost certainly had happened to Mr. Willens: "She could not lie down in Mrs. Quinn's room. She sat in the kitchen for hours. It was an effort for her to move, even to make a cup of tea or go to the bathroom. Moving her body shook up the information that she was trying to arrange in her head and get used to. She had not undressed, or unrolled her hair, and when she brushed her teeth she seemed to be doing something laborious and unfamiliar...

     'She got up stiffly and unlocked the door and sat on the porch in the beginning light. Even that move
     jammed her thoughts together. She had to sort through them again and set them on two sides...

     'The cows hadn't cropped all the weeds. Sopping wet, they brushed against her stockings. The path
     was clear, though, under the riverbank trees, those willows with the wild grape hanging on to them like
     monkeys' shaggy arms. Mist was rising so that you could hardly see the river. You had to fix your
     eyes, concentrate, and then a spot of water would show through, quiet as water in a pot. There must
     be a moving current, but she could not find it.

     'Then she saw a movement, and it wasn't in the water. There was a boat moving. Tied to a branch, a
     plain old rowboat was being lifted very slightly, lifted and let fall. Now that she had found it, she kept
     watching it, as if it could say something to her. And it did. It said something gentle and final.

     'You know. You know."

This week-end I was crossing the meadow south of home when I saw and remembered a plant I had drawn and painted in my late teens, the fringed loosestrife. The name 'loosestrife' is full of the suggestion of peace, tensions ended, strife loosened, either by the powers of the herb or the setting it belongs to. An old source cites loosestrife as having powers to quiet oxen at their ploughing by driving away gnats and flies, with the same properties availing to houses if the plant is burnt within them. The notion came to rest in my mind when I saw the face-down corollas in the grass, as golden as many an evening cloud, and considered the process of Enid, the protagonist in The Love of a Good Woman, in her decision-making as to her role in the wake of a probable murder. What she has heard is all talk, just the way we often learn of things, and then we're sitting off to one side, privately or not assigning probable cause. But she is the only one given the insight, via her patient drifting at the edge of death, and though she feels intensely that so grave a crime deserves punishment she also sees around her what else goes begging, even before the onset of her patient's sickness.

There seem such obvious, large-scale solutions to huge issues that challenge us at large, but mostly impeded by politics, religious difference and a lack of cooperation. Why, I wonder as Israel and Palestine accuse each other and attack with bombs and rockets, do we hear of nobody in charge talking about the need to agree NOT TO EXPAND? This doesn't just mean territorial expansion. If immigration and birth rates were stabilized especially within Israel but outside its borders too, real security could be sought in terms of adequate land area, water, etc. But all factions blindly seem to go on in the assumption that safety lies in numbers adding up so collectively their own sides are ever bigger beasts. But as they grow, so will the number and complexity of their problems.

As well-told stories illustrate, a problem is a situation rather than just a condition due an if-this, then-that response. The process of breaking down troubles deserves as broad as possible a scope, even with one person like Enid sitting up through a night seeing what she in partnership with one other person can best do, or else with a family or committees and task forces. Often there are visual  schemes that emerge before our eyes, between which answers suggest themselves. Of course we have memory.

Family memory comes to hand; when we think of what to do we first, often, turn to what a parent or elder relative would have done, say, or another, even a younger legendary relative. Family virtue and pathology determine the course of so many events, though if we're of basic good will we'll look for the most community-minded ways in which people coped unless, of course, the straits we're in preclude that. People are most often proud of their family, no matter the member who had to be kept out of sight or the suspected misdoings.

Here is where I introduce the illustrated family tree, homage in visual, decorative form to the folk we came from. There are their names and a flow of limbs and branches a little like a waterway, indicating who was most or least prolific, who bore a nickname and who was nearest whom. Extra details characterizing that clan may go between or beyond the branchwork. Choice of a type of tree symbolic of the family is encouraged. Why not give them something to look at that spins off a whole flock of different conversations, even beyond this generation?

Kearney Family Tree from 2013

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