Wednesday, January 2, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 49 - Without Embalming Fluid
My non-writing time was at an end but I did not know it for sure until I began to work with Tom Groome – Thomas H. Groome – this wonderful Irish raconteur and theologian who is the world’s leading theorist and practitioner of religious education. He does it in the context of amazing wit and spirituality and caring and natural poetry.This was at Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. This part of Boston College was not a place to get a doctorate in English or an MFA – it was far too creative for that.
I had found myself drawn to Boston and theology in the time I was living outside verbal realms. I was not finished with the art schools, but now there was something else that was just as surprising and just as powerful and seemed all of a piece with this opening into mystery that was opening up my life.
So here I was at an actual academic institution – something I never would have gone near if I had managed, as in my writing years, to keep ideas in the head intact by keeping them away from full reliance on intuition and emotion and the unfolding of mystery. Those days when I could take a chunk of remembered reality and pump it full of intellectual embalming fluid in proper literary fashion so as to keep these thoughts in my head looking like life. I may have been right in the first place about the limits of academia. But this was different.
Tom became my spiritual director and also my academic adviser – a combination that would horrify orthodox academic people. I also took all his courses. And I took him up on his suggestion that maybe for me a pure academic paper was not the thing. And so now I was really writing about my life.
And almost immediately I was 15 years old, not 56, and I was in New Hampshire, happily lost on the page to an even a greater extent than I had been happily lost on canvas.
I was in New Hampshire, where one day from a makeshift diving board by a sluice way I, in swimming trunks but wearing a canvas fedora, saw, across the pond, the Grout sisters, who had just come from the train with a cousin visiting for the first time – a smooth girl with new breasts and skin tanned the color of maple sugar. And now I saw across the pond from the diving board that the girls were walking into the water – a scene I knew I would never forget. She was laughing. She was splashing.
I was so excited I dove in, showing off, plunged in with my canvas hat on, and I swam underwater, and I came up, with my hat still on, beside this amazing new girl – Kitty.
And then there was another scene that had almost been over-ridden, almost drowned in constructed forgetfulness. It was a weekday afternoon at White Pines and the place was as empty as death. Through French doors at the living room end of the 80-foot main room I could see bird baths and flowers, but there were no people in the view – which stretched across iron streaked rocks, and blueberry and thorn fields, out to woods owned by my grandparents – leading to the high mountains, which rose so sharply they seemed to cut off the sun –
Inside, no one is ever around in mid-afternoon – except today. I am here. And Kitty is here. This girl named Kitty who I'd met while I was showing off at a swimming place –
Now at this end of the long room at White Pines I have my blue leatherette portable dorm room record player – still called a Victrola in this house where there is no other record player of any kind. Kitty has brought LPs. 'Twenties songs. The 'twenties revival in the 'fifties. Boop boop a doop. And the Charleston. Everyone she knows at home (where she is about to go into 10th grade at Greenwich Country Day), everyone is doing the Charleston, she says. The 'twenties are back. And she'll teach me.
And there I am, now flicking my feet out, operating with hands on knees like Ray Bolger in the movies, as if my legs are rubber and also can cross through each other. We are doing the Charleston.
Peter, my twin, strides through the room, throwing out a new set remark. "I see," he says, "Miss Kitty's Dancing Class. Heh Heh."
But we keep going! Although I cannot really believe that White Pines is a place for such music,
Maybe not. Or maybe it is.
The Charleston, the Charleston. There'll be a back number when the Charleston, the new Charleston, down in South Caroline... The Charleston... the Charleston.....
So there I was, the past still alive,with Kitty again. But to many stories that appeared were hardly Kitty stories. These other stories that has once seemed safe now became horror stories when I got them out of my head and onto paper. Context was being filled in now, and the stories were changing.
Often now parts that had stayed in the head led, when written, into dark and dangerous territory. But also, it turned out, non-written stories in my head could leave out the most warm and life-giving versions, as in some Kitty times, of what was in the landscape of my life.
Either way, frozen stories are dangerous.