Thursday, 25 May 2017

Time, Death, and the Novel

Some books I have to read over and over, once a year or every few years, because they encapsulate a truth or a kind of beauty I can't get enough of, and with each reading I experience that beautiful truth -- or that true beauty -- in a new, more nuanced way. One such book is Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, though it also contains a chapter so painfully poignant to me, for a long time I couldn't bear to re-read it and had to skip over it in my second and third and fourth readings. It's a chapter about the nature of time, and time's passing:

What does it feel like to be alive?

Living, you stand under a waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. It is time pounding you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side as your generation's short time is falling away, as fast as rivers drop through the air, and feeling it hit.

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang onto the ring. Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.*

Ka-wowza, right? As I say, the first time I read it, this passage knocked the breath out of me, and for a long time after, whenever I returned to An American Childhood, I'd carefully avoid that particular chapter. It cut too close to the bone. It reminded me too much of how I had felt in mid September 2007, the week after my mother had been pulled from a car that looked like a sheet of paper crumpled into a ball, and for a few days after we had not known whether or not she would survive. The day of the accident, I flew home from Chicago to North Carolina, and sometime that weekend I left the hospital to walk around my parents' now-empty house, looking at all the framed photos. Here was my mother holding my cousin's new baby (oh, how my mother loves babies!). Here she was on the beach with one of my twin sisters on either side of her. There she was in her black-and-white wedding portrait with Dad; there she was, too, thirty-five years later, in a family photo from my brother's wedding.

Technically, this is not one of the photos of my mom
that are visible in my parents house. But I love it.
Here she is with my dad, circa 1962.
That night, those photos no longer looked like milestones along a path that would go on unfolding endlessly, as long as I wanted it to. The photos looked, suddenly, more like relics.

I remember thinking, Is this it? Is it over already? Is this all the time with my mother that we're every going to get?

Though my mother did live -- though she is, thank God, still holding babies and attending weddings and going to her beloved beach -- that week in 2007 when none of us knew whether she would live was the first time I felt the utter finiteness of human life. Why had I thought that my mother's life -- or anyone's -- would go on forever and ever? Against all the hard evidence the world offers us to the contrary, how had I assumed that our time together was boundless?

Time is precious, as one cliché goes. Time is a commodity, goes another. But often in our western culture, such sayings are used as a reason to rush on the next task or event, to move forward, to get on with things.Westward ho! Climb ev'ry mountain! The greener pastures are yet to come.

The more I think about this mentality, the stranger it seems. If this minute right now while I'm writing this -- if the minute right now while you're reading this -- is unrepeatable, is unique: if in fact there'll never be another minute again quite like this one, and we'll never get this minute back, why wish it away? Why burn through it? Rather than valuing the space I'm in here and now, why focus so often on what happens next?

With one part of my now fifty-year-old brain, I do appreciate all this hard-won knowledge about transience and mortality and the beauty of the present moment. I can stomach such knowledge better now, in the middle of middle age, than I could in my thirties, when I first read An American Childhood and that chapter on time broke my heart.

Even so, I'm as guilty as the next person of romanticizing the future. I participate regularly, often unwittingly, in the greener-pastures-are-over-there mentality that American culture seems to propagate. What can I do or achieve, I often wonder, that will make me feel better in the near future? Should I buy a new dress, a new yoga mat? Get a new job, or move to a brand-new locale?

It seems to be part of my nature to ardently look forward to the next thing, the next phase of life -- to think that everything will somehow be better, around the next bend in the road. I did it in high school, wanting the weekend to come. I've done it often since the 2016 U.S. elections. (When, oh when, will it finally be 2020?)

I'm not saying we don't sometimes actually need to make changes -- need them for important physical or emotional or even spiritual reasons. (The need for a change in U.S. leadership is an obvious example. And my last yoga mat, I'm here to tell you, really was a piece of crap.)**

But earlier this week I came face to face with my own impulse to change things as soon as they get slightly unpleasant or difficult -- to submit to the romance of What else? or what next? And that confrontation has made me want to think more deliberately about time and how I live within time.

Earlier this week, I found myself growing restless -- mentally restless. I kept thinking, Am I doing what I should be with my life? Maybe I should start teaching English again. Should I volunteer as a tour guide at Durham Cathedral? Should I become a yoga instructor?

I even felt restless with Durham and England, for the first time since Dave and I made the move. It's been twenty-two months that we've lived here now, so I wondered: Is this super-delayed culture shock?

Finally, two nights ago, I sat down with Dave and told him how I was feeling. I said, "I don't mean that I necessarily will make any one of these changes. But I'm feeling these sudden, kind of strong urges, and I want to tell you about them."

I told him. He listened. Then he said, "Don't you think this is mainly about your novel?"

As some of you know, I've been writing a novel. I've been working on it pretty hard for the past two years. Most of the time I find this work absorbing, even all-consuming, in a deeply enjoyable way. Most of the time, writing the novel has felt to me as violin playing feels to the character in Alice Munro's wonderful story, "My Mother's Dream": "It is a problem that she has to work out strictly and daringly, and that she has taken on as her responsibility in life." For the past two years, as I've sat down at my writing desk day after day, "the problem is still there in its grandeur," as Munro writes.***

Dave Janzen,
who is so marvelously wise
This summer, however, I am closing in on the end of this work. By July or August, my novel will most likely be out of my hands, on its way out into the world.

But what if it never gets very far? What if this novel is in fact not very good? What if, as with my last yoga mat, I'm just thinking or hoping that it will be awesome, but it's really a piece of crap?

I don't normally think this way. (If I did, I probably could not keep writing.) But seeing the finish line approaching this summer has stirred up these fairly rare anxieties. I can think whatever I want to about my work so long as I keep it close to my chest -- so long as I never declare the novel finished and send it out to an agent. But once I do, there comes the real, public test.

My desire to move or to change something, Dave suggested last night, came from such recent anxieties. "You're in a more uncomfortable space with your work now," he said, "and so your mind has started casting around for basically anything else you can do."

Ka-wowza again, I have to say. Dave was right. I knew it as soon as he said it.

"The real challenge," Dave added, "is to stay in this less-than-comfortable space. Stay with the work, stay in the moment. Don't try to jump out of it."

The challenge, in other words, is to be where I am, to do what needs doing in the given day without being too distracted by what comes before this or after. It reminded me of one of the major precepts of yoga -- or the one, at least, which has been coming through to me more clearly and resonantly lately.

Sometimes when we're holding a difficult posture in class, the yoga teacher will say, "Your body will want to move out of this posture. Your brain will come up with all sorts of tricks to get you to move, to change your position. But see if you can breathe through it. Can you breathe into the moment? Can you achieve stillness in any way?"

My writing desk
Stillness in yogic practice isn't really about lack of physical movement, or it's not mainly about that. It's a mental stillness -- an absolute okay-ness with where you are, even if there are unpleasant elements. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't make a change when our context  has become dangerous or damaging. As my yoga teachers also say, in encouraging us to stick with a hard posture, "If you feel sharp shooting pains, then you should move -- you should get out of the posture."

On the other hand, they usually, gently add, if all you're feeling is just some discomfort, try to stay with it. Keep breathing. See what you can learn from this space, from this moment, from being right here, right now.

I'm gonna stay in this saddle, then, despite some nervousness and a few bruises. To put it another way, I'll keep standing under this waterfall, trying to breathe and to love it.

*     From pages 50 to 51 in the 1987 Harper and Row edition. I have compressed from the original.
**   Check out the  helpful review site, The Best Yoga Mat, to make sure you really like your next mat.
*** From pages 318 to 319 in 1998 Vintage International edition. I have compressed from the original.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Grace Brackbill Hostetter -- In Memory

My grandparents' engagement photo,
My maternal grandfather and grandmother, B. Charles and Grace Brackbill Hostetter, were married on May 3, 1939. She was twenty, he twenty-two. My grandma, a life-long gardener and all-around lover of plants, had wanted to be married outdoors, in her parents' back yard in eastern Pennsylvania, among the lilac bushes that usually bloomed at that time of year. It was an unseasonably cold spring, however, and rain fell on their wedding day. Married indoors--and without lilacs, after all--Charles and Grace nonetheless enjoyed an uncommonly long and happy union.

This month marks the 78th anniversary of their wedding. Charles died in 1997, a few months short of celebrating 58 years of marriage to Grace. Grace, however, lived on in the kind of robust health and bright spirits that inspires me more and more as I get older. My grandmother died this past August, almost 98 years old and utterly herself--strong minded, humorous, sometimes impatient, gracious to everyone she met--down to the end. As my own mother recently reminded me, this Mother's Day (celebrated in the U.S. on the second Sunday of May) is the first our family has known without Grace Brackbill Hostetter. In my grandmother's memory and in loving honor, I've decided to dedicate today's blog post to her.

Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter and me, c. 1989
My grandmother lived in different parts of the U.S. and in different parts of the world, including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Nigeria. At her memorial service last August, I gave a brief reflection on my memories of her life in North Carolina, the place where her life and my life most overlapped.[i] What follows is a version of that reflection, originally given at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

* * * * *

My sisters and brother and I grew up next door to Grandpa and Grandma's. It's a house that has been, in various years, reddish-brown and off-white, but which in my mind will always been green--because that was Grandma's favorite color, the color she wanted her house to be.

For us King siblings who were lucky enough to live one driveway down from our grandparents, that house is one image we share--as we also shared meals around Grandma's dining room table, and car trips to Black Rock or Sunset Beach; as we shared Lake Hickory with her on countless summertime swims.

Grandpa and Grandma--with some of Grandma's beloved
plants--outside their house in North Carolina.
When I recently asked my siblings and their children for memories of Grandma in North Carolina, they gave me such beautiful answers that a host of new images emerged. When a grandchild or two got the urge to built teepees in the back yard, Grandma went out and made teepees with them, with long sticks and African cloth that she supplied from her house. She took grandchildren out walking the lane to collect litter (an environmentalist before it was trendy). Babysitting her great-grandchildren, as she did one day a week for many years, she'd take them swimming or on nature walks, or teach them to make chocolate pudding. She came to everyone's birthday party. None of us ever knocked on her door; we just rang the doorbell as a signal that we were coming in, and then we just went in.

She made chicken and waffles, and homemade rolls, and the oatmeal raisin cookies she'd always offer because they were healthy, when you really wanted chocolate chip. She believed in taking care of her health.

Both of my grandparents were serious swimmers. "When we were little," my sister Sandy recalls, "Grandpa and Grandma would come over to our house to ask if we wanted to go swimming at the lake or at [a neighbor's] pool. We always knew that Grandpa wanted the pool, and Grandma wanted the lake. But Grandma loved swimming so much, she'd always go with you to either place, to the pool or the lake."

Grandma in the last week of her life (August 2016)--
still interested in talking to everyone around her.
Grandma listened to us. She made us feel loved. But it wasn't just us family members who received her love. Grace Hostetter never met a stranger. She was interested in everyone's story.
"We were so lucky," my siblings concluded, one way or another, when I asked them for these memories. "I'm so grateful to have had her--this force of Nature!--in our lives for so long."

As I worked on these reflections of my Grandma's life in North Carolina, it dawned on me that she was the first truly cosmopolitan person I knew. My grandmother showed me the world is made up of so many different countries and cultures--so many different kinds of people, each with their own way of thinking and talking and eating and dressing and praying--and that this diversity is fascinating, is one of God's gifts.

My parents took my sister Linda and me to visit Grandpa and
Grandma, and our uncles Phil and Rick, in Nigeria in 1972.
When you're a kid, you receive this information not through lectures or lessons, but through small daily signs, like the embroidered turban and robe Grandma brought back from Nigeria and wore to give talks in churches about her experience there--or like the sleeveless purple tie-dyed mini-dress that she made from Nigerian cloth, and wore so stylishly in her 60s and 70s. (A dress, I might add, that several of us granddaughters borrowed from her in our 20s, and occasionally continue to wear.)

Or there was her African ground-nut stew, an elaborate meal which as a child I merely tolerated--and which made me feel like a grown-up, when I finally acquired the taste. Grandma was the person you went to in Hickory when you needed a slightly more exotic ingredient. She'd reliably have fresh ginger, and garlic bulbs, and coriander.

She also collaborated with me in some of my early experiments in fashion. I had the ideas, but she had the seamstress's skills, and the interest to boot. My favorite clothing collaboration with Grandma was a pair of newsboy-style gray woolen knickers, circa 1982.
Newsboy knickers!

From Grandma, I also learned to make your daily practices, your everyday lived-in spaces, beautiful: to serve your desserts in small crystal dishes with stems, each one set on a small china plate, or to make centerpieces for your table by arranging candles inside a small houseplant.

Grandma had aesthetic vision. She cared about how things looked. She cared about how people looked, too, including herself--not exactly a quintessential Mennonite trait, but one I secretly loved her for, because it was one way in which she was gloriously human, involved in this concrete world.
Grandma with all 8 of her children, Christmas 2015

At the same time, I always knew that Grandma loved God and believed in serving God through serving other people. It's a legacy alive and well in her children--in my mother, I my uncles and aunt, in the people all of them married--and these people, the extended Hostetter family, were my first role models, my first teacher of how to be a compassionate, God-loving, other-loving citizen of this world.

This is the family--this is the legacy--that my grandma, Grace Brackbill Hostetter, helped to create.

[i] These are memories mainly from my adolescence, the last time I lived in North Carolina. I may try to write more, in a few weeks, about my later impressions of Grandma, as I left my 20s and she entered her 70s.