I drove a rustic road today. My children cheered me on as we dipped down a somewhat steep hill. More likely we crawled, wearing out the brake as we went. They think I am now ready for Skunk Hollow Road. Imagine driving in and out of a deep bowl. It’s like that. My children believe there are skunks at the bottom. I have never seen the bottom. I am quite content to turn around and go back the way I came from.
This painting from David Hockney reminds me of our drive today. I am not a big Hockney fan, but I do like this one. It’s colorful and patternful. :)
From Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, 1962:
Driving the big highway near Toledo I had a conversation with Charley on the subject of roots. He listened but didn’t reply. In the pattern-thinking about roots I and most other people have left two things out of consideration. Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency?
What do you think? Are we a restless nation? Personally, I feel pretty rooted. I live in a farmhouse built in the mid-1800s by an ancestor of my husband’s. I don’t feel like my family is going anywhere soon.
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
— from “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen (b. 1913)
I remember reading this short story for a college class and not being overly impressed. Now, after three children, this story strikes home. It’s the story of a mother of five recalling her life, and especially the life of her first-born, a girl, now age 19. Someone has asked the mother to help her understand the daughter so she can help her. This is a mother story. Probably, you can’t fully understand it if you aren’t a mother yourself. So many complicated emotions and ties between mother and child. So much space between the two, yet so much intimacy. This story fleshes out that paradox. I might move this up to number two in my rankings of favorite stories. “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett is still at number one.
Some people prefer reading long novels over short stories. Some authors prefer writing short stories over longer works. And vice versa. I am reading Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (1962), and to make things interesting I also read his short story “The Chrysanthemums” (1938). It is a given that twenty-four years can change an author’s writing style dramatically, but still, I think it is worthwhile to compare the two forms. I won’t go into too much detail because I probably don’t have many people in my audience who have read (and can remember) both of these works. The short story about the rancher’s wife, her passion for her flowers, and her conversation with the pots-and-pans fixer contains so many fine details, so exact in its sense of place, that the ordinariness of it becomes charged with importance. Not a lot happens, but everything is so super-charged that a pot of chrysanthemum shoots dumped at the side of the road is an act of violence. It’s not a happy story.
On the other hand, the longer tale, Travels with Charley, is full of anecdotes about Steinbeck’s travels around the United States. It lingers here and there, much as Steinbeck does in his beloved trailer home, Rocinante. There is still an attention to details, surprising turns of phrases that put the reader in the frame of mind that Steinbeck wants you to be in. I still feel this amazing love for words and telling stories. But that’s just where the difference lies. Travels with Charley is just as much about the love for words (which parallels his love for the nature he travels through) as it is about the outcome of his travels. The short story is too intense (and too short) to indulge in self-conscious writing. Steinbeck stays behind his words, not entering into them, just using them to pull taut the bow that releases swiftly at the end of the story. I can learn a lot about the author from both works of writing, but the longer one is easier to decipher. It reveals more.
From whom else have I read a long and a short? Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness” and War and Peace. The long (very long) work contains some of his philosophical turns of mind whereas the shorter work reveals a sentimental side. Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and My Antonia. Cather reveals more of her roots, where she came from, in the novel. Her short story is more noted for being skillful and well-written. The more I think about it, I believe short stories are meant for the story. Longer works might be tightly plotted or loosely drawn but their length gives them room to cast more light on the author. Or, to say it differently, the author reveals more autobiographical material in the longer works. I read a contemporary novel called The People of the Book by Gwendolyn Brooks. I didn’t know much about the author previously, but by the time I got through with the book (didn’t take me long; it’s addictive) I knew some things that are important to the author: Australia, Jewish history, art preservation, parent-child relationships. Do you see what I’m getting at… in a novel there’s more author participation. In a shorter work, the craft of the writing can take center stage.
I don’t prefer one over the other. I just like to read it all and then think about it:)
You know what I like about art? I’ll never see it all. Here’s an American Impressionist whom I’ve never heard of, and his painting is one I’d hang in my family room, to remind me that rooms do not have to be neat and clutter-free. This room is delightful! Did you even notice the lady reading? I didn’t right away. I discovered her feet first. She is lost in her book and in all the lovely stuff around her. Those walls! I would love walls covered in art. I would get nothing done all day, but I would love it anyway.
It took much perseverance, but I finally made it through Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (1991). It’s a good book, but I often felt horrified, angry, and in despair while reading it, which made it a difficult book to keep picking up. I don’t even want to write a quote from it. Nonetheless, I am glad to know about Communist China. This book begins with the life of the author’s grandmother, continues to the life of her mother, and then goes into her own life. Three very different women, but the lives reveal the different ways the Chinese people had to adjust to their government. I can’t go into details here. I am now more grateful for the freedoms and liberties we have in democratic, capitalist United States. I may not like my leaders, but at least I have the freedom to not like them. I do not have to live in fear just because I think thoughts my government forbids. Government should never be that big and invasive in people’s lives.
Last night I met with a group of homeschool mothers who shared some of what they learned at a recent Charlotte Mason national conference. Without writing two-and-a-half hours worth of encouragement and wisdom, I’d like to share some general ideas that kept coming back.
— Respect the person. Each person is different. Persons are more important than things.
— Nature study is key. During it we recognize the awe and wonder of God. God gave us nature as a place to go for peace and relaxation. We develop a habit of attention. Nature study changes attitudes of disengaged students.
— Atmosphere of the home is an important part of education. The atmosphere emanates from me. I need to model peace. Keep cutting back on things until there is peace in the home.
— Education is a life. I am not the supreme educator. Trust the Holy Spirit to work in my children. I am the children’s mother before I am their teacher.
I hope this short list of ideas resonates with you. It helps me to be less apprehensive about the coming school year, to set my priorities, and it also encourages me to go ahead and plan things, always knowing my plans will be bent out of shape in a lovely, living way.