Shameless Commerce Division: Sweetie Bogan’s Sorrow, number 5 in the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery Series, will be out on October 2. Because my good friend Barb Kelly’s business depends on selling books at events and we haven’t had too many of them in the last six months, I’m going to direct preorders (which you can do today) to her Web site at kellysbookstogo.com. If you’re local, she may even be able to deliver. If not, she can mail them. I will sign all books ordered through Barb (even Books 1-4!) and include some small tokens of my appreciation. Thanks. On with the show . . .
If the geese are in the corn stubble at Maxwell’s Farm and it’s starting to be dark at 5 AM, I know the fall is coming. I’ve been reading a lot of E. B. White this summer, partly for the sake of nostalgia for what seemed to be simpler times—this photo by Jill Krementz may have had as much to do with my wanting to come to Maine and live as a writer as anything—and partly because his smooth, wry, considered voice is one of the few things I’ve found to calm me in this maelstrom of a year.
The peregrinations of Fred the dachshund, the self-deprecating silliness behind a Manhattanite becoming a chicken rancher in Maine, the everyday details of life on the farm with his menagerie, the weather reports, the trees and the birds, and the thousand details of everyday life faithfully reported and all of it interspersed with commentary on the run up to World War II and the other major political and governmental events of those years, a time as volatile and uncertain as today. All is couched in sentences as crisp and clear as the skim of frost on a puddle.
But in this summer, of doom and gloom and hiding in our rooms, I was affected all over again by his famous essay Once More to the Lake.
There is a lake in my past, too, though in New Hampshire and not Maine. But the images abide: showering in the warm rain under the downspout; chasing a porcupine away from a confrontation with Sean, the world’s least intelligent Irish terrier, holding hands with the redhead next door.
But the image from White’s essay that I remember most clearly from my own summers at the lake is the shiver of recognition as his son pulls up his cold and clammy bathing suit over his “vitals” and shudders. It’s definitely a male image, and I wager there isn’t a man reading this who didn’t feel a shock of recognition just now.
Once More to the Lake is a story about fathers and sons. I remember having a discussion with my father, one of many, where I insisted that a talented enough person (I suppose I meant myself) could be excellent at more than one thing. It was a genial enough argument and I suppose I’d have to agree with him now how difficult that would be. But like any son, I’ve never stopped trying to prove myself right to him. And now he is 93 and I am 69 and we don’t argue about anything any more. I’m just glad to have him around.
The essay turns on a piercing last line, which ties a neat knot around the understanding that fathers both have sons and have been sons. The points White makes along the way about politics, the war, the depredations and idiocies of the criminal politician classes, are all faint in the face of that realization, the shock of White’s realizing that, yes, he will die.
And that’s the nub of it, pushing past the sense of our own exceptionalism to realize what we all share. And to feel with White the desire to do the best we can for ourselves and the ones we love: tend our own gardens, celebrate our families. The more we do that, the better off we are. The good world is not made of achievement or power or money, but of a thousand small acts of care, love, and attention.
I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been reading James Thurber’s letters, which are not calm and considered, but jittery and bemused that any world this full of lunatics could survive this long. I think Andy White was his best friend because if you didn’t have both perspectives, you’d fall over.
Isolation does oddness to all, but the ability to perform acts of kindness and good remains. I try to take advantage of it as often as my current reality allows. I enjoyed this post very much.
Reading, or rereading E.B. White is something we all do. To remember good writing. To connect to various parts of his, and our, Maine. To enjoy some wisdom. Thanks for the reminder.
Thanks for the book store reference. I’ve requested all five books. And copies the last paragraph of your post. I plan to paraphrase it in a letter to our local paper. Politics are insane here. I appreciate what you wrote.
Thanks, Julianne. Glad you found the words useful. And thanks for ordering the books!
Thank you so much for all this, Dick. Your words prompted me to pull down my E. B. volumes and return to some favorites and find new ones. And I think your E. B words about gardens and families are a kind of E. B. message too: that in the small things of daily life, we find the great meaning. Thanks!