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Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
Of Cairns & Gratitudeby Patricia Henley
Sixteen years ago I was living in Bozeman, Montana, working for the Department of Labor as an employment counselor. My first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, had just been published by Graywolf Press. Before that job with the Department of Labor, I had been a waitress at the Leaf & Bean Coffee Bar. Since graduating from Hopkins in 1974, with my M.A. from The Writing Seminars, my day jobs had become an almost predictable cycle: menial labor, followed by a semi-professional or professional job, followed by a restless move and more menial labor. I had picked apples in Washington State, taught high school in British Columbia, taught aerobics, done daycare at a bowling alley, traveled in the Poets-in-the-Schools Program, tended bar at a dinner theater, sold Virginia hams and handguns at a roadside stand.
I was worn out with transience and yet trying to decide whether to apply for university teaching jobs hither and yon, a move that would require leaving the mountains and my partner. A therapist suggested a creative visualization exercise to help me figure out what was next for me. I followed her instructions: lying on the floor of her home office, closing my eyes, allowing her to massage my temples, letting the new age music what I sometimes derisively called "lobotomy music" seep into me. Out of this experience a governing image arose that has been a reliable short-hand map for me, an aid to navigation. She asked me to imagine myself in a place I?d like to be. That wasn?t hard. I pictured myself on a trail in the high country, with springy clusters of wildflowers among the granite boulders, a stream rushing nearby. I described the place in detail. She said, "You seem to know exactly where you are, but you?re not mentioning anyone else. Are you alone?" And I said, "There are people ahead of me and there are people behind me, but I?m on a path that?s only big enough for one person." And I promptly burst into tears. I knew I had to be willing to leave.
Those words and that image have been useful and continue to surprise me. At that time, in Bozeman, I realized that the writing path required a solitariness and that such solitariness would be its own reward, the way walking in the mountains is its own reward. Both are demanding of body and spirit; you feel as if you might not make it; sometimes you want to turn back out of fear or exhaustion; it?s exhilarating to round a corner and see something you?ve never seen before: a new flower, sunset on glacier ice; and you?re warmed by the paradoxical fire of having arrived even as you?re still on the journey. You?re nowhere and you?re exactly where you want to be.
Later, as I lived alone, having taken that teaching job hither, I grew into self-sufficiency, with obsessions and intuitions that if I trusted led me to whatever I?d write next. I thought of that moment with the therapist when an agent said to me about Hummingbird House, "Patricia, nobody?s interested in Central America." And again, when I found myself traveling alone in Guatemala to a remote village where no one spoke Spanish or English. And again, when I realized that I needed to go to Vietnam to write In the River Sweet. This writing path has been a joyful solitude rocky, messy, fraught with nearly too much time and sadness. Too much time because it requires hours of staring-out-the-window, which sometimes feels wasteful. Sadness because I live in memories so much, my own and my characters?.
The image of the path returned again when I noticed an element of envy among my students. One would win a prize, the others would talk behind her back, that sort of pettiness. I took to telling them at the beginning of the year, "Don?t waste your time on envy. You?re on the writing path with all the others who?ve taken it. There will always be someone ahead of you and someone behind you."
I return to the image again as I consider the question of influence. It is as if those writers who have gone before leave cairns those artfully stacked stones you find in the high country to guide the way. The cairns the books you love give you permission as a writer. Yes, you can try this, they whisper. Go down this way, if you dare.
As a girl, I read indiscriminately, constantly, from The Secret Garden to my father?s detective novels with their salacious covers to Marjorie Morningstar. Reading was a private, sensual pleasure the only pleasure in an otherwise rough life and I carried a book with me everywhere. Around the impressionable age of twenty, I decided life was too short to read junk, and I began my writer?s education. I was enamored of Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, I. B. Singer.
I still find it thrilling to read the opening and ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls. There?s Robert Jordan, lying flat on the pine needle floor of the forest. I like the simplicity of the language. And yet, what a complicated task it must have been to write this book, set in another country, dealing with the politics of another country. It is a story with international scope and the horror of war, but also manages sexiness, tenderness. This book taught me that even in times of war, people are falling in love. It gave me permission to look under the war experience to the human experiences that go on no matter what. And then there is the example of Hemingway himself, his willingness to put himself in harm?s way. He was wounded in Italy. I have to admit, silly as it might seem, that I like seeing my books on bookstore shelves on the same row with his, rubbing shoulders, as it were, with one of my heroes, although from what we know of Hemingway?s attitude toward women he might have preferred me adoringly at his feet.
The Fixer by Bernard Malamud taught me to take religion seriously as a force in my life. I grew up in a household divided by religion; my mother?s family was Protestant and my father?s was Catholic. This caused no end of tension until my mother converted to Catholicism when I was ten years old. I was baptized and received my first communion in the same year. My mother was deeply troubled by mental illness, and religion frequently played a starring role in her breakdowns. She would sit at the kitchen table, a glass of Mogen David in hand, and ruminate about Israel, the Gospels and the end of the world, compassion, and sorrow. On the other side of the sanity divide were the nuns whose classes I attended from grade four through grade eight, beacons of reason and order. My maternal grandmother would attend Protestant tent revivals across the railroad tracks from the Dairy Queen and sometimes I went with her. The minister would rail against short skirts and the music of the devil, Elvis and company all of which I loved. Such was the religious stew I simmered in as a child. In my late teens I rejected it all, but within a decade The Fixer made me see that it wasn?t so easy for Jakov Bok to cross the river, tossing his prayer things into the water, thinking he could reject his Judaism and his religious training. Throughout The Fixer Jakov Bok wrestles with his identity as a Jew, just as I have struggled with the Church and its sexism and homophobia, with dogma, with the Gospels. Writing both Hummingbird House and In the River Sweet provided me with venues for that struggle.
In 1996 the writer Susan Neville invited me to write an essay for an anthology about religion in Indiana. I immediately said I wanted to write about the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, thinking to myself, "I?ll never find that in Indiana." I began nosing around, asking Don Mitchell, a colleague at Purdue in the philosophy department, if he could give me any leads. He introduced me to Sister Meg Funk at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, and she thought my phone call serendipitous. Dr. Norbhu, the Dalai Lama?s brother, was scheduled to participate in Benedictine vespers the following week. I arrived at Our Lady of Grace with a feeling of going home because when I pulled into the gravel drive I recognized the place. I?d been there as a girl, to sing in a choir event. Sister Meg walked me down a hallway where color photos of the Dalai Lama hung. The photos had been taken at a gathering at a monastery in Kentucky, Gethsemane, the home of the American mystic, Thomas Merton, and monks and nuns from both traditions, Buddhist and Catholic, had gathered there to meditate together. I was moved by these photos, this reaching out by the Benedictines beyond the safe boundaries of religious exclusivity. Dr. Norbhu?s contribution to vespers was a relief, like water when you?re thirsty, including all sentient beings in the blessing.
Thus began my journey into Centering Prayer, the Christian meditative practice. I went for a ten-day silent retreat. The more I read, especially the books of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the more convinced I was that this was fertile ground for a piece of fiction. I had to find the character for whom this journey into the mysticism would be most illuminative. I developed Ruth Anne Bond of In the River Sweet as the character in the book?s constellation of characters who had the most to learn from the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue. At the start, she?s very tightly wound, determined to cling to her fundamentalism. Her willingness to examine her past in Vietnam and her daughter?s Buddhist meditation practice enable Ruth Anne to see that no one religion possesses all the wisdom in the world.
I would be remiss if I didn?t mention Hilary Mantel?s Change of Climate, which was an enormous help in structuring In the River Sweet. Change of Climate is the story of a married couple in England who thirty years before went as naïve missionaries to South Africa. A tragedy befalls them there; it?s kept secret, but of course the secret must come out and creates havoc when it does. Mantel moves masterfully between the past and present. You always know exactly where you are, and the African scenes are sensual, gritty, and alive.
In the River Sweet challenges the Catholic Church, portrays one woman and one man in an historical moment of great significance (the American War in Vietnam), and examines homophobia in the heartland of America. When I started out writing fiction in 1979 I did not think in terms of such issues. I was a short story writer and my settings and situations were strictly domestic, although questions of ethics and morality were lurking off-stage. There have been other writers who have left cairns, whose work has given me that permission to delve into larger issues. Leslie Marmon Silko wrote about the atomic bomb in Ceremony. In The Slave I. B. Singer wrote poetically of seduction, forbidden love, and the pogroms against the Jews in Poland. Graham Greene and Robert Stone went before me to Central America and Vietnam. Joan Didion is a brilliant writer who astounds me with her clearheaded observations. These and others have carefully, one word after another, crafted the cairns that suggest not the way but a way.
In the early morning when I get up to write, between four and six, I often see a light in the horse barn not far away. If I have my window open I hear the eager voices of horses and people, the clanging of lids, the scrape of the barn door. I feel camaraderie with them. We are up before almost everyone else, going about our business, feeding, eating, reading, writing. It?s not so hard to write if you don?t expect too much to come of it. Isak Dinesen said, "I write a little every day, without hope, without despair." That?s like putting one boot in front of the other, with gratitude toward the ones who?ve gone before.