Archive | July 2015

Go, Set a Watchman – a morning-after review

Having finished reading Harper Lee’s novel last night, I’ve been absorbing and trying to organize my responses to its content. I will take some time just to identify, let alone articulate, the entire range of my reactions. Any review at this point must be fairly brief and quite probably not insightful enough to do the book full justice.

This is most definitely a story to be confronted head-on. There’s a deceptive innocence to its earlier chapters. The sweetness and humor of its flashbacks – so endearing to readers of “Mockingbird” – are ultimately countered by the unsettling developments within a character whom most of us think we know. In the process of being disabused of our illusions, we’re led to conclude that it might be impossible ever to understand anyone. The obvious becomes a facade concealing much less attractive underpinnings. Here is an iconic individual whose internal and external qualities prove to be greatly at odds. Yet this man’s remarkable equanimity, coupled with his acceptance of his own contradictions, enables him to live with himself, shadowed by neither guilt nor regret. We ask ourselves whether we could do the same, in any situation that might apply to us.

It is this very self-tolerance that most disturbs me, as a card-carrying member of humanity. Atticus, the defender of justice for all, seems utterly opposed to Atticus, the defender of racial segregation and social stratification. Can each aspect exist independently of the other? Can this man remain as an admirable figure in one context, while concurrently, the soft clay of his feet no longer supports him? These, I think, are questions fraught with thorns. We emerge bloodied from our encounter with them – just as Jean Louise must do, with her uncle’s assistance.

The expanded character of Jack Finch enhances my own understanding of the story. Some readers have taken exception to Uncle Jack’s meandering observations, many of which seem almost-irrelevant and extraneous to the situation at hand. However, they are not. I enjoyed his commentaries, because a number of the phrases were drawn from literary works that I knew and recognized. They showed the scope of the man’s knowledge; voracious readers draw upon so many sources. He must have carried a vast store of imaginary worlds in his head, since he could “paraphrase three authors into one sentence and have them all make sense” (p. 275). His allusions to specific authors provided clarification of what was important to him. If the reader is familiar with the sources of Jack’s references, then an “aha moment” can suddenly arise. From Shakespeare, Jean Louise recalls Viola’s misery when forced to either lie or confess her true feelings. “A blank, my lord” she replies to her uncle. (p. 262) She cannot – as Viola could not – admit to love, even though it’s there. And with her terse comment, we might also – tangentially, perhaps subliminally – be reminded of Lear, that noble and righteous king who falls from grace. The father who betrays his own best-beloved child when she is unable to voice her affection for him. Is this coincidental? I don’t think so. Nothing about this book is coincidence. Harper Lee is too astute a writer; her characters are seldom directed toward accidental inferences. They learn because they have no other choices.

While Atticus is pivotal to the story, and the revelation of his personal prejudices elicits dismay in the reader, it is John Hale Finch whose own revelation – coupled with his unexpected powers of observation – proves most surprising to me. He’s enigmatic without being obscure, and interestingly odd without being bat-guano crazy. Whereas Atticus’s legendary determination and keen sense of impartiality have made him a powerful force in Maycomb County, Jack Finch’s loopy brilliance provides a refreshing counterpoint to all that earnest duty and loyalty. In the final analysis, because he is so crucial to the narrative, all of Dr. Finch’s eccentricities click into place. As a result of his immense and rather free-wheeling intellectual life, he’s the perfect foil to his brother’s more pragmatic mindset. He becomes an unlikely figure of salvation, offering his own brand of redemption to both Atticus and Jean Louise. Is he afflicted with “divine madness” or something more? Is he, in fact, better attuned to his environment than anyone else in Maycomb?

Atticus Finch reveals a serious character flaw that incorporates attitudes prevalent in his era. As a result, his daughter is wounded almost past healing. Jack Finch unleashes – albeit briefly – a capacity for physical violence that catches us by surprise. He seems shocked by it as well. But out of that single action comes a resolution of sorts. The storm surge of his niece’s fury is broken and its momentum dissipated. The dotty uncle can deliver a powerful punch when the need arises. We ask ourselves which is most painful and least acceptable – Atticus’s unrepentant betrayal, or the good doctor’s backhanded blow. Neither seems to represent the man who has committed each act. So which one leaves the deepest mark? And is it possible for something good to emerge from hurt, even this entails the killing of hope and the death of belief?

The timeless battle between good and evil is hardly a theme here. If there’s a “moral of the story”, it’s not easily defined. Stylistically, I suspect this book will be challenged in some school districts because of its unflinching language. But Jean Louise utters the implicit (and sometimes unacknowledged) dialogues of that day. She voices the unspoken and holds up the flawed mirror to all of the “genteel bigots” who speak well and think ugly. That disconnect shocks us. We’re left reeling by it, just as Jean Louise is reeling. She pulls us into her own horrifying enlightenment. We emerge with changed perspectives, not only on her father but on the entire spectrum of society which he represents.

To those who condemn the language and would prefer to see it censored: no ethical publisher has the authority to alter an author’s work except in an editorial context – syntax, for instance, or typos. No principled author would permit this alteration. The power of a novel that tackles unexpected prejudices is partly based on the way these prejudices are expressed, in the diction of their day (not ours). We would not speak in this way, but THEY would – and did. If part of a story’s purpose is to evoke strong emotion in the reader, then that purpose is more than fulfilled here.

As the novel progresses to its conclusion, a critical juxtaposition emerges on page 265, lines 1-2: ” … every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” Quality of character is set at odds with awareness. Can we possess an innate sense of fairness without at the same time being aware of existing unfairness all around us? Does individual conscience supersede the group’s perceptions? This, I think, is a subtle but significant observation on Dr. Finch’s part. The novel’s title specifically points to this significance. We’re meant to grasp it.

For all his wanderings through a maze of apparent non sequiturs, the good doctor scores a touchdown that would have made the ghost of Jem Finch proud. It just takes time for the points to register.

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The 21st Day of the Month …

I have been a widow for exactly three months now. “21” was always a lucky number for me and I chose it for any lottery card or game of chance that I played. I once won an enormous stuffed elephant on the wheel at a fair – can’t recall which one now – because I picked 21. But that number represents another event now. If one sees death as release from pain and suffering, and as a journey into another realm of light and healing, then it is still a number of good fortune. But perhaps not so much for anybody dealing with the aftermath of that release. It takes awhile to shift perspective.

I’ve stopped wanting to make phone calls that cannot be answered any more, or sort through yard-sale books in search of specific themes that would please another reader instead of myself. I walk through the rooms of our home in town and they feel empty of anything or anyone. It’s such a beautiful, cozy setting with its burnished wood floors and bright windows. I keep hoping that today – or tomorrow – the right person will walk in and say, “THIS is for me!” It needs to beat to the pulse of a new family. I’m not desperate financially, just hopeful to place this dear house with people who can build their future in it. And maybe walk the hiking trail as David so loved to do, while he still could.

“What would you do, while you still could?” is one of the questions always posted on ALS sites. David would have a ready answer: “I would WALK!” And walk, and walk. Bend his fingers, raise his arms, shout across the hills to hear his own echo. Yes, he’d do all those things. Simple things we don’t tend to think about.

David’s memorabilia – the prints he collected over the decades – still adorn the walls. Armies, ancient battles, ships of beauty and grace. All the history that he cherished. His rows of books wait for attention, carefully collected and arranged on shelves he built himself, just before his hands failed.

Then I stand above the river, here in the country where he so enjoyed spending the warmer months, and gaze across the water as he so often loved to do. His zero-gravity chair sits empty now. The hollowed grass where the dog curled up is grown back. Cash would lie in the shade next to David by the hour. I sometimes wonder what he thinks of this absence. How much he understands. Whether he has forgotten already or still waits for a return that can never come.

At night, the flowers glow on the little memorial cross until their solar power is spent. By the time I go to bed, it’s faded. Brief illumination in the darkness – like us, I suppose. We shine for our allotted span and then the shadows fold around us.

I’m learning to wear my changed status with greater comfort these days. Or at least with acceptance. I know there are no reversals, not unless some brilliant physicist unravels the true meaning of time and enables us to move freely on its continuum. That may come, but not yet. For now, we’re perched in the present. We feel the mist falling soft on our hair and breathe the sweetness of today’s lilies as they open. Every word I type here represents an increase in my age. This is irrevocable. In some future not imagined, I shall have my own significant date with an exit. Someone will recall that number with a certain sense of loss, regret, maybe even relief.

I can only pray that I’ll do good with the balance owing, between now and then. I need to cut through the clutter and clatter until I find what is most likely to make a difference. The rest is just extra layers. These can become heavy and pointless. Perhaps the greatest blessings, the finest gifts, have no weight at all.

The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart’s extent
Reduces it to none.

– Emily Dickinson

The Alarm Who Cried Wolf (or Meep-Meep-Meep-Meep …) and Other Stories

Someone in my neighbourhood has either a car alarm or a house alarm that keeps going and going – it is the Energizer Bunny of alarm systems. It does this several times each day or night. Nobody appears interested in turning it off when this happens. I have timed it at 11:20 PM, in fact. It’s on so often now, Cash ignores it and won’t bark (he did at first). The sound isn’t all that bothersome to me personally, as it’s in the distance. Merely a curiosity. I have no idea who owns it.

But still … it suggests one of two things. Either we have a massive number of attempted break-ins here, which seems odd since this is a back road where everyone knows everyone and we keep our eyes on each other’s homes; or this is the most sensitive and possibly defective alarm system on the market.

However, if the whole point of having this feature is to alert us – or the police – to a potential intruder, and to act accordingly, wouldn’t it become redundant after awhile? If no one responds, and it’s just another local noise that we all accept as normal, what would happen in a REAL “situation”?

Just a rural ramble from my morning brain.

Enjoy your day! There’s so much happening in the area. The big Museum sale starts at 9, I think. We always attended that; David and I never wanted to miss it. We’d lug home all sorts of treasures. Last year it was an oil painting of two ships passing in the night. Countless books, collectibles, pet supplies, plants … you name it, we bought it. I got a doll for $2 and discovered her original, handwritten price tag dangling from one wrist: $195 before tax. David loved beautiful dolls, women or children dressed in vintage clothing. He was a Romantic at heart; he would have felt comfortable in the days of Keats and Wordsworth. Or even Queen Victoria – which was later but nonetheless, a fashionable era. He never failed to notice when someone was wearing a lovely dress – as opposed to my usual jeans and tee-shirts or other casual attire. In his head, he wanted to see me in lace and straw bonnet, trailing gauzy skirts and flowers. In my head, I wished that sort of garb would actually have suited me. Alas, my friends all know that if I were to show up looking like a “tea lady” from Maycomb, some sort of medication for my illness would not be far behind.

I tactfully refrained from mentioning that his own fashion statement consisted of tan cord pants with suspenders and a brown Argyle vest, often with checked shirt underneath. But clothes don’t always make the man, or the woman. They DO, however, make the doll!

So another annual sale has arrived. The ropes will be in place to prevent early birds from rushing the tables. There will be a constant murmur of chat punctuated by laughter, and not a few Timmie’s cups in hands waiting for their purchases. This year I will be staying home. I’m discovering that I have limits when it comes to crowds, and also to reawakening recent memories. I avoid big yard sales for the same reasons. I know I’d find many items that David would have so enjoyed having. I’d think, “I must pick this up for him.” Of course, I’d have to travel a LONG way for him to receive my bargains. As it is, at our Tusket Frenchy’s a few weeks ago, I bought a small framed print because it was just the sort of thing he liked, and he would have appreciated it – a carriage drawn by immaculate horses through what looked to be a nineteenth-century town. I felt he wouldn’t have wanted me to leave it behind. After 35 years of yard sales, I understand exactly what would have caught his attention.

I hung it on my wall as a posthumous offering of sorts. An acknowledgment that he still matters; that we all matter, because we were here and left out imprint on the fabric of the world. Memory in a thrift-shop frame.

Maybe in a few more months, crowds and flea markets and sales won’t daunt me. I wish I knew whether this is a regular occurrence among the recently-widowed? I wish we had a little support group I could attend, just to find out how to grieve. How to heal; how to tell myself that it’s all right if I skip a few once-favourite occasions. How to grasp when it’s time to buy just for me, and feel no frisson of guilt if I forget to include an unseen companion as I browse.

So go to the Yarmouth County Museum, folks. Buy lots of good stuff. Drag it home and gloat that you grabbed it before anybody else could get his or her mercenary hands on it. Have fun!! I hope the rain (badly needed) won’t descend until the sale is finished. This is an important fundraiser.

Next year, I do believe that I’ll be back!