Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane in Piedmont

There was a moment this hurricane weekend when I thought, "I am afraid".

We have only owned this house in Piedmont for two months and we've lived in it for only six weeks. We only just got the custom blinds installed in the kitchen, and I know hurricanes: They mess stuff up.

When I was poor and landless and living in New York City, I loved hurricanes. I loved the mess they made, the hole they tore in the control freakiness of the big city. Once, I spent a weekend on Fire Island in the teeth of one of them, running around on the beach nearly naked, screaming challenges at the wind, and then creeping along the boardwalks behind the dunes where tiny white-tail deer were waiting motionless in the swamp for the storm to pass. I rejoiced then in the destructive force of the wind. I didn't worry about getting hurt, or things getting hurt.

But I have lost that urban brashness. Now I have something of serious worth that the hurricane could take from me. Now I am different. I have trees.

As we stowed the patio furniture, stacked the cushions in the living room, and packed the two-car brick garage tight with our two cars and everything else that might turn into a missile in high wind, what tore at my heart was the trees, these magnificent trees that have enchanted me from the first time we drove up to our new house. We have only just met each other, these trees and I. There are huge, mature willow oaks at the front and back, venerable natives of North Carolina with great, grey trunks. There are girly pink, bobblehead crape myrtles in the backyard with their slick, peeling skins, and the fluttering, lacy dogwoods who gather beneath the oak canopy. There's the row of Leyland cypress which somebody planted too close together some years ago along the northern border of our property and which I've promised to prune hard come fall, and there's the spindly, young pear tree standing tentatively next to the back deck. And then there are those old men, the native North Carolina long needle pines, straight backed giants in the woods out back, and our squat, bodacious Brunswick fig with its leaves like big flat hands, blowsily overspilling its protected spot in back of the garage. And there, there by the back gate, is the bay tree standing spit-shined and dark green, stiff like an obedient schoolboy in his brand new suit.

I cannot protect them from the hurricane. Neither, with all of our preparations, can we protect ourselves from this storm if she wants to take us. But in my heart, it's the trees, the trees. Will the trees make it through?

Before the storm, the air goes quite still. For a day before it hits, a gray wetness hangs in the air making the atmosphere heavy and motionless. The birds go silent, group by group, and all crawling and flying things shut down for business except for the frogs that start gathering closer in to the house, one very large one even appearing at a kitchen window as if sent by the amphibian world to warn us. Storm, says the frog with his googly eyes. And then he disappears into the bushes. Soon then come the wet globs of something not really rain, just drops of sweat flung from the brow of this monster dancer, hurricane Irene.

FF occupies himself assembling the new wet vac, taking the battery powered sump on a test run and reading the directions for our last line of defense against wet basement: the hand operated bilge pump. I flit and fret around the house filling water bottles and bathtubs, feeling unsettled, and worrying for the trees. In the calm before the storm they go still, gathering themselves as if taking a big, collective arboreal breath. And when the wind gusts start up, we watch as their great crowns sway and bend with the wind, tossing leaf clusters, dry twigs and needles down to the ground like candies from some massive piñata. The noble wood, more flexible than we could imagine, bends and bends hard. But it does not break. And Irene, who capriciously decides to pirouette just enough to the East to save us all, leaves the sky a wooly white, throws some trash on the ground and turns her attentions elsewhere.

Piedmont, it seems was just out of reach. And while the coast was slammed, we were merely put through our paces. Irene laughs as she lumbers on, gathering her wide skirts around her. The TV maps show her moving north, towards our friends and family up Virginia way and on to Tiny Town and New York City where some await her, huddled in apartments. There in New York City mass transit is shutting down and people are evacuating from low lying areas. I think of my friends, stuck uptown by the closed GW bridge and the shut-down subway system, and I am concerned. But my heart also does a little happy dance that I am here worrying about trees, and not there depending on the works of man to save me.

I am in Piedmont where people handle storms with chainsaws and and generators. I am in Piedmont, where the forest and the hills are my fortress, and where the trees are braver and wiser than I shall ever be.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Harlem to Hayti: In Which I Discover That I Have Stumbled Into Another Great Black American City

My reading list is a trail of breadcrumbs set out for me by an unknown and apparently all-knowing hand. The choices in books I make are driven sometimes by nostalgia and comfort, sometimes by curiosity, and lately (though indirectly) by The BlogLily Summer Reading Program (this week's category is Men's Genre). At the best of times my library is a collection of bottled messages that hint about the journey I am on in this life. This week, Lewis Shiner's historical novel Black & White was just such a message in a bottle.

Here in Piedmont the rain is falling this weekend, soft and gentle. The summer rain here changes plans, but it's not unwelcome. I have been comparing temperatures during our last month here, and so far there's been not one day that's been significantly hotter than it was on the same day in Tiny Town, eight hours to the north. Indeed, because of the foothills we're in and the old mountains two hours to the west, it goes cooler at night and the humidity is never as oppressive as it was along the banks of the mighty Delaware. And it's never, ever as overwhelming as it was inside the concrete canyons of New York City.

But the sun. Well, this Dixie sun is something else. Piedmont sun is brash and unforgiving. It will take you down for the count in fifteen minutes or less if you let it. The Piedmont sun irradiates this red clay earth and bakes it until it cracks and screams for mercy. It makes the stones sing, stills the trees and hushes the birds and cicadas. You watch your flower beds wilt so fast it's as if your eyes had become stop-motion cameras, and only those ancient, great grandaddies, the Carolina long needle pines, appear unperturbed. You can imagine how that sun brought people to a boil in the summer of 1968 (the summer after Martin Luther King was assassinated) in Harlem and down here in our new home which, for literary purposes, I call Piedmont.

Reading Lewis Shiner's novel Black & White this week, I found out that our house is a short drive from one of the most promising black metropolises America ever had: It was called Hayti, named after the country of nearly the same spelling, but here in the South it is pronounced HATE-eye as Shiner significantly points out in the first chapter. If you try the sound of Hayti on your tongue a few times, you will also get it that this book is not only about the rough and tumble racial and economic history of Durham NC, apex of the Research Triangle, but that it's also an exploration of the self-hate and shame that are fundamental components of the psychologies of both racists and and their victims.

As in Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer (see last post), everyone in Black & White ends up related to everyone else, though in this book the biological links happen through incest, rape and infidelity rather than more cheerful biological urge. That sort of neatness, tied up in a nice bow by the end of the novel, might annoy you if you're feeling critical because after all life almost never happens just that way. But fiction don't aim at being life: It's designed to tell a story that goes beyond the often boring facts of regular life, and to reach toward a bigger thought. In this book, one of the bigger thoughts is that Urban Renewal was the inheritor of the spirit of Jim Crow: By leveling the old black neighborhood of Hayti to make way for highways and the broken promised of modern housing, the emerging Black American middle class in Durham, its self-sustaining economy and its vibrant culture was cynically and purposefully dealt a terrible blow.

The other big message of the book is that truth is not neat or well-ordered, and that black and white are just cartoon lines we draw in our minds to make reality easier to think about. The adjectives by which we group and segregate people like white and black, poor and rich, bastard or legitimate do not offer us any useful understanding when it comes to having relationships with real people.

In our story, (white) cartoon artist Michael discovers that his (white) dying engineer father Robert reluctantly participated in the flattening of the vibrant Hayti neighborhood of Durham NC to make way for the highway system being built in the 60s to connect the points of the newly-emerging Research Triangle. Reluctantly, Robert became part of the broken promise to build newer, better housing for the black residents of Hayti while he simultaneously fell in love with it and its (black) people, particularly a beautiful (black) voodoo priestess ironically named Mercy. It doesn't ruin the story if I tell you that Michael finds out in the course of investigating his dying father's past that he is color challenged, and that he falls in love with a charming (black) woman who runs the Hayti Heritage Center where, in modern times, the archives of the long-gone black metropolis are kept.

Parts of this fictional history are truly black and white and indisputable. The hand of organized racism continues to meddle in the affairs of the South and, indeed, the nation. Hayti existed in Durham, and now where it was there are restaurants, highways, and a baseball stadium. The summer of 1968 was a boiler all over America as black revolutionary groups decided it was time to take up arms. And yes, there probably are black revolutionaries like the book's Howard Barrett mummified in the cement pilings of bridges along with others like Jimmy Hoffa. Hell, the NJ Turnpike is probably one big mausoleum, if you think about it! And the careful narrative of Piedmont places and things in the book made for the best topographic introduction to our new home that I could have asked for.

That said, there are parts of the book that seem too cartoony, as when Michael naively wonders why you are considered black if you have even one drop of black blood in you. And why can't someone declare himself white for the same reason? Well, Michael, that would be because of slavery and the peculiar "one drop rule" invented by slave owners to assure that their own progeny born of their female slaves stayed their property. That rather obvious fact aside, the one drop reference is echoed later on when Michael can't seem to get the open-armed welcome he'd hoped for from the black people he befriends who aren't that ready to accept him as black, either. They make the same error, though for more understandable reasons of self-preservation, of suggesting that racial categories are actually useful for determining who should be your friend. Shiner implies a discussion going forward about how America should proceed as racial categorization becomes ever more impossible to usefully or truthfully declare on Ye Olde Census Forme. Could it be that it's time to just love one another, right now?

Regrettably, though, hate so often seems to have more force and staying power than love, no matter how earth-shattering that love may be. That is a proposition that I certainly fight against in my heart, as does Ruth, Michael's (white) mother. Ruth, daughter of the local klan-type wizard, ends up being the best-drawn character in the book and goes from being the most unsympathetic person ever to someone with tremendous depth of suffering and endurance. Ruth is ultimately shown to be the biggest warrior for the power and endurance of love in the book.

It is an interesting, and pretty convincing, argument that Urban Renewal was a tool of racists to mow down the burgeoning black economies in the South and in New York City (I am thinking also now of the Cross Bronx Expressway). Harlem, where I lived for over a decade somehow avoided the wrecking ball for the most part, and I hereby make a promise to myself to read up on why. If an aggressive desire to wipe out increasingly independent and prosperous black communities was part of the inspiration for Urban Renewal as Shiner proposes, then there must also have been an element of simply not valuing black culture, too. The (white) folks in charge of the building of highways, bridges and skyscrapers put them up where it made the most economic and geographical sense. Or was the destruction of these places indeed a more cynical and deliberate war against Black America? Or does it even really matter?

Out of our destruction comes rebirth, Shiner seems to say. Time, love and hate mold our environment and alter our gene pools, yes, but eventually we will have to die to our desire to see life in cartoon black and white if we are ever going to enter the Promised Land.

When the rain comes to Piedmont on one of these soft gray days, every living thing relaxes. The magnolias open their glossy plate-sized leaves to catch the water, and the long stalks of the Rose of Sharon bob up and down in the mist saying "yes, yes, yes". The silver gray daylight is punctuated by brief spots of sun that show that the grass has gone emerald and has grown half an inch overnight. Only the Carolina long needle pines are unmoved, unchanging, slow growing in rain or shine. The pines wait patiently for the destroying fire that they need to burn them down to the ground and make the soil just right for the germination of their hard, indestructible, primordial seeds, in their slow-motion, eternal dance of love.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lush Tapestries and Scary Basements: Reading Kingsolver and Sebold, side-by-side

I don't typically take such a businesslike approach to my reading, but since I am enrolled in the BlogLily Summer Reading Program I really have to keep on a tight schedule. The notion that summer might end without my having read the required 8 books in 8 categories is unacceptable to me, and anyway I am deriving great internal comfort from the exquisite demands of the Program. I am a freelancer and every effort I have made since 1989 has been at my own behest and it is nice to have someone else issuing the marching orders for a change. In The Summer Reading Program, Lily is in charge.

The outline of the Program is helpful. Instructions are given. And though the directions can be interpreted broadly, they provide a clear direction. While executing these directions, interesting things happen. A marble is pitched into the circle, hitting another marble and then another. Nothing is random.

Assignment by BlogLily: Read a book recommended by a librarian.

I had lived in Piedmont for a total of ten days and actually had to locate the library first. I found a branch which interested me because of its proximity and also its brag that it has the largest collection of books by African Americans in the country, so I applied for a library card. It was difficult to get the card because my Piedmont Electric bill does not bear the same name as my maiden name on driver's license, but I got the card anyway thanks to the mercies of an older librarian who clearly did not want to deal with me having a snit at her desk that hot afternoon. After that sweaty episode I asked the much younger assistant librarian for a recommendation.

Mariah, the assistant librarian, is stunning. Her café au lait complexion, enormous gray eyes, gently dimpled chin, and serious expression were frankly unsettling to me. Beauty sometimes is. I have stood in the Louvre weeping at the sight of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Mariah's exquisite self was clothed in a nondescript gray pencil skirt, blue cotton t-shirt and an anonymous-looking blue cardigan. The plainness of her garb was like a toss away, the absolute certification that either she didn't know she was beautiful or, better, didn't care. I noticed that her fingernails were carefully trimmed and naturally very white at the tips which turned up at the ends like Dutch clogs, and I couldn't stop staring at them as she processed my library card application. When she handed me the card, I asked her for a book recommendation, and watched transfixed as she inserted one curly, white-tipped finger into the corner of her mouth and thought carefully. "Come this way," she said finally, and led me to fiction, K. "Prodigal Summer" by Barbara Kingsolver was her recommendation.

Lush and beautiful are the best words to describe this tour de force novel. I am sure you've all read it, but I hadn't read any Kingsolver. Having just moved to the thrumming, buzzing, fecund forests of Piedmont, I wallowed in this book and its images. But more than just loving it, I admire it for its formality and unashamed clarity of message. Yes, there are moments when the novel's carefully woven story lines about mating, hunting and forming mutual protection groups feel way too pat and preachy. And except for their differing ages and geographical locations, the three main women characters in the book might be the exact same person: Deanna the ranger who takes the side of coyotes over her own mate; Lusa the lepidopterist, who is widowed young by her farmer husband who had used poisons to kill insects and kills honeysuckle; and Nannie Rawley, the elderly but spirited apple grower who gets on just fine without a man. All these are utterly self-determined Earth Women who don't really need the galumphing men around them much, and who are much more in tune with the interconnectedness and magic of nature than their gun-toting, pesticide spraying male counterparts.

But after I relaxed into the world of Zebulon Mountain, after I gave in, true admiration set in. Kingsolver's book is a formal composition in which the interconnectedness of all life is a theme that is expressed in different ways, rather like a simple melody is embellished in the movements of a symphony. The interconnected stories weave a lush tapestry that, after all, makes sense and it very entertaining to read. She has a flawless ear for her characters' internal conversations, and I loved learning about the ways of coyotes, moths, American elms, cockle burrs and a variety of other things that Kingsolver describes with great precision and detail. Also fun is that the sex scenes are quite yummy. After I read the sweaty opening mating scene between Deanna and her much younger lover, I kept turning to the demure photo of Kingsolver on the back cover and wondering where in heaven's name she came up with this hot stuff. What we don't know about lady authors could, well, fill a book!

The New York Times really slammed this novel when it came out. Snootily, Jennifer Schuessler wrote:

''Prodigal Summer'' has its plot twists, few of them surprising. As in any ecosystem (and any soap opera), everybody turns out to be related to everybody else, and just about everyone's fate is determined by the aftershocks of a collision of sperm and egg. Lusa comes up with a novel solution to the Darwinist's famous problem of explaining altruism, and Deanna realizes she may not be the evolutionary ''dead weight'' she has imagined. In the end the expendable males have disappeared, and the women and children band together in their own blended families, like the coyotes of Zebulon Mountain. This may be an attractive fable, but it doesn't make for the kind of psychologically complex literature Kingsolver is well capable of. Biology may be destiny in the forest, but good fiction -- like good sex -- happens mostly in the head.
As someone who has broken up with New York, I also reject Jennifer Schuessler's whole anti-fable trip. Am I nuts? I have read the last sentence of that paragraph about twenty times and I still can't get what the hell she's trying to say. Sex also happens in the good old flesh, Jennifer! And what, pray tell, is psychologically complex enough? Did she not find the sex in this book good? Or did everything in this book just end up too sort of happy and OK to be good writing? Clearly I am missing her point.
BlogLily Assignment: Read a book in Women's Genre
I have a notion that "psychologically complex" for many modern critics might be Helen in Alice Sebold's novel "The Almost Moon". This is what I took out of the library after turning in Prodigal Summer as my "woman's genre" choice. I figured it must be women's genre because of Lucky, the story of her own rape which I read years ago. I am telling you true when I write that Moon is the first novel EVER that I nearly gave up on in the first 10 pages, despite its being very well-written. First of all, it's depressing as hell. Second of all, there were places, landmarks and human frailties in the book that felt a bit too eerily close to some crumpled pages in my own life to feel happy reading about them in a novel. Enough said.
Yes, books about screwed up people and the horrific acts committed by them in the bright, clean light of suburban America are ones I generally want to avoid. I think that for a lot of literary critics declaiming from on high at important magazines and newspapers, however, "screwed up" is synonymous with "interesting" and "psychologically complex". I often felt when I was living in New York that unless I suffered from some awful, life-destroying mental problem, I could not possibly be spotted as noteworthy or interesting. I worked at Interview Magazine and, believe me, I know what I'm talking about. Interestingly, the further from New York I get, the more interesting other people seem to find me despite the fact that I am less screwed up than I used to be. Here in Piedmont, it appears that many people think that just being kind and pleasant is quite enough without being, well, Interesting.
In "The Almost Moon", the central screw-up is Helen's mother Claire Knightley whose agoraphobia and obvious narcissism make her an awful mother and wife, and even cause her to allow a little boy who's been hit by a car to die in the street because she simply cannot move outside her property line to help him. Helen, Claire Knightley 's damaged daughter, does her best to become a wife and mother, but ends up getting divorced, having iffy relationships with her own daughters, and smothering Mom to death with a hand towel and stashing her in the basement. This horrific act happens quite early in the book and is the only really positive attempt to help herself that Helen attempts in the the whole rest of the novel. The father is passive, helpless in the face of his life and his wife, and he lives a shadow life in his destroyed boyhood home which he populates with wooden sculptures of the people in his life. Creepy.
Yes, I almost closed this book forever. After all, who needs to add more ugly to life? This book was all death, as much death as Prodigal Summer is all life, and I really like life better. That said, after setting it aside, I picked up Moon again. And again. Because Sebold is such a very good writer that she seduces you into a kind of lull in which you feel that the outlandishly bad world of her characters is really not so abnormal after all. In that hallucinatory lull, you can really appreciate Sebold's stand-up good writing skills, and before you know it, you've reached the end of the book which is, mercifully, short.
Would I recommend Prodigal Summer to a friend? Yes, absolutely. It's like a warm bath in pheromones and honey. What about The Almost Moon? Yup, as long as the friend has been in therapy for at least 6 years.
Did I learn anything from Prodigal Summer? Yes. I learned about coyotes, moths, goats, elm trees, and lots of other cool things. Lesson from The Almost Moon: If having crazy parents is awful, killing your Mom with a hand towel is even worse.
Painting: "Coyote", Marilyn McQuarrie

Friday, August 5, 2011

Going on about things elsewhere

Not apparently content with writing about my interior world in Breaking Up With New York, I have gotten involved with a new community where interesting things happen and where I am having conversations about the outside world. I recommend HASTAC to those who want to get in on the fun! I defend the Virtual Plaza here. Some resent my defense.