Showing posts with label Steinbeck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steinbeck. Show all posts

14 October 2015

Bridge Freezes Before Road

by David Edgerley Gates

Some of us are sedentary by nature, some of us footloose. It might very possibly be a function of age, and certainly of temperament, A body at rest tends to stay at rest - even if calling it inertia is a polite way of saying our momentum has left us up on blocks - but there comes a day when we turn mother's picture to the wall and light out for parts unknown,

Steinbeck said about the pioneers heading West toward the far horizons that eventually they bumped up against the Pacific, and he imagined all these old people, sitting on porches, gazing toward the setting sun, longing to voyage a further distance. (This, as I remember, from "The Red Pony.") And the West is a journey of imagination, Manifest Destiny, looking past the edge of the earth.

I made the trip in reverse this time, West to East, from Santa Fe to Baltimore. The road itself seemed familiar, if not the route - but the mileage, and the pavement, the changing landscape and the culture of travel (although I'm sorry to report that the spaghetti with chile and cheese, at the Skyline in Dayton, Ohio, isn't one of those peculiar local delicacies that's worth going out of your way for, like Frito pies or poutine). It's funny, and kind of comforting, to find yourself back in America. A lot of the old rules still apply, and some of the same courtesies.

Ten states - New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland - 1800 miles, give or take. An odometer of the mind, not so much the physical distance covered. Different time zones, but an interior geography.

"Don't you get stale around here, Bill?" Garrett asks the Kid, who's hanging around Ft. Sumner, shooting chickens, and I have to admit Santa Fe was getting more than a little claustrophobic on me. People, it's been remarked, come to Santa Fe for repair, or reinvention, or recovery. Which suggests of course that they might be damaged in some way, but that's a judgment call. One guy I know was headed West in a VW bus, and Santa Fe's where it broke down, so he got a job scooping ice cream and stayed to raise a family. You can't make one size fit all.

And truth be told, New Mexico's done good by me. Surely there's been no dearth of material. Seriously? Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, the Anasazi and the cliff dwellings, the land grant struggles and the Tierra Amarilla courthouse siege, Zozobra, the Japanese internment camps, the penitentiary riot, the corrupting influence of the Mexican cartels - drugs, guns, money laundering and human traffic - along with old trailhands Tony Hillerman and Marc Simmons, just for openers, who let me draw from the well.

Thoreau advises us to beware of enterprises requiring new clothes, but deciding to set up shop in a place of underappreciated virtues, aside from Camden Yards, could be considered a wardrobe opportunity, and not for protective coloration, either. Baltimore doesn't seem to mind an edge. You can profile some pretty mean shoes, you got legs to match.

I kept seeing the same sign on the highway, every time I approached an overpass. Bridge Ices Before Road. My first thought was that somebody had to be making a killing, like getting the U.S. Coast Guard contract for wool socks, if every state highway department in the country's buying that same black-and-yellow sign. But your mind wanders, on the road, and I began reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, or surface tension, decoding the text, as if it were some kind of Zen mystery message. In the end, I decided it wasn't.

Still, it's a metaphor. Don't leave skid marks.

28 March 2013

A Piece Missing

by Eve Fisher

  • "I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.  Some you can see, misshapen and horrible...  And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?  ...As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience." ...  "A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”           John Steinbeck, Chapter 8, "East of Eden"

This is a description of Cathy in Steinbeck's "East of Eden", which is imho one of the best portraits of a sociopath that's ever been written.  And it's easy (once you have experience) to recognize her from without (much of the time, but we've all been fooled) but, as he points out, what about from within?  Yes, we can figure out ways to recognize the problems, the missing pieces in others - but for us...  how can we tell?  Something is left out, and we will never know it until we're surrounded by people who have it.  And even when we recognize that we're missing something, we still might not "get it":  can a completely color-blind person really grasp Franz Marc's "Blue Horses"?  Can a completely deaf person really understand why I weep uncontrollably at "Un bel di"?

File:Franz Marc 005.jpg

Now years ago, when I first read "East of Eden", I knew that Cathy was a true portrait, and that there are moral monsters.  But I also realized that there must be a whole range of possibilities, from the truly monstrous to the relatively minor.  I came to believe that, just as almost no one is born physically perfect and flawless, so almost no one is born morally, spiritually perfect and flawless.  We are all born with at least one piece missing, and our only hope is that it isn't a big one, and it is just one, and if not, that there aren't too many missing pieces. And I started to look around me, wondering, what's missing from him?  From her?  From them?  And, eventually, from myself?

The most obvious thing to me missing from me is a sense of home, of place, of rootedness.  Now I don't know if this is a missing piece, or something that was burned out of me when I was a child. I was born in Karditsa, Greece, to an unmarried teenaged mother who hoped the father would marry her.  He was rich, she was poor, it was (then) a small town, it was the 1950's, and there was no way in God's sweet green earth that he would ever marry her.  Instead, after a year of negotiations, (in which I am sure some money changed hands...) my father took me down to Athens, where he put me in an orphanage.  Move #1.  Within six months, it had been arranged for me to be adopted to a Greek-American couple in Alexandria, Virginia, but even back in the 1950's adoptions took a while, so I was put in a foster home for the duration.  Move #2.  A year later, the formalities completed, I was put on a plane, by myself, in Athens, with a note and a charm against the evil eye pinned to my dress, and shipped over to my parents in Alexandria.  (Side note:  doesn't that sum up a paradigm shift in treating children between the 1950's and today?)  Move #3. My parents and I lived in Alexandria for three years, and then we moved to southern California.  Move #4. 

Now each time, I was moved from everything and everyone I'd ever known, and I'm not whining, but I'm sure that has to be at least part of the reasons I don't get attached to places.  Or perhaps I was born that way, and all those moves just added to it...   It wasn't that noticeable in the cities I've lived in, where most people are wanderers, and we all share in our own version of "the unbearable lightness of being."  I didn't even realize it until I moved first down South, and then out here to South Dakota, where people are rooted in the land, and it strikes them as a bit odd that I don't seem to miss any place I've ever been.  I tell them what is true:  I save my attachments for people.  And for books.  And for music.  I look at all the people around me, rooted in their homes, their farms, their ranches, who cannot even think of moving, and I cannot grasp it, because that's a piece I'm missing.

And here comes the other side of it.  I don't really care, other than as observation.  I'm perfectly happy traveling, moving, living here, living there...  Which I think is normal for abnormality.  I'm not sure we care about any piece we're missing, for a variety of reasons.  So what if people claim to have pleasures, or abilities, or visions that we will never have?  They might be lying.  They might be wrong.  They might be self-deluded.  And does it matter?  We've done just fine as we are.  Perhaps better than they are.  What does it matter?

Unless you're a writer, in which case, it's fascinating to think that each of us occupies our own worlds.  I'll never forget when I first grasped that what I call orange and you call blue may actually be the same color, and we'll never know it because we cannot truly express what we see.  Or hear, taste, feel, experience...  All we have is words, and words are assigned so young that we never ask, well, what do they describe?

Years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a community center, and the first exercise I did was to ask each person to write down the image they saw in their head when I said a word.  "Apple."  And then I had everyone read aloud the image.  Red apples, green apples, golden delicious, Apple logo, Apple Records, Boone's Farm Apple Wine (it was a long time ago), almost everyone had seen a different image.  And then we wonder why it's so hard to communicate what we want to say, whether in poetry or prose.  What if I said "disappointment"?  "Joy"?  "Beauty"?  "Desire"?  No wonder Flaubert used to roll around on the floor for three days in agony, looking for the right word.  But he had a piece missing, too…