Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Four Sketches on Sunday

A chronicle in reverse.

I went to sleep reading, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. I had never heard of it before finding it on our shelves. It is vintage Woolf. She writes the way Monet painted. Phrases like brushstrokes. A gesture here, fraction of dialog there, shadows on the wall, a room in the silence of doilies. Scenes drift, then return in mid-sentence. It is set before the turn of the century, then the war and after. Time slides. The diary of her life could have been found in between the words.

By 9:15 I was weary. Peggy and I had been reading aloud to each other for over three hours.  We’d been without power since noon, now suddenly the lights went back on. We each had a flashlight focused on a collection of short pieces by Thomas Wolfe called, From Death to Morning.

Nobody writes like Wolfe anymore. He gushes …but with eloquence. His spigot must have been missing a washer. He creates a torrent of words you find yourself swimming in. The book was written in 1935, probably edited by Maxwell Perkins. Poor guy. But these stories are restrained unlike his novels. A few years ago we also read Look Homeward Angel, aloud, 662 pages. An example of his style.

You see this man, his mistress, and all the other city people you have known, in shapes of deathless brightness, and yet their life and time are stranger to you than a dream, and you think you are doomed to walk among them always as a phantom who can never grasp their life  or make their time your own. It seems to you now that you are living in a world of creatures who have learned to live without weariness or agony of the soul, in a life which you can never touch, approach or apprehend; a strange city-race who have never lived in a dimension of time like you own…..but rather in fathomless and immemorable sensations….. There is no door.

Two Wolves, howling at the moon. Different spelling, happened this same day by coincidence, unrelated of course and at opposite poles in their writing styles. One spare, one effusive. They died within three years of each other. He suddenly at age 38, she by suicide in 1941.

Still light but without power. What does one do with no telephone, computer, radio or TV? One eats, does laundry, waters plants, talks…..and reads. First the Sunday paper, then a picture book just sent by a friend from New York.

It is over 100 pages of photos of Forest Hills, my old neighborhood, starting in 1909 when it was all farms, meadows and a dream of a developer to create a Garden City. And so they did with a little push from none other than Teddy Roosevelt who put it on the map with a July 4th speech in 1917. By then he was all flag and country beseeching Pres. Wilson to lead a cavalry charge against the Hun. Clearly time had passed him by. But Forest Hills Gardens was a success. It had the tennis stadium, a railroad stop and an inn, all part of a tree-lined, rather uppity community which carried the infamy of having restrictive covenants against those of Hebrew persuasion. Of course I lived outside the posh Gardens, literally on other side of the tracks.

In a touch of irony in 1966, it was the Jewish Community Council which led the charge against the construction of low-cost housing on the edge of Forest Hills. Not in my backyard. Harumph!  To compound the irony an unknown attorney was brought in by Mayor Lindsay to finally settle the dispute with a compromise. The lawyer’s name was Mario Cuomo.

In the late morning we were visited by Peggy’s great granddaughter (my step). Ilaria is now four months old. Such wonder in her eyes, everything seen for the first time.. She seems to be taking it all in for future reference. I look at her and think back to how it was with my daughters, living the miracle of life growing from babyness to personhood. How each of them with new eyes saw their way ahead in different directions. Ilaria transported me back to my own early memories and to the future she will have in this uneasy but unimaginable world we have bequeathed.

A most unusual day without electricity, living as characters in those books did, moving forward, then back in time. It was a day starting in the continuum of generations and moving toward timelessness.

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