Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Consolations of Appalachia

The literary critic George Lukács defined the novel as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." I wonder sometimes whether, in my own small way, I am living in such a world. The winter has set in for good in my aging Rust Belt town, and the sky overhead, like the blighted landscape below, is every day an unrelentingly gray: an oppressive gray, a dull, gun-metal gray; not the kind of gray that's illuminated from behind by the sun, or the gray that seems redolent with mystery, or the gray that you know will blow away with the next strong breeze; or the gray that, even if it lingers, is mitigated by the hum and buzz of industry, endeavor, and human interaction. There were gray winters in New York, too, of course, but Petula Clark wasn't lying when she suggested that "When you're alone and life is making you lonely/You can always go downtown," because, there, you're liable to meet "someone who is just like you."

In spite of the fact that I've been here for five -- five! -- years already, I still feel that lack, that inability to meet who Anne of Green Gables would have called a kindred spirit -- that dearth, in fact, of someones who are just like me. Maybe they exist, but I would never know where to find them here. In New York, of course, you don't have to look far. You're bound, by the sheer volume of people, to meet many semblables. But I need to keep reminding myself that your friends don't have to be just like you.

Nonetheless, even though I've been here for five years already, my heart still leaps into my throat sometimes when I speak or hear the name of the city where I now live. How can it be that I live here? I think to myself. It sometimes seems like everything has conspired to humble me, even to chide me, for imagining that I could ever do important things. Will I die here? I wonder. Will the fire that burns in my heart be extinguished here, in total obscurity, in a forgotten backwater full of people who are sad, sick, and poor?  Will I never be able to bring forth anything beautiful?

And, my own loneliness and yearning notwithstanding, every day young single mothers from my old city and my old borough climb off the Greyhound bus here, their little children and a few shopping bags of belongings in tow. And some of them, I know for a fact, weep tears of relief when they arrive in this place about which I try very hard to remain neutral, grateful for the chance to leave behind the danger and despair of their lives in New York and to do right by their children. And with very good reason.

A few weeks ago I was actually back in New York for a semi-important gig. Remarkably, these still come my way once in a while, and I usually take them if the pay is reasonable and they don't disrupt my life or the lives of my family members too much, although they usually involve a lot of driving in the dark to get home as soon as possible afterwards. Doing school drop-off the morning after a concert on scanty sleep, my professionally-styled gig hair and traces of stage make-up are the only evidence that I've just come from a "real" place, doing what I think I "really" do, living for a day or two what I used to think of as my "real" life. And the fact is that my real life in that real place is no longer real. When I try to remember everything -- the years and years of memory accreted like layers of sediment, the smells and the sounds, the way the light looked -- it's almost as if a wall of smoke, of fog, stands between me and the person I was and the place in which I felt myself to be so deeply and intrinsically rooted.

I spend a lot of time in my car now, which is a very strange experience -- the sense of ploughing forcefully through a world that's hostile or at least indifferent, observing everything and yet removed, encased in the protective shell of my own atmosphere, is so different from the multi-sensory engagement, and the vulnerability, of being out on the street in a scrum of your fellow men. I have to say that it's cool to drive -- and even that I love my new used car, a Subaru Outback -- but I don't like the way that it's supplanted being in the greater world, and I find it hard to accept that this ethos of driving around is one of the defining aspects of middle-class American life.

One of the few random amazing things about this place though, is the libraries. There are four contiguous municipalities here that bleed into each other, but have their own separate governments, and each has its own library, and each of these libraries is a wonderful place, a haven, in a different way. I drive around to all of them, usually hitting two or more in a week. I love to go to the various children's rooms by myself, because I love to read children's books, and each library's children's room is bigger and better-stocked than my entire old branch library in the Bronx. And each library has discard tables that are veritable treasure troves, mainly for the kind of out-of-print children's books that I love. Some of the many books I've bought for a quarter have not been out-of-print, just inexplicably neglected and thrown away, like a new-looking copy of Maira Kalman's Fireboat, and a whole stack of books by Tana Hoban, which are among my favorites. My breath catches in my throat when I look at her photographs, so full of mystery, and suggestive of the strangeness and beauty hidden in the most mundane things (a picture from her book So Many Circles, So Many Squares, a library-discard-table glean, is above). Just the other day, for the combined price of forty cents, I picked up the following: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt; 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 1-12; a beautifully-illustrated children's biography of J.S. Bach from the 1960s; the January 2011 edition of the PMLA journal; and the "brief edition" (still four-hundred-plus pages) of the standard college music textbook Listen!

So, while haunting the public libraries here is one of my favorite things to do, it's an activity carried out in solitude (I shun the children's story hours, because they're way too noisy and frenetic for me, let alone for my children), and it reinforces my own solitude. But while I drive to the libraries, I often listen to Beethoven's Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, whose first movement never fails to astonish me and fill me with delight, as it coalesces out of a tentative, fearful darkness and into triumphant joy. I wish I knew a way to bring that joy out of my car and onto these gray streets.

(If you play the clip below, do pay special attention to the ABSOLUTE GLORIOUS WONDER of Beethoven's writing for woodwinds, specifically for the solo woodwind quintet -- the way that he lifts it out of the structure of the symphony for a few measures, and allows each of the wind instruments' voices to come forward as they twine together in their finely-woven texture. I think that Beethoven, in all his large-scale works, gave the music of consolation to the woodwinds).


Enbrethiliel said...


When you write about what you hear in music, I feel so tone deaf!

My observations don't even come to the level of those of Melanie's eldest son, who told her recently, "I think this music is by Beethoven because it's soft and then it gets loud." Or something like that. =P

I haven't felt crushed by loneliness in a long while, but I don't know if it's because I have received a grace of consolation or because I've just given up and grown a crust.

Seriously thinking it over now, I think that I find the daily grind itself very consoling. At least something is being done and people are being helped. But sometimes I feel like the lamplighter in The Little Prince . . .

On your end, at least the driving is going well! I remember when you were telling me about your first driving lessons. And now look at you: zipping back and forth in the dark like a pro! =D

entropy said...

Reading your reflections is always so interesting.

The way you write about your current town is how I imagine I would feel living in NYC. Too much gray, too much filth, too many people.

I am sorry that you are so miserable.
I will pray that you find peace.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, kind readers. :)

Entropy, I wouldn't say I'm miserable. Just trying to find my groove.

Enbrethiliel, yeah. I can drive now. :)

GretchenJoanna said...

I'm very interested in your ongoing story - the story you and God are writing together? - of your life there, so different and somewhat meager compared to your "old life," and I appreciate your continuing to share your impressions and feelings about how it is.
"Consolations" is a good word. In some sense, that is most of what we get on this earth, full of sorrow and suffering as it is. C.S. Lewis said something about how mostly life is a trial, with moments of exquisite joy thrown in to keep us from losing Hope. Christ Himself was lonely, when it came to wanting for humans to stand by him.
Anyway, your blog is encouraging to me, as it expresses the kindred spirit of those who are pilgrims and strangers on the earth -- even if we aren't really comfortable in that role!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, GretchenJoanna. The other day was the first anniversary of my mother's death, and I was walking around in the graynesss and feeling desolate, and then it was as if I heard her voice saying to me, "Here it is. Right here. Right here." I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is where I *have* to be, where it's necessary to be. I still feel like an alien, though.