I guest posted over on Dean Robertson’s blog today with some thoughts on creating scenes of violence in my fiction . . . . and on experiencing them in the works of others. Here’s the link! Have a look!
A few weeks ago a friend and I walked to the Chinese restaurant near my co-op and brought back steaming cartons of vegetable lo mein, fried rice, two Spring rolls, and my favorite—roasted broccoli (enough to save for lunch the next day). The order—white cartons stacked neatly in a large white bag—of course included small packets of soy sauce and several fortune cookies.
I always look forward to the slight crunch and sweetness of fortune cookies after the salty Chinese food, but the two I grabbed that day were stale. I was on the verge of throwing them out, along with their predictions for my future, when the edge of a slip of paper caught my eye. It read:
“You will find luck when you go home.”
That piece of paper, greasy at one corner, wrinkled from its near-miss with the garbage, is taped to the door of my kitchen cabinet.
“I know that our relationship to those places we inhabit and leave and for which we search is the informing metaphor of the spiritual life in any tradition and is, in fact, the governing reality in our lives; the spirit of place is in our bones” (Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, 116-117).
I grew up in the South, in the hills of North Georgia, and so—even more than most—I have that bone-deep sense of belonging to a place, of that physical bond with land. In his small novel, The Unvanquished, William Faulkner describes the forced and hasty departure from home of two boys, with their grandmother, just ahead of Sherman’s army on its March to the Sea. They take along basic provisions—and bags of soil from the plantation.
One morning about twenty years ago, one of my cousins and I drove out to the land where I grew up. We were going to see the log house my parents built which neither of us had seen since I left for college at seventeen.
After the house was built, Mother and Daddy carefully cleared narrow paths into the woods and down the steep hill between the house and the “patio,” a structure made entirely of mortar and large stones from the creek bank. On the day my cousin and I were there, all those paths were completely grown over; there wasn’t a trace of them. We sat for a few minutes, looking with a kind of hopelessness at the uninterrupted woods, seeing no possibility for navigation.
I glanced back and stepped out of the car. I walked cautiously, but without hesitation, across the overgrown yard and onto the path that led by twists and turns through a quarter acre of dense trees and underbrush to the edge of Cedar Creek. Those stones and trees, that path, buried in thick vines and roots and many seasons of leaves, are my bones.The skeleton of that land is my skeleton. I never faltered. My cousin followed. We sat by the creek for more than an hour without speaking.
There is a reason that all those houses and apartments and rooms over all those decades never quite satisfied my search for home. Not one of them, even the wonderful co-op, in the wonderful walking neighborhood where I live now, ever will be home.
Home is not a place, not a location, neither house nor woods nor hills nor any ocean. Home is, as Esther de Waal writes in her 1984 book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, a sense of being “earthed;” it is the Biblical concept of stability or steadfastness.
Of Metropolitan Anthony, “a monk and a bishop,” she says only,
“He has found his centre of gravity; he is wholly inside himself. This is the stability of the heart.”
Home, the particularity of place, is significant because it points always to something beyond itself.
It points to home.
A hymn whose name and provenance I have forgotten includes this line:
“We are all God’s children; the journey is our home.”
And, finally, this road to our real home can never be easy. Benedict writes in his Rule of the novice monk:
“‘Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry’ says the opening sentence, and the novice is to be left knocking at the door for four or five days. He is then warned about ‘the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God’ If he promises perseverance in his stability after two months. . .If he still stands firm. . .he is taken back. . .and is tested again after six months, and then again four months later.”
Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is also available on Amazon.com.
I came by an interesting book the other day. It’s called Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, and it’s part-memoir, part-religious meditation, part-biography.
The story is this. The author, Dean Robertson (despite the unorthodox first name, Dean is female) had occasion to stay for some months at the Lydia Roper Home, a home for elderly women in Norfolk, Virginia, while recovering from a fall. During her time at the home, Robertson led a Bible study group with some of the women who lived there, starting with four and gradually growing to around a dozen. She also became curious about Lydia Hand Bowen Roper, the home’s namesake and inspiration. Some might say “curious about” is an inadequate phrase, preferring “obsessed with.”
In Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, Robertson draws together three threads: her personal journey from ailment to recovery, from withdrawn-ness to engagement; the stories of her Bible study group, the women who made it up and their encounters with Biblical texts; and the teasing-out of the sparse details of the life of Lydia Roper, whose husband, a wealthy lumberman, endowed the home shortly before his death in 1921. The result is an odd, charming, occasionally frustrating, immensely enjoyable book.
The women of the Bible Study group are a varied group, some inquisitive, some uncommunicative. Robertson portrays them vividly. For a sort-of memoir, the book is less forthcoming about Robertson herself. We learn that she is a retired academic who grew up in north Georgia, and not a whole lot else. This reticence is unusual for a memoir, and I found myself wishing for more internal revelation. Lydia Roper also remains stubbornly inaccessible to Robertson’s efforts at inquiry; she left little written record, and her family’s memories are vague. Robertson describes her frustration at her efforts to uncover more about the elusive Lydia:
At this point, the result is uncertainty, and all I can find is that sometime in 1920 or 1921, Captain John Roper either “built,” “established,” “donated,” or “founded” the Lydia Roper Home. The Home either was, or was not, intended as a haven for Confederate widows. Two sources say yes; a local historian who grew up in the area says, “The Confederate widows twist likely came about as a result of rationalizing having a Damn Yankee establish a very useful and needed charitable home in an extremely Confederate area. Even one hundred years after The War, partisan feelings about Northerners were still quite strong.” A family member says the original charter more likely read something like, “ … for impoverished white women in the city of Norfolk.”
Anybody who’s engaged in research into an obscure historical figure or event can relate to that “Well.”
What holds these three threads together? To me, it’s the searching and the losing. The women of the Bible study group work their way through Old Testament and New, responding to the stories in conventional and unconventional ways, searching for meaning, consolation, and explanations, all the while growing older and more frail. They lose their faculties, their health. Dean Robertson keeps looking for Lydia, even as Lydia continually recedes on the horizon. Memories fail; stories prove untrustworthy; yet the effort rewards itself. The writing is literary and highly crafted, but not overly so; the characters of the women shine through.
The book contains a lot of discussion of the various characters in the Bible, particularly women. I’m just about the least qualified person in the country to talk about that element of the book; Bible study has never interested me. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the originality and soundness of the exegesis. I’m more interested in the human stories of the elderly women who gather in the second floor parlor of the Lydia Roper Home. And these stories – warm, touching, and often sad – are well worth the reading. Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is a lovely book, especially for the spiritually-minded.