Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Club for One: Crossing to Safety

I just finished, for the second time, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Even though I'd read it once before, I could remember very little about it, so this was like reading it for the first time. I borrowed the book and didn't get through more than ten or twelve pages before realizing I needed some of those sticky tabs to mark all my favorite passages.

Now I have to return the book, so I've decided to list my favorite passages here, so I have them to reflect on whenever I want.

"In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bend on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring that anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past."

I love the way this puts life in perspective. I guess it could seem slightly pessimistic, but that's not how I see it. I can focus on where my influence will be greatest and where my contributions will mean the most.

"I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards--he comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees--have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with. What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about  how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest."

And I think that goes nicely with the paragraph at the end of the same chapter:

"In high school, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bunch of us spent a whole year reading Cicero--De Senectute, on old age; De Amicitia, on friendship. De Senectute, with all its resigned wisdom, I will probably never be capable of living up to or imitating. But De Amicitia I could make a stab at, and could have any time in the last thirty-four years."

I like to think that what Larry Morgan is reflecting on here is that it's our relationships that are our legacy. They are our "contributions." They are what make life worth living.

The next quote is from the passage where Larry and Sally are leaving the faculty party in the fancy house to return to their little basement apartment. I just liked the sentiment and remembered many college days of Ramen, Saltines, and Jiffy muffin mix.

"I suppose we were both a little depressed at leaving those colleagues, strangers though they were, unknowns with the most profound portent for our future, and going home to our cellar, where we at the stuff that was good for the budget but not especially good for the soul."

I still make this choice at the grocery store every week and often throw in a little soul food with the budget food. It feels so luxurious.

"What the disorderly crave about everything is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. 'Chaos,' he told me, 'is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.' No one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it the same way I did . . . I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in."

This makes it seem as though Larry and Sally were almost victims of Sid and Charity's friendship. That they were deprived, maybe, and that there was no resisting the kindness.

I fell in love with the following quote as Larry describes being the center of attenion:

"They quizzed me on a hundred California subjects from Yosemite to Dust Bowl refugees, and not only they but others near us, Alice and Lib especially, attending my answers as if I had been speaking from the sacred cave. How lovely it is to be chosen, how flattering to have such bright eyes on you as you divide the light from the darkness."

Wonderful! I guess if I was to be a little introspective, this provides a great lesson on how to be a good friend, how to be kind, how to make someone feel important, at ease, blah, blah, blah.

"I believe that most people have some degree of talent for something--forms, colors, words, sounds. Talent lies around us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky. Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations to many. Something."

I don't know whether this should motivate me or depress me? But I love it.

Here's another on the same idea:

"What if our parents had been undernourished villagers in Uttar Pradesh, and we faced the problem of commanding the attention of the world on a diet of five hundred calories a day, and in Urdu? What good is an ace if the other cards in your hand are dogs from every town?"

I think Stegner answers this question. It has to do with using your talents to improve the area you are in. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it seems like Stegner was all about the West when most intellectuals and writers were all about the Hallowed East. He made his spot into they primordial soup that birthed his ideas and nurtured his talents. Maybe commanding the attention of the world is the wrong goal to have? Didn't Charity often talk about making Wisconsin an intellectual power to rival those of the Ivy Leagues?

It's true, some will never have that match dropped into the kindling of their greatness, but does that matter?

"'Maybe she's a little inconsistent,' Sally said. 'She wants all those children, but one of her reasons is so she won't have too much time to give to one or two. She thinks children in a big family have the benefit of a certain amount of neglect.'"

I only have three children, but love the idea of "the benefit of neglect." Fabulous!

"We weren't indifferent. We lived in our times, which were hard times. We had our interests, which were mainly literary and intellectual and only occasionally, inescapably, political. But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on a hundred and fifty dollars a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship--parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations, glimpses from the occasional unencumbered hours. Amicitia lasts better than res publica, and at least as well as ars poetica. Or so it seems now. What really illuminates those months is the faces of our friends."

This supports the idea that relationships matter. Other things fade, but relationships shape us and stay with us.

"By mid-January Dave Stone, Sid and I were at work on one of those anthology textbooks that young instructors hope will look impressive on a vita. Stone, Lang and Morgan, Writing from Conviction. But I didn't steal from my writing hours to work on it. I stole from evenings, from Sally, from class preparation, and from sleep."

Not an mind-blowing quote, the the "stealing from Sally" part struck me. Is he expressing regret about this or just stating a fact. Either way, it feels sad to me. Maybe because it hits a little close.

And I loved this:

"Henry James says somewhere that if you have to make notes on how a thing has struck you, it probably hasn't struck you."

Just something to think about.

Here's a little something Larry says after publishing his first book, an autobiographical look at the tragic death of his parents:

"Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public. We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most."

I find spilling my guts in public to be cathartic. I probably share too much.

"We agree that until it has had a poet, a place is not a place."

This made me think of the poetry I've written internally, that I didn't have words to express, that was maybe only feelings, but that still made a place a place for me.

"Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But with in a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine."

So does this mean planning is a waste of time? Doesn't planning and order still help us to get where we are going, even if where we are going is not the place we have in mind?

This is a great summary of Charity's character:

"No Battel Pond visit at all in the summer of 1939. None in 1940 either. Charity came down once, but stayed only a day. Other people's houses, and routines that she could not control, made her uneasy, and she was as unwilling to be a burden as Sally was."

As is this:

"We sat in firelight, watched by the eyes of the owl andirons. The kitchen door, over at the dim dining-room end, was outlined with the light beyond it. Ordinarily I am an admirer of the Ninth Sympohny, but that night it struck me as pompous and overstated. I couldn't listen because I kept thinking of Sid out there, inferior and unneeded, dismissed to the scullery. And why? Because Charity had set up a schedule and was too inflexible to change it."

And here Larry comes to understand some of the wisdom of Charity's ways:

"I ran my New Mexico mornings about the way Charity had always tried to run the life of the Lang family--evocatively when possible, arbitrarily if necessary. That, if you can get away with it, is a very satisfactory way to live."

And this was an interesting idea:

"Technically, Christ was the hero of Paradise Lost; actually, Satan was. Fallen grandeur was always more instructive than pallid perfection. Or look at painting, all those Christs whose bland faces belied their bloody wounds, all those characterless angels. Saintliness had no possible expression but a simper. But Judas, now, sitting at the Last Supper trying to disguise his treachery, with that symbolic cat behind him, he was something else because of his human complexity." 

Is this why we love to read about bad characters? People who do things we'd never do? Or maybe why we like to read about women who are dominant, who make us a little uncomfortable? Who elicit a response, or an opinion in us?

Again, on Charity:

"She could never have a good time without calling her own and other's attention to what a good time she was having. She wanted no experience, even the slightest, to go unmarked."

I have so much trouble with Charity in this book. Her dominance rankles me. Makes me uncomfortable. Makes me angry at times. But on the other hand, it's what provides the fuel to this friendship. Is it not her that is and has been driving it from the beginning? How can you know if you are part of a Master Plan, or if she truly does cherish the friendship? And would you care?

And this brings up the fact that I do not believe a friendship, or a relationship can be built on such an unequal foundation. I don't care how genuine Sid and Charity were about sharing their wealth with Sally and Larry, that kind of imbalance automatically places one person in the role of benefactor and another in the role of the benefitted. I believe this creates a dynamic that can not be overcome. One is always giving, the other always in debt.

At the same time, Larry did have his gravitas as a talented writer to give to Sid and Charity. In a way, this was currency they could not acquire. Maybe that was the way the scales were balanced in the relationship?

More Charity:

"We did not argue with her. She was still developing her sundial theory of art, which would count no hours but the sunny ones."

This too is a great summary of Charity after they drop off the injured Italian at the bottom of a hill:

"I don't think he wants anymore help."
"But he needs it, whether he wants it or not. He could lose his hand, and what would a workman like him do with only one hand? He's got to have a doctor. They'll probably just soak his hand in dirty water and wrap it in a rag, or poultice it with cow manure!"
"What would we do? Sid said. Tackle him, and load him back in by force?"
"Oh," Charity said, "why did you let him out?"
"Because he wanted out," I said.

Who is right here? Charity has a good point, but at what point do you let someone do what they want, even to their own detriment? This is how she handled Sid. She decided that poetry was bad for him and dragged him, by force, to her idea of success. There was no regard for what he wanted. Was it best for him?

Frankly, this whole line of thinking makes my head hurt. At what point do you let someone ruin themselves?

1 comment:

Betty Grace said...

My book club read this a long time ago, so I don't remember a lot. I remember liking the book and having a great discussion about Charity. Some men in my book club very passionately disliked her and felt Sid was abused by her.

I felt like he chose the relationship for a reason. Perhaps without her he would flail about in life and he needed the direction she supplied.

Also, we only see the relationship from a single outside perspective. What if the story was written from Sid's perspective, or Charity's? Would we have love that couple and thought the other as dusfunctional as Sid and Charity's was from this perspective?

That's all I can remember. :)