We’ve been in the 1880s house for a little over a year now, and have gotten to know her creaks and groans. We lost a housecleaner who felt a ghostly presence in the upstairs bedroom. I’ve found hundreds of pennies in the dirt and grounds, mementos perhaps of the previous owner, Penny, who passed away just as we were taking possession of the house. We have been visited by neighbors who have rejoiced at the resurrection of this old house, from its decrepitude to its new life as our home. And we have lived through a year in real seasons, with snow, heat, power outage, wildfire, and autumn colors. We love life in the mountains. Living *in* history has been well worth the loving effort of renovation.
My apologies for the long silence. When last I wrote here, we had moved to the country and my husband was seriously disabled by his back injuries; he retired and we left the busy East Bay for Wine Country-quiet. I have been working on several projects in that time, namely my historical novel about the Orphan Train mama who lost her children and set about getting them back. That novel is in revisions and needs another deep dive. (Not this week, she said, juggling several pins, but one of these days soon.)
Another sideline has been our cabin, the Crow’s Nest, which we renovated from the studs out, and welcomed many guests, both as vacationers and as creatives, to come stay with us. Check it out on AirBnB here.
We’ve spent the past two years as innkeepers, and that was entertaining; I’ve been revising the novel, then resting (but still innkeeping) between rewrites. In the “rest” times, I’ve been to writing programs or conferences like the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Associated Writing Programs. I started another book project, a biography of my great-grandfather Luther R. Bailey, Doris’s father, the architect, and have gathered much of what I need for that project, including publisher interest.
I was buzzing along on this project and chatting with an agent about my historical fiction in early 2019 when our world came to a crashing halt. My stepson, who I raised from age 5, our Boy, Austin took his own life in February 2019. And that has changed everything.
We are learning to live without our Boy, and it has been the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We have lived very small in this dreadful year. It’s felt unbearably sad and riddled with confusion and doubts. I have written little and worked almost not at all.
Meanwhile, racism and politics have raged, children are locked in cages, the earth is burning… The Russian River flooded and marooned us in our cabin-on-stilts; my husband had major surgery in May; fires swept the North Bay and we evacuated in the fall… Our son in law lost his childhood home near Sydney, Australia, to wildfires there in November; a tree dropped a huge branch and damaged our roof just last week. And we’re in the middle of a presidential impeachment crisis that we hope will strangle the ugliness of the current administration and begin to lead us back to center.
It’s been a hard year, friends, neither creative nor productive. I set goals in December 2018 that are laughable now; we lead lives that are so other-focused that “2018 Julia” couldn’t even imagine. But I’m writing this — yes, pretty much the first “thing” I’ve written in months — to say that I will write again, we will keep living, our family is stronger for the terrible trials of 2019, and we are making plans for a different life ahead of us.
Nothing is yet confirmed nor written in stone (I mean anything, anywhere in life — but also, for our current plan), but if all goes as it should, we are looking toward a different view in 2020. We are looking at saying yes to life, a kind of resurrection, grabbing on to what we can and living it wholeheartedly.
Fingers crossed that it will happen. Watch this space.
I spend a lot of my time howling the cosmic yawp into the blue beyond. It looks, to mortal eyes, like I’m making lunch and beating a deadline and running errands and remembering to put out the trash cans. But I assure you, a goodly portion of every day is given over to caterwauling (mostly in my inside voice but not always) on the WHY of everyday living. The WHY of how did we get here? The WHY of how can X be happening?
I’m old enough to know better. I am hitting that midpoint in life. I have successfully raised 4.9 kids (just 1 year left on #5). We have a retirement plan (sort of). We own our cars (not new ones, God, no!). We’ve traveled around the world a bit (more when single than together) and we’re not on our first marriage (to each other, yes. In total, no.).
So you can bet that I don’t believe in fairy tales, magick, the Virgin birth. I do, however, believe in Something. It’s just too random that my husband and I met when we were both at the nadir of our love lives. I find Something in the spectacle of my own resurrection after that hairy divorce when I was a shadow of my ex, a skeleton of who I was and had yet to become, up to now, when I feel fully fledged and mighty as Aphrodite on steroids.
I have worked as a journalist for some 30 years now, writing poetry and short stories and a novel or two between times, trying to write the one story that was true. Reaching for Hemingway’s One True Thing. I have almost had it once or twice. Missed it by *that* much.
I was talking with my very elderly Aunt Doris about four years ago, telling her about my new story idea. I want to do a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank,” but a fictionalized version. Tell that teen girl’s story in a different way. Be in her shoes. Tell it sideways. Something like that. I told my aunt this on the phone, knowing I would see her the next day, and she encouraged me, as she always did, with alacrity. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said. The next day I drove 70 miles to her house to see her, but she was gone. Still breathing, but the essence of her had slipped down, underwater, to where I couldn’t reach her anymore, and though I talked and talked to her, she wasn’t really there. We never spoke again.
So we held her memorial and sprinkled her ashes and cleaned her house, and my mother handed me a heavy old box of letters and journals. I took them home for later, feeling heavy myself, and wondering at the why, the how, the WTF of it all. We cleaned her house, and I brought home her desk, her martini glasses, her car. I slipped a ring onto my finger that had once adorned hers. I had her glasses remade with my prescription and one day opened that box. The diaries were there.
A few months later, I began typing up the diaries. I posted them on Twitter and Facebook, talked about it on the radio, made friends and followed trails back some 90 years. I’ve been working on this project for four years now; The Doris Diaries, her words, the diaries of a teen girl. Telling her story in a different way. I’ve slid into her shoes, a little sideways.
I’m not sure of the why. I only know that there’s truth here. I don’t know the right questions to ask, but the answers are somehow here anyway. It’s Something. Something I can’t explain.
I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. This is cause for alarm among you many literate people, but you needn’t think me unlettered. In high school I read Poe, Shakespeare, JD Salinger and Carson McCullers; lots of plays, many short stories, and certainly some fat summer beach reads, too (The Thorn Birds, Jaws, Roots, Shogun and Hotel, to name a few). In college I majored in journalism and had no cause for deep American reading, and no affinity for Southern lit, but I did read Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I went on to study early 20th-century British literature for my master’s degree, and drank my fill of Woolf, Joyce, and Orwell. I still read scads of early and mid-century Brit lit. It’s my crack. But I didn’t have Harper Lee on my radar for pleasure reading until now.
I’ll add a caveat to my preamble that I realize there is an issue with the release of Lee’s first draft/second book. I have read her biography and understand the nature of her friendship with Truman Capote, her anxiety about meeting people and the “sophomore slump” that often hits young, successful authors who feel unequal to producing as fine a work again. I also recognize that there are claims of elder abuse and mixed opinions about the role of Lee’s sister as protector or as censor. History will judge those who abused Lee’s trust, I’m sure.
With all that in mind, I set out to read Go Set a Watchman before reading TKAM, in hopes of seeing which felt the more true. GSAW was written first, as the earlier draft of TKAM, so they say, but her agent and editor did not think it would sell. Lee rewrote the story from the young Scout’s viewpoint and had a bestseller on her hands. She eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. That’s pretty heady stuff.
“For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” Isaiah 21:6
It is but a quirk of fate that in the past month, there was an assassination of nine African-Americans in Charleston, SC, and the Confederate flag has at last begun to come down. The #BlackLivesMatter and #Occupy campaigns have raised the African American issue in the media — and a new generation of activists are tired of waiting for justice and equality. As well, in the past few months I have been engaged in family history research and have been grappling with my own Alabama roots and heritage of slave-owning in my DNA. White privilege? Yes. So much yes.
* * *
I opened Go Set a Watchman with virgin eyes and no idea other than generalities on what to expect. And was — riveted.
Scout as a young woman — Jean Louise — is New York City-cynical, streetwise, on vacation to Maycomb, Alabama. Her brother is dead. Her beau, childhood friend Hank, is on hand to woo her back to small-town life. Attorney Atticus Finch, whom she calls by his first name, is her father, crippled by arthritis, a longtime widower living with his pushy Southern matron sister, Alexandra. Adult Jean Louise is a sexual being, pushing the boundaries of Southern small-town mores by behaving like the child Scout; a late-night swim with her beau creates a furor. She’s also enlightened, having crossed the border into Yankee territory and lived and worked alongside a rainbow of skin-tones. She returns to find Maycomb charmingly simple, the same as always, but smaller in size and in their way of thinking. The problem isn’t that home has changed; it’s that she has changed.
The era is the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement is underway, with integration and the like on the agenda. The whites of Maycomb don’t like it, and their “citizens’ committee” looks a lot like the KKK. The N-word is thrown around with vitriol and Jean Louise is alarmed — she thinks of herself as color-blind. There is an incident whereby a white neighbor is accidentally killed by the grandson of Calpurnia, Jean Louise’s African American surrogate mother — their housekeeper as she and Jem were growing up. When Jean Louise comes face to face with a grieving Calpurnia, the young woman knows everything is different, that black and white are not the same, at least not down in Maycomb. And when she discovers her father and fiance in a citizens’ committee meeting, she realizes her whole life has been a lie.
I will say no more about the plot — too much already, perhaps. But to turn to the Atticus problem: I am familiar with the figure of righteous Atticus waving his figurative sword at prejudice and racism, despite not having read TKAM or seeing the entire movie. He shows up as a cultural touchstone in films, books, essays and news articles. The Atticus I find in GSAW is an aging man of his era; he was steeped in racism in small-town Alabama from his youth, and whatever his personal beliefs, the tint of the standard philosophy is going to seep in. I read his protests to adult Scout as plausible — he’s at the meeting to keep an eye on things. He’s in the group but not of the group. Hank is there because he wants to succeed in small town life; it would be social suicide not to participate — plausible today but frankly, reprehensible. Atticus is a character with his own moral compass who’s dragging his feet into the new era; he is less obstructionist and certainly less vocal and violent about it than his sister or the neighbors. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? He’s a racist — but they all are. What I don’t follow is Dr. Jack Finch, Scout’s uncle (Atticus’s brother), teaching a brutal lesson fraught with bizarre classical literary references, to Jean Louise on hero-worship. That final episode seems overwrought and histrionic in the extreme. Dr. Finch is the oddball in the bunch, acting as Greek chorus to show Jean Louise her errors.
What is hard to read, especially in light of current events — and as I said above, I read a lot of novels from the early 20th century, weekly, in fact; I am used to seeing non-PC expressions like “nigger in the woodpile” or “worked like a nigger” in those dated texts — what strikes me as much harder to swallow is the infantilization of the African American race as a whole by the characters, including Jean Louise, that continues today. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people…They’re [the NAACP are] trying to wreck us,” Atticus says. While Jean Louise argues for a race’s humanity, all the characters accept the belief that the Negroes have miles to go before they sleep, even as the population is being oppressed and prevented from enjoying their civil rights (no wonder they have so far to go). I see this attitude still alive in the world today; African Americans are “that way,” are “like that,” fill in the blank as you wish. They are Different from white people, and don’t know better, and have to be protected from themselves (cue talking heads nattering about black-on-black violence instead of the centuries of causes for violence in a shell-shocked community). And the stratification endures.
As a text, as fiction, Lee’s work is stellar. Jean Louise is a thoughtful character, sympathetic and well drawn. The scenes where African American characters have agency are few and far between, despite a story that purports to have their interest at heart, but what is there is sharp and very keenly felt. Calpurnia calling Jean Louise “Miss Jean” for the first time upon the girl’s menarche, or Calpurnia’s silence when Jean Louise arrives to commiserate over the tragedy, speaks volumes about the strict racial divide. Hank’s unsuitability as a mate for Jean Louise, the class division of this same society, is portrayed in the subplot. Setting, language, dialogue, plot and characters are beautifully crafted for a first novel, and I am in awe of Lee’s youthful skills.
Where the book fails for me is the denouement, the confrontation between Scout and her father. I don’t think it works. The strange tutelage of Uncle Jack feels dropped in from another planet. I have trouble following his Red Queen logic, and so does Scout, for that matter. And I certainly don’t buy the neat reconciliation that ends with Jean Louise remembering not to bump her head on anything difficult in life, like racism in her town, or her beau’s KKK connection.
I have not yet cracked the spine of TKAM. I look forward to reviewing that story, and then, comparing and contrasting the two, side by side, as an author’s oeuvre and as documents of our national racist heritage.
Your thoughts? Tell me.
I’ve been on the hunt for a fountain pen. I had one around here somewhere, I swear, but of course it’s gone, like the rest of my mind when I want to find something. I am the proud owner of not just one, but two feather quills with filigree silver points, but I don’t exactly want that kind of ink experience.
Somewhere, back in the beyond, I once owned a Montblanc pen, not top of the line, but a fine instrument. And it has gone the way of all things I used to have: into the nevernever of my attic, lost in my old desk at work, left behind at the exhusband’s before we parted. Gone. I can be Zen; I have no attachment. Except — I want a fountain pen I can actually use.
I want to be like Jo March in Little Women, ink-stained fingers and passionate ideas flowing, the pen scritching across the parchment rapidly but not fast enough. Sometimes — despite my speed with a Biro or a laptop — only ink and paper will do.
I get a hankering for old things. For the old ways, with no electricity or internet. I have a manual coffee grinder and a washboard. A kerosene lamp and a cast iron pan. I have a manual typewriter, too, for such a time when — well, why would I need a typewriter after the apocalypse, anyway? Will Daryl and his zombie-hunters need to see something typed up in triplicate? I doubt it. But I have these fancies and so I indulge them.
Life would be split asunder without letters.
— Virginia Woolf
Lately I have been exploring the family crypts, as it were, old letters, lists and certificates, as I search for clues about how things were back when we owned slaves or pioneered in a new land, when we crouched in steerage for three weeks, sick and damp, arriving in Nova Scotia or New York with a cough and a dream. Copperplate handwriting was the norm, and it shows itself on every document, in every packet of letters.
I get a hankering for the old ways, want to put nib to paper and spiral out a lovely line of news to a distant relation: The weather has been fine, the corn is tall, and I had the best blackberry pie I’ve ever had last night. I want to fold my paper into thirds and crease it, seal the envelope with a kiss, stamp and send it on its way.
I am sending a piece of myself to you. My heart on paper, in your hand.
A letter for your thoughts.
As soon as my new pen arrives.