There is a tree at the heart of our house. A live oak reaching up in three directions, waist-thick master branches rough & mossy. I imagined it as mine the moment I saw it. The house would belong to all. The tree to me. From beneath it, I can see into each room. I don't look up often enough. I look around, from window to window, at my family, my house alive & secure. A life-size diorama I'm growing old in. Every few years the tree gets trimmed, sometimes as much as a third of it gets sawn off, mulched, & driven away. The dust settles bright & aromatic, a sandy pattern within the ridges of the roots. The canopy lifted, the shade dappled anew. And my tree bounces back, quickly dense again with leaves, stretching up imperceptibly, inch by delicate inch over the chimney, over me. I sit, book & wine at hand. Breathing deep & waiting to be called back inside, back home.
I’ve seen Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française popping up on my Twitter feed for a long time. The colorized cover photo, which originally I thought was a little sentimental, turns out to be precise & appropriate. Though it’s got a cast of dozens, the heart of the novel is the drama of a man & a woman in a time we think we know well (WWII). The photo shows a man & woman of a certain age … no longer young, but still full of vigor & life & possibility, and in this case, full of uncertainty. They’re united but looking in different directions; I’d say that they’re in an embrace, except for the fact that each of them has a hand free.
It’s that kind of novel. One of uncertainties during a time of turmoil in Europe, here, in occupied France in 1940 & 1941. Nemirovsky, a Jewish novelist living in Paris, begins Suite Française with a kaleidoscopic energy. The Germans have moved from air bombing France and are marching on it, swiftly and successfully.
The opening part of the two-part novel focuses on several different families & citizens fleeing Paris with what little they have, with what little they can not bear to leave behind. Their fates are as varied and as shocking as … well, the fates of refugees in a time of war. Nemirovsky makes these continental events domestic & interpersonal — the wounds & kindnesses, the good luck & the bad fortune. The struggle for shelter & bread, for petrol & a shave.
The second part of the two-part novel focuses on a single occupied village, tracking the uneasy routines that emerge over months. Soldiers billeted in private homes; French officials compelled to (& enjoying the safety) of collaborating with the occupying German forces; children & survivors of the Great War dazzled openly & quietly (respectively) by the precision & strength of the Germans. And finally the women, performing obedience and politeness, while meditating in interior monologues about the beauty and natural novelty of young men in the village — their village’s men having left for war months and months earlier. Nemirovsky centers the drama of part two on the newlywed Bruno (a German officer skilled at music and eager to make the occupation civilized) and the newlywed Lucile (a girl from the forests waiting for a husband that doesn’t love her to return, enamored with the walks & talks, the talent & promise of Bruno).
Nemirovsky meant for this to be a five-part series. She was arrested in 1942 “and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.” As a result, the novel ends with an unintended verisimilitude — none of the characters know and the author cannot hint at what is in store for these characters, for their way of life on part two’s last pages, set in July 1942 as the Germans leave the village for the Russian front.
I have heard great things about Betty Smith’s autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all my life—the book and the movie. I finally got around to this readable, accessible, emotionally & historically nimble story.
To say that it’s a coming of age story is accurate, to a point, as accurate as it is to say that it’s a family story or a bootstraps story or a … well, we’d call it historical fiction now, but it was written originally with the psychological & emotional precision that the best stories have.
Betty Smith shapes the protagonist Francie & her family through the lens of what Toni Morrison once called Homeric fairness. That is, it is a story told bravely & honestly, a growing up ennobled & complicated by surprising empathy & honesty. Francie endures the fact that she is less loved by her mother than her brother is — but Smith depicts the mother chides her disarmingly to the effect of, “Oh, honey, don’t make a fuss — you know that he needs my love & support more than you do.” And you believe the mother. Francie bristles at the indignities & consequences of her father’s drunkenness — but Smith also centers the father’s love & struggles, his talent & tragedy.
I could go on. There’s no single antagonist, no enemy (unless it is poverty). There is instead the ambiguities of life & the everyday heroism of love & hard work, the gentle daily blessings that get people through the persistent daily burdens & losses.
It is a beautiful & hopeful book, made all the more beautiful by the direct style (which has moving flourishes & shifts in POV) and made all the more hopeful by the realization that we are not alone, or at least not alone for long.
Every few summers right before the kids return, the cones & ropes come out directing traffic somewhere else. There's a potbellied trailer spattered & smoking, surrounded by men in fluorescent vests & tarred steel toed boots. The asphalt goes down thick & clean, the oily heat rainbowing & distorting the new view. Then a slower process, stencils & block letters, striping & labeling: students & faculty, visitors & diagonally reserved spots we hope never to need, a reminder of the everyday horrors that happen somewhere else.
Years later the colors return to the earth, as we all must. Cracked & bubbled, a broad mottled stripe thrown into relief by sun & time. The lines, faded & crumbling, can still keep us safe. We remember where we belong.
On April 27, I sent my students outside with their phones to return with photos of different colors. This is inspired by a color I found.
Along with the usual noises (washing machines, wind chimes), this house has other voices. Scratches, creaks, murmurs, all times, all corners of the house. Like a conductor tapping a baton, a critter's feet ticks out a path across the roof, lighting upon the shingles faintly. Beneath the deck, deep in the shrubs, a bit of digital-ish noise beeps & chirps, then drops out, an abrupt small wild world alive, persistent -- but each time I approach, silent, just out of reach.
which is to say in the darkest of hours there's a flickering, an easily snuffed light. You can lift it, you can move it, but you must protect it. A hope chest holds soft elegance, handstitched care for the body & the bed. A hope candle can last if you're careful & still. Keep it close. Keep it dry. Watch hope dance then stand to reveal dangers, to ennoble wide eyes. Windowed, mirrored, it even grows. Hope throws big shadows, darkening what's behind. So look ahead, look close. And hold your breath.
The light comes before the rumble. The longer the gap between them, the further the storm from you. The first flash woke me. For once, my wife slept through it all. I lay alone with the sound and light, watching, listening, and counting. Light, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, then a rumbling menace above the roof. Windows rattled, the dog burrowing between us. In the next flash, a silhouette, a child midstride, framed by the illumined window. He climbed through the thunder into the flannel & heat a safe dry place between father, mother, and dog. The sound got as close as the light. It rained till morning.
Written in response to this writing challenge.
There’s a rusty chair left over from your grandparents in law, one the squirrels haven’t yet torn to shreds. Pull it from the corner of the yard and right to the center, the pollen crunching under your feet. There’s a neighbor behind you, his garage door open. Music is playing. Something is being fixed or installed. Push that from your focus, and avoid being annoyed by his perpetual busy suburban nesting. There’s a deck before you, decades old, creaking & buckled from rain & sun, boards warped & bleached, nails reaching upward. Some slats mossed over fold beneath the lightest of footsteps. Give thanks for the long years this space has given you, and avoid being annoyed at this crumbling hazard. There’s a vista before you, a roof that’s never leaked, a tree above it, right at the center of this part of your life. Cross your legs. Palm the glass of wine. Watch for mosquitos. And look up. There are clouds & birds, branches & wind. It’s all starting again. It always will.
Written in response to this challenge.
There’s a place for your hands And another for your feet. You look. You breathe. You count. You play. It’s just as responsive as you would hope wood would be. Eventually you learn to play with your whole body like you’re gently blessing the music into the keys, your elbows nudging, your wrists pliant, your fingers curved and lifting, a fragrant sheet caught on a line.
These days my mornings begin outside with the sun in my face. Texas makes this difficult most days what with heat and mosquitos. But it’s a habit now -- a tan line on my nose where my glasses sit. “Here’s another day,” I think. And here too am I. Thank God.
This is another tanka poem. Sorta.