It’s another bright, bright early summer day in Northport, and it was a bright morning at home, too. “You look a little like a crazy lady,” David observed, “in your robe and baseball cap.” There was, as he knew there must be, a reason. For the past two nights and mornings, a migraine has been lying in ambush, ready to leap upon me, and in order not to fall prey I’ve been more mindful of staying hydrated, not getting too hungry and not looking into bright light. Besides the baseball cap, I also wore sunglasses out to the garden and watered from the east side instead of facing into the morning sun. My gardens are mostly green this time of year, with no ripe vegetables in the kitchen garden and lots of weeds in the perennial beds. Thank heaven for iris and true geranium this time of year!
I have now reached page 566 of A Suitable Boy. Its characters’ lives are as engrossing as those of a soap opera—more so, as we have access to their inner thoughts and struggles as well as their behaviors. For instance, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, a widow with four grown children (two married), looks at a photograph of her dead husband every night before going to sleep, and every morning she recites some verses from the Gita, beginning her day by reading about indestructible presence, unchanging reality.
But it was not the all-pervading essence of reality that clutched at Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s consciousness but the loved particularities that she had lost or that were losable. What body was her husband in now? If he was born again in human form—would she even recognize him if he passed by her in the street? What did it mean when they said of the sacrament of marriage that they would be bound together for seven lives? If they had no memory of who they had been, what use was such knowledge? For all she knew, this last marriage might have been her seventh one. Emotion made her literal; she longed for tangible assurance. The soothing Sanskrit of the small, green, cloth-bound volume passed through her lips, but, while it gave her peace—tears rarely came to her eyes while she was reciting the Gita—it answered none of her questions. And while ancient wisdom so often proved unconsoling, photography, that cruel modern art, helped to ensure that even the image of her husband’s face would not grow dim with time.
Vikram Seth’s book is so long that I have no fear of finishing it too soon. Anne-Marie Oomen’s An American Map is the one I’m trying to make last a long time. The accounts in this volume of memoir, which includes many travels to far-off places, are held in place by what Oomen calls “the iron stake of story and the stone of memory.” It is a book to savor slowly, over time, in quiet pockets of meditative bliss. The evening before Memorial Day (I’ve been skipping around in the book, which it generously allows) I read the essay entitled “Where Angels Are,” the story of a hiking trip the author and her husband made in the Great Smoky Mountains in March of 2003, just as American forces were going into Iraq. Wanting to see innocence--perhaps the grandmother looked out this slit in the dark cabin wall for the arrival of company?--she learns of a history of suspicion and fear:
David sighs, touches my shoulder. “The granny hole is the right height to kneel, aim a rifle, and shoot something without being seen.”
As in so many of these essays, Oomen identifies a feeling I have had, too, when national and world events coincide with personal life and become welded in memory.
If angels are here, then this park, this American place, this American concept—land held in peace for the pleasure of its people—this natural beauty and light, is now forever linked to the more terrible angel rushing forward in a cascade of the thing we call war.
For better or worse, we are all touched by events elsewhere in the world, though many of them never reach our immediate knowledge.
The book I should be reading but haven’t had a chance to start yet is Sydney Eddison’s Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older. If someone else beats me to the copy on my new book shelves, though, that’s all right, because I’ll just re-order—which is exactly what I need to do this morning with An American Map. Excuse me, please....