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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Colorful Companions Along Life's Way

We haven't had fresh snow for a while, and what's left is looking pretty tired. More tired-looking still is all the bare, wet ground. There's a lot of brown in all directions. But it's possible to find color if you know where to look, and here along the creek in Northport, behind the library, the red twig dogwood and clusters of nightshade berries (aren't they") caught my eye this morning.

I'm going to make a long introduction to the book I want to focus on today, so bear with me.

The two stories that make up FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J. D. Salinger, were published in book form in 1961. “Franny” had been published in the "New Yorker" magazine in 1955, but somehow, child that I was, I missed its appearance; not until 1966 did that magazine take hold in my life and dreams. No, like so many others of my generation and in my part of the country, I came to Salinger in high school, by way of CATCHER IN THE RYE. Oh, that small paperback novel with the plain red cover! “Are you reading that dirty book?” someone would ask with a leer. Spirited defense would follow, of course. It was a cult but much more than that, too. For me it was an introduction to life in New York, to young people who called their parents by their first names, to a whole world of unbelievable sophistication. My midwestern brain reeled. I took to calling my own mother ‘Bessie’ for as long as she let me get away with it--and that wasn’t even her name.

Do you remember Franny Glass? Do you remember the book she was carrying when she and her boyfriend, Lane, were at the restaurant, the book that was related somehow (probably not causally, but not casually, either) to her nervous breakdown? It was THE WAY OF A PILGRIM, and when a paperback copy came my way recently, I couldn’t resist it. “A classic of the spiritual life,” the cover read, but my immediate reaction was, “It’s Franny’s book! That’s the book Franny Glass was reading!”

The pilgrim’s quest is to learn how to “pray without ceasing,” and in search of this knowledge he leaves his home to wander the countryside with a knapsack of dry bread and a Bible. Early on he has the good fortune to meet a man who becomes his teacher and confessor, leading him to the second book that will guide him on his way, a book on prayer by a variety of sainted church fathers. Sometimes when he stops with people for a while, but most of the time he stays away from main roads and villages, “that I might be more by myself and read more quietly.”

I was disappointed once. That was when a little dog ran to him in the woods, and I expected the dog to accompany him from then on. Didn’t happen. Still, the little pilgrim himself is a good companion, very good in a surgical waiting room, as it is a calming story. Hardly kosher, of course. Is that what bothered Franny’s brother Zooey? I can’t remember, and now I need to re-read Salinger. Say, maybe that will make me feel 18 again!

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