A Narrative Autobiography
written for CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, Vol. 204
In his intermittent diary, Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, "The only value of a life is its content for others." The only justification, therefore, for the words which follow, is that in the process of recollection, I might discover a content that would serve to encourage others, and at the same time demonstrate the balm of creative endeavor.
A Child's Garden of Words
I lived my happy Southern California childhood in a middle-class neighborhood of boxy pastel stuccoed tract houses. My world consisted of summers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, Easter outfits complete with straw bonnet and white gloves, Sunday school with still-loved hymns, the sharp, eye-watering smell of Toni home permanents, the giddy joy of a new workbook in school, dusting and ironing lessons, but also ballet lessons, progressing to en pointe in pink satin shoes, the toes stuffed with lamb's wool, the elegant French names for the exercises at the barre, and underlying it all, a deep familial love. I felt the pure, childhood happiness of Robert Louis Stevenson's line, "The world is so full of a number of things/I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." The sentiment seems naïve now, yet at one time, it did characterize my life.
This was the fifties, and the most challenging thing for me was to try to guess the occupations of the guests on "What's My Line?" Since I didn't know what I wanted to be, not even whether I wanted to produce a product or provide a service, that show was my opening to life's possibilities. When pressed once for an answer from a grown-up, I announced, "I want to be Dorothy Killgallen."
My father, a tall, mild-mannered man who chuckled well and worked as a production manager in the aircraft industry, had a crippled arm, which we never spoke about. He always put it behind him when he ushered in church. He stood with dignity, and I admired him. I regret that I never asked whether it hurt much. Unable to engage in sports with my sister and me, twice a month he took us to the North Hollywood Public Library, a venerable building with creaking hardwood floor, the air scented with floor wax, old books, and the nearby eucalyptus trees.
There I met my first poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, that is to say, A Child's Garden of Verses. And thus began my love for the sounds of words, rhythm, imagery, and the notion that one could write a poem about anything. "How would you like to go up in a swing,/Up in the air so blue?" I read aloud while stretching out on the swing in our back yard. "Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/Ever a child can do!" I think that's how it went. There was a ditty about "a little shadow that goes in and out with me," which was accompanied by a drawing of a small boy holding a candle which created his shadow stretching across the floor and bending to go up the wall. Perhaps that was my first appreciation for the interplay between a visual stimulus and a thought shaped artistically in words. Or maybe that honor goes to Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, my copy having beautiful watercolors for each chapter.
Later came One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven." I went around the house saying "Nevermore," whenever a question called for a "no." I loved the dark poems, "Invictus," for example, and Walt Whitman's "Oh Captain! My Captain!" which I read aloud to myself in as deep a voice as I could muster and with a scowl of seriousness, not knowing that it was about Abraham Lincoln. That I can even now quote quite a bit of these poems attests to how deeply they made their mark. My parents must have been baffled. They weren't readers of poetry beyond Reader's Digest.
Next, Guy de Maupassant's stories fueled my fascination for the exotic. His Parisian settings with a generous sprinkling of rues and ponts enchanted me. Then came Perry Mason, and the first adult female who charmed me, Della Street. From that, a preposterous leap, Shakespeare. Whatever possessed me?
Why not the Nancy Drew mystery series that all the neighbor girls were devouring? My mother deftly steered me from Nancy Drew out of a desire to protect me from anything conceived as dangerous. Nancy Drew books involved crimes, right? And crimes involved cruelty.
Seeing that I cried at Bambi, my parents ought to have known that taking me to The Passion Play in Hollywood would be a big mistake. I screamed at the reality of the actors shouting "Crucify him!," the whipping, the spiky circle of thorns, the nails being pounded in, the thunder, the scary music, the cross being lifted with Jesus hanging there in his sack of skin, all of it bringing the Sunday school story to terrifying life. Sobbing, I had to be taken from the amphitheater, an embarrassment to my chastised parents.
I was a too-sensitive child, unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, prone to nightmares, gouged by cruelty. How many times my father had to come into my bedroom at night to reassure me with, "It's only a story," diminishing the power of narrative to be real--ironic now when I strive in my writing to achieve that verisimilitude which overwhelmed me as a child.
Restricting what I took in was an issue of family debate as late as junior high. The Diary of Anne Frank was a particularly contested movie. I must have won, though, because I remember the frightening two-tone Gestapo sirens. Gone with the Wind was out. Too bloody, which I can see now as a cover for "too passionate." West Side Story. Oh no, it had guns and knives. Hitchcock? Are you kidding? Even now, just the disembodied sounds of a violent movie heard from the next room are bothersome.
So how can a child like this gain an understanding of narrative conflict? No wonder the second story in Girl in Hyacinth Blue stops short of the family being marched down Scheldestraat on their inevitable journey to Auschwitz, and The Passion of Artemisia starts with the rape trial and not the rape.
But I leap ahead.
Despite my faint-heartedness, I was enthralled by my first reading of Macbeth in high school. I was the second witch in my drama class performance, gleefully putting an "eye of newt and toe of frog" into a cauldron to boil. I envied the girl who got to deliver the line, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him."
"What's gotten in to you?" my mother most likely said.
"The captivating magic of theater," should have been my answer.
A Man and A Woman
My mother's more placid love for visual art took root in me at a young age. She called colors by their fruit or flower names--tangerine, peach, apricot, lavender, lilac. She cherished the hand-painted china and portraits by her mother, the small, oil landscapes with thick impasto by her father. She made a place in our home for my step great-grandfather, Herbert Henry Smithers, not a blood relative at all, an Englishman who came to the United States to paint when he was eighteen years old. We lived surrounded by his work.
In North Hollywood my father built a studio for him behind our house, and I loved to smell the turpentine and watch the long brush in his hand stroking a cloud or dabbing at a tree in an Impressionist style. He gave me a watercolor set and taught me how to mix colors. With his gnarled fingers tipped by long yellowed fingernails grasping my hand, he guided our brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of real, textured watercolor paper. I believe that to be my first appreciation of graceful line and the liquid way one color can so subtly change into another.
When we moved to San Diego, Gramp Smithers lived in an old hotel downtown, the whole fourth floor smelling of turpentine, but at age eighty-six, he came to our house to die. It was 1958 and I was twelve. I moved out of my bedroom into a corner of the living room and waited. He was leisurely about it, did a little painting, sat propped up in my bed for six weeks, his fingers absently following the tulip shapes on my quilt.
The day he moved in was the same day Dr. Harriet Haskell, our Quaker neighbor, an English literature professor at San Diego State University, asked me to water her plants while she went on a trip. The timing of the two events was a divine coincidence the significance of which I didn't recognize for many years.
Miss Haskell, a tall, ungainly woman with large feet who wore oxfords and loose trousers, gave me a key, both figurative and literal, with which to open her house and the broader world it revealed to me. Two tract houses exactly alike, set down in reverse, but oh, the difference. I spent long afternoons looking at her art books, poetry books, Mexican pottery, weavings, artifacts, shocked at first by her pre-Columbian figures with private parts exaggerated. I pored over her globe, musing why one country was orange, another purple, ran my fingers over carved chests, opened what must have been Russian lacquered boxes, pulled books off the shelves--English Romantic poets, Canterbury Tales (I thought they'd be like fairy tales), careful not to leave tracks in the dust. I reveled in my snooping. If Henry James' advice to new writers was to try to "be a person upon whom nothing was lost," I suppose I started my training there. By the time Miss Haskell came home, my great-grandfather had died in my bed. "Death can be a rich experience," she said, a curious remark to make to a twelve-year old.
Thirty-six years later, that whole clandestine experience became one of my first published stories, "Crayon, 1955." When I was searching for a nursing facility for my mother a few years ago, I saw Harriet Haskell's name in a newsletter of a home for the elderly. Could it be the same person? I wrote her a letter, she wrote back, I visited her. It was a few days before Christmas. The first thing she said was that she had stayed up late the night before looking at the stars, "feeling unutterably close to them, to the universe, to Mystery." After a few moments, she murmured, "It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old."
I told her of the profound influence she, and her house, had had on me, and gave her a copy of the story. "One never knows the effect one has," she mused. "Perhaps it's best to remain in uncertainty, what Keats called negative capability, that state '...when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' Do you think so?" Me? She was asking me? She loved Keats' unexpected use of the word irritable. It gave me an awareness of the power of a single word to reach through centuries and touch a life.
When I was still in junior high, Miss Haskell had asked me, over the back fence where I was picking blackberries, what I wanted to major in, a phrase new to me. Boldly, I said, "I want to major in the Dewey Decimal System." Graciously, she did not laugh. In junior high I began working in the school library, a practice I kept through college. At the university library one of my duties was to sort books coming down a chute for reshelving. Oh, what an array of obscure topics I'd never dreamed had books about them! The world truly was "filled with a number of things."
"And gladly wolde she lerne and gladly teche"
Majoring in literature and minoring in library science, I slipped through college in the sixties in conservative San Diego without even seeing a demonstration, though I do remember where I was when I heard the news that President Kennedy was shot. In the library, of course. Word passed through the large reading room like a wave, and every building of the university emptied out, the students dumbfounded, in horror. The oversensitive child emerged again. The event did not make me an activist. The sixties and the Vietnam War drove me deeper into literature where All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch 22, and A Farewell to Arms forced me to confront the cruel side of human experience.
Ironically, these novels were among those I taught with relish when I became a public high school English teacher in San Diego. In my thirty years in the classroom, I loved to read aloud, and did so, I'm told, with a certain amount of flair, my favorite passages more recited than read. Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 expressed for me my feelings of inadequacy. "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...," I too desired "this man's art and that man's scope." I found that the sonnet reflected how some students in every class felt about themselves, and drew us into a healthy intimacy. Shakespeare's ending sestet gave them hope. "Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee, and then my state,/Like to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate:/For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
It wasn't difficult for adolescents to respond to such "sweet love remember'd." My seniors were ripe and romantic, on the cusp of a world opening like a rose or exploding into a temporary chaos, depending upon their temperament. They were good for me. I appreciated their willingness, their humor. One can't take oneself so seriously when one is surrounded by 175 teenagers a day, 180 days a year.
I chuckled at their shock when I read from Chaucer that the Wife of Bath used her "blessed instrument/As freely as [her] Maker hath it sent." I loved the gasps when I read, "If I be niggardly, God give me sorrow!/My husband he shall have it eve and morrow." In that moment a character in literature became real and human to them. Their imaginations were pricked alive, and they would never read in the same way as they had before. I exulted in their genuine sorrow at Horatio's farewell to Hamlet: "Good night sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
And as for their farewell to me, Byron's question, "If I should meet thee/After long years/How should I greet thee?" inevitably came into play. The poet answered it, "With silence and tears." On the last day before graduation one year, a boy recited Byron's lines altered for me, saying, "If I should meet me after long years, how should I greet thee? With thank-you's and cheers." And another student, feeling the exuberance of escape, parodied the first, saying, "With pretzels and beers." For thirty years, I felt keen pleasure in making literature live for young people. I do believe I miss it.
A Cultural Pilgrim
In 1971 I took my first of more than half a dozen trips to Europe, an educational tour guided by humanities professors using Kenneth Clark's opinionated and passionate book Civilisation as text. In his opening chapter he quotes John Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts--the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." Ruskin's declaration struck me as profound then, but it has proven to be personally meaningful in a far deeper way than what I could imagine standing there on Pont Neuf where I had made that pledge to myself that the art of this new world in the Old World would be my life companion.
The Egg and the Gauntlet
Concurrent with teaching in the 1980s, I began writing occasional features for newspapers and magazines on subjects of education, art, and cultural topics. Travel articles took me throughout the Southwest, and to Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, and the Himalayas, trekking in the Khumbu region below Mt. Everest, an extraordinary experience staying with a Sherpa family with the English mountain climber and guide, Alan Burgess. The height and awesome spectacle, the barrenness, the vast spaces, the humanness of my Sherpa hostess, Kanshi, renewed my desire to be a person upon whom nothing was lost.
"She is so thin and tired," Kanshi said, looking at me, and Al translated.
From her cast-iron skillet, she lifted a perfect, fluffy omelet with brown lace edging its pale yellow surface, balanced it across floorboards grimed with years of ash and yak dung, placed it safely over my half-eaten rice.
Eggs. Two of them. There were no chickens in Khumjung. We were at 12,400 feet. Hens would be snatched up by vultures, lammergeiers, eagles. In winter they'd freeze without heated hen houses, an impossibility here where every stick of wood is hauled on human backs and rationed for human warmth and cooking.
I imagined Kanshi carrying the eggs as she scaled the sixteen hundred-foot ridge separating Khumjung from Namche Bazaar, half a day's walk, the nearest place they could have been purchased. For the eggs to have gotten to Namche, they had to have been carried by traders from villages four or five days below. In the Khumbu, Al told me, if a friend has the flu, you don't bring her flowers. You bring her an egg.
Kanshi had carried them two at a time buried in fine sand in a pot wedged securely into the top of her load of yak butter, lentils, rice, powdered milk, sugar, and brick tea resting on her back. Two. And here, blanketing the rice in a perfect yellow circle on my plate, were all she had. Of all the meals ever served me, this was the finest, the most dearly wrought. I saw in that moment the soul of Buddhism--not "I am my sister's keeper," but "I am my sister."
The expanded recollection was published as "Dharma Sister," in Manoa, University of Hawai'i Press, 1997, and remains one of my favorite pieces.
My first novel, What Love Sees, came from my awe at the lives of the parents of a friend. Their blindness did not prevent them from leading independent, full lives. Astounding that they found each other and fell in love: Jean Treadway, from a wealthy, over-protective New England family; Forrest Holly, a poor rancher in a rural town east of San Diego. Astounding that Jean's parents let her go. Astounding that they raised four children, made use of a seeing eye bull to lead them, drove around their ranch in a rattletrap truck with the oldest boy sitting on Forrest's lap to see and steer. Together they met triumph and tragedy with equanimity.
"You should write their story," I told my friend Faith.
"You're the writer," she responded.
"I've never tried fiction, never written anything longer than an essay," I said.
"Can you write a chapter?"
The gauntlet was thrown, and I took it up. Four years later, in 1988, What Love Sees, a biographical novel, was published by a small mass-market paperback house which subsequently went out of business, though the book became a CBS television movie in 1996 starring Richard Thomas, Annabeth Gish, and Edward Herrmann. Now it's an ebook produced by RosettaBooks, which also makes available a print-on-demand version.
Through this project, I learned the basics of writing narrative, but it wasn't until I began writing short stories that I made the leap into pure fiction. Though I had been attending an occasional writing class at San Diego State University and UCSD, my real learning came when I joined the Asilomar Writers' Consortium, a serious fiction critique group. This was not one of those pat-ourselves-on-the-back hobbyist groups. Here was criticism I could depend on, a disciplined format of reading our work aloud without defending it, but listening to an ordered and insightful response by writers who had the best interest of the work at heart. Working with this group for a dozen years has provided a sound alternative for an academic program.
First Art-related Fiction
I also attended summer writers' conferences, most notably Bread Loaf in August 1996. Here in this high Vermont meadow had walked and talked and read every significant writer in America since Robert Frost inspired its inception in 1926. I felt I had climbed near heaven.
The experience led me to the short stories that eventually became Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
I have taken to heart Henry James' advice to new writers to "Try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost."
That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, can survive natural catastrophe, neglect, and even mistreatment, had always filled me with wonder. Sometimes in museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a finely wrought page from a medieval illuminated manuscript toiled over by a nameless monk, or a primitive tool with a carved handle, I am moved to tears. The unknown life of the maker is evanescent in its brevity, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains.
In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was once drawn to a small Phoenician glass medicine pitcher, pale yellow-green with a rounded belly and a long, curved snout of a spout. It was made in the second century. People rose in my imagination, as they did for Keats when contemplating the Grecian Urn--the mother of a sick child who let a few drops fall from the spout onto her child's tongue, and the glassblower who might have seen a similarly shaped animal the morning he made it. Was his community at peace or war? In want or plenty? Did he see the thing he made valued by others? Glass! Countless hands had held it. For it to have survived undamaged for eighteen hundred years moved me with awe and tenderness.
Likewise, paintings, especially those with people, affect me the same way and feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? What was their relationship? Did any urge for physical intimacy pass between them or was their coming together at this moment in time merely a business transaction? Was there a deeper aesthetic collaboration? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work? And for landscapes, what moved the artist so deeply that this particular place could serve as his illahee, the Chinook word meaning land that gives comfort?
Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-1996 Vermeer exhibition, I found tranquillity. His paintings of women in their homes caught in a reflective moment, and bathed in that lovely honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, reminded me of Wordsworth's line: "...with an eye made quiet by the power/of harmony and the deep power of joy,/We see into the life of things." In Vermeer I saw my same reverence for artifacts and items made by someone unknown to him. It seemed not far different from being a person upon whom nothing was lost. Vermeer, I believe, was a lover of the connotations and qualities of things in his own domestic life--the luminous variations of pale colors in a hand-dipped window-pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a red Turkish carpet, the strong lines of a golden pitcher, a hand-drawn wall map. These items seemed to be offered to me for narrative purposes.
Looking at many Dutch paintings--genre scenes, portraits, and landscapes--I felt a growing love for a people and a place I could call mine. By virtue of my Dutch name, all those brave Dutchmen fending off flood on their fragile, sunken land were my kinsmen. But those complaisant matrons admiring their jewels, married to ship captains trading in African souls were my kinswomen too. A girl Vermeer painted crouching on a swept Delft street with her orange skirt ballooning out behind her like a pumpkin could have been me in another age. I felt Dutch. These paintings showed me my heritage alive with vitality and history and the endurance of beauty. The cords of connection tightened.
Vermeer painted only thirty-five or thirty-six canvases. There could have been one more, I reasoned, which survived the ravages of time. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used and added objects of my own imagination--a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl's new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting--and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had an idea for a story.
Not having fully realized the painting in that first story, I wrote another, this time from the point of view of the painted girl dressed in a blue smock, in my mind, Vermeer's daughter who longed to paint. That would set the second story in the 1660s. They were to be a pair of stories set into a collection of stories about many artists, historic and fictional. My writing group prompted me further: "Nice stories, Susan, but there's a lot of time in between. Can't you do something with it?" The pair of stories became bookends to Girl in Hycinth Blue, a novel about people who lived their defining moments in the presence of a beautiful painting. It launched me into a new life. I am humbled with gratitude. I hope that by writing art-related fiction, I might bring readers who may not recognize the enriching and uplifting power of art to the realization that it can serve them as it has so richly served me.
With the world so full of a number of paintings, I think I could go on and on until I meet the artists face to face. Oh, I do think it's the pleasantest thing ever a writer can do.