Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Eight
By Lynn Crawford
This morning, after trapeze practice, Rose and I sit on the library steps rehydrating with lemon water while taking in trees, sky, ducks, dogs, grass, birds and squirrels, as well as children on scooters, walking, running, and biking toward school, and teachers, administrators, and desk and building staff heading there too, carrying briefcases, duffels, or backpacks. Other adults make their way to offices or the train station, walk pets, wade into the ocean, venture into the forest or hills or, with climbing gear, up into the mountain.
Robert, our town’s visiting aquatic researcher, approaches in his wetsuit.
“We found something on the ocean floor,” he says, removing the bandana from his neck and squatting down to wipe up water droplets forming at his feet. Rose stands, enters the library, and returns carrying fresh cloths from the pile stacked behind the checkout desk.
He accepts one, dabs the remaining moisture, and repeats, “We found something on the ocean floor.”
Rose feigns a lack of interest.
She is never—from what I know—uninterested.
“For our Head Librarian Rose, whose eyes track any landscape like a high-end security camera,” announced Tom, our town mayor at the recent annual fest when presenting her (once again) with the Genuine Citizen Award.
We are lucky to have Rose,” he continued. “Sometimes I wonder if she might, now and then, turn her attention upward, take in astral knowledge, and be nourished, even exhilarated while, frankly, giving us earthly life-forms some privacy.”
He, and all of us in the small crowd, smiled, chuckled, and clapped.
He was right that Rose absorbs and scrutinizes surroundings, including us—her friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I understand that scrutiny is for study. It’s a training exercise, in the way trapeze work and reading are ways for her to, as she says, “stay supple.”
But our mayor’s point about possibilities between Rose and stars is solid. I worry about her lack of self-care and am touched that he does too. Astral attentiveness might activate different—needier—personal spots that she neglects.
Now, looking up at the sky, I’m hit with a familiar, unsettling jolt that comes with the possibility that it will someday be my forever home. Sometimes this makes me scared, other times I wonder how much longer I have to wait, and other times I crave self-harm—to a point when I cannot read, be consciously careful during trapeze practice, find myself leaning too far over Karl’s boat (if his back is turned) when we sail through shark-infested waters, or when, at the station, I count down to when I think the right moment might be to dive in front of the train.
After Tom’s speech that day there were hors d’oeuvres: a platter with a small bowl of sweet butter surrounded by circles of bread, and oblong trays of cheese, salami, pickles, halved radishes and jams fanning out. Robert, agitated, pulled me aside and whispered: “You’d think they’d have olive oil. We lost someone I loved very much to butter that was bacteria-infested. I no longer consume it. Olive oil is a safe replacement. And healthier. Did you know it has internal cleansing properties?”
I put my hand on his shoulder.
He looked down at the ground and said, “We must try harder. Humans, in general, must all just try harder.”
This morning, after drying himself off, he looks up, snaps his fingers, and says to Rose and me, “Don’t let me forget why I came to see you just now.”
Reaching into the bellows pocket attached to his wetsuit he pulls out a clear evidence bag containing a limp, misshapen object.
“We found this on the ocean floor. I am fairly certain it is my mother’s glove.”
We stand in silence.
After a moment he continues, “It is waterlogged but otherwise in good condition—no rips or decay, each finger slot is whole and in place. Ocean floors, in general these days, as you both know, are strewn with rags, sewage, chemicals, broken machinery, and toys. I found no evidence of any of that on yours. Zero. It is pristine. So what might this lone glove of my mother’s signal?”
Rose crosses her arms and looks down at the grass and up at the sky. Robert does the same. After a while he looks straight ahead, briefly taps his chest, and says, “Your reserve speaks volumes. This event provides evidence, but not enough for any kind of answer. There is always more gathering to do but equally, if not more important, we must consider ways to process and implement our findings.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
Botanist, professor, mother, scientist, activist, and enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is “to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge in support of our shared goals of environmental sustainability.”
Things: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Grove Press, 1967
Translated from the French by Helen Lane
[Les choses, 1965, Éditions Julliard]
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”
I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.
–Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Terror made me cruel
–Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Paris in the sixties was very menacing, a dark and troubled time, coming so soon after the war in Algeria.
Freud wrote “Mourning and Melancholia” in 1917, during World War I, while living in Vienna. The essay is a fascinating lens through which to read and consider Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Georges Perec’s novel, Things.
Freud argues that mourning is a finite state with the potential for healing, leading to some form of change. Melancholia, in contrast, lingers. Its persistence leads to detachment.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s (wonderfully hilarious) words quoted above are melancholic, expressing a dependence to be prolonged and even nourished, rather than healed.
Brontë’s words are, in contrast, mournful. The use of the word “terror” corrals the sentiment, houses it, transforming it into a discreet, mighty entity.
With Freud’s ideas in mind, Braiding Sweetgrass is a book of mourning; tracing tragedy, violence, loss, and growth through the planet’s abundant human and nonhuman life forms. It presents practical knowledge: “The history of the plants is inextricably tied up with the history of the people, with forces of destruction and creation” and concrete details on earth’s systems of self-repair: “When the dikes and dams were removed, the land did remember how to be a salt marsh. Water remembered how it was supposed to distribute itself through tiny drainage channels in the sediment. Insects remembered where they were supposed to lay their eggs.”
Things deftly expresses both conditions. The plot is melancholic, the language mournful. The two structures increasingly intertwine when Perec’s novel shifts from humor to menace. The aimlessness of his characters, Jerome and Sylvie, turns ominous with the reverberations of the Algerian War in their city.
To briefly summarize the event, as journalist Laurel Berger writes in her article, “How to Forget a Massacre” in 2019 for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
“In October 1961, the Paris prefect of police, Maurice Papon, effectively put every Algerian Muslim in the city under house arrest. Papon was a proficient colonial administrator and former Nazi collaborator who dispatched almost 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux to German death camps during the Occupation. (In 1998, he would be convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity by a French court.)”
In Perec’s novel, his characters’ response to the situation is anxious, uncertain, melancholic:
“But on all sides dangers lurked. They would have liked their story to be a story of happiness; but more often than not it was a tale of happiness under threat.”
The author’s tone becomes mournful:
“The events of 1961 and 1962 from the Algiers generals to the massacre at Charonne metro station—which heralded the end of the war, enabled them, temporarily but with uncommon effectiveness, to forget, or rather to suspend their habitual concerns.”
“The enemy was unseen. Or rather, the enemy was in them, it had rotted them, infected them, eaten them away.”
With this shift, Things becomes a novel raising serious questions. As Berger writes, “How should a country remember the dark history it would rather forget?”
Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:
Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)
Part Four, Possession (winter 2022)
Part Five, Forms of Engagement (spring 2022)
Part Six, Conversations (summer 2022)
Part Seven (fall 2022)
Part Eight (winter 2023)
Part Nine (spring 2023)
Part Ten (summer 2023)
Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.