Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Seven
By Lynn Crawford
If you climb the ladder up and into the front entrance of my tree home you will see floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a few paintings propped up against them (partially covering books closer to the floor), snapshots and squares of embroidery in front of some of the upper-shelf volumes, and a freestanding rack in the middle of the room holding a keyboard and flute.
The left wall, I think I mentioned, is mostly a window through which you see trees. Two ceramic urns Karl managed to get in with pulleys and ladders, stand in front of it.
This home is not, for me, a soothing setting. Living with so many books and trees brings on anxiety and elation.
When I say anxiety I don’t mean something necessarily bad. I mean clogged forces. My job is to identify, organize, and—when practical—open channels for their release.
A few weeks ago, on a night train, I took a seat with a magazine someone left on it and read a story on the benefits of regular dips into icy water because it “opens up conduits for blood flow.” This is an example of how I understand releasing clogged forces and it is precisely what Rose and I achieve during trapeze sessions and seated breathwork. But trapeze practice and ice baths and breathwork are not applicable for every person and condition.
Robert, the scientist now heading our town’s Aquatic Research Center, loves talking about how his mother took him to the ocean on cold days for walks up and down their beaches, and how the two of them stood looking at waves and how more than once she told him a dear friend of hers said, “the ocean is a thinking substance”1 and that she knew he was wrong to conflate human psyche with a sea but could never bring herself to say it.
Robert has more stories about his childhood. Karl and I hear some of them, including this one he relayed on a late afternoon, after a particularly windy sail. The three of us sat on the boat deck, drinking coffee Karl made on his burner.
Young Robert, an avid reader, tried to find a story he could place his father in. Maybe one about a soldier starving to death in a hospital or on an ice floe, or who took a lethal bullet or stab to his heart on a battlefield. Maybe he was alive, in a prison or cave or forest.
Robert never asked his mother about him, but on his 15th birthday she laid a table with a small roasted chicken, and after the meal but before cake, said, “Happy Birthday son. Now that you are well into double digits, it is time for your story. I am forgetting so much about that war. Do you know that a newly soft-boiled egg or a piping hot spoonful of porridge, properly aimed and launched, can blind an attacker?”
The next day when Robert came home from school, she put her hands on both sides of his face and said, “It’s time.”
There was war in her city. She (Nathalie) and another young woman (Christine), both in their late teens, met just as fighting was escalating. Their houses were bombed, their parents and siblings killed, and the two young women, along with others, relocated to an underground tube station for safety.
It was terrifying, although they were temporarily, pleasingly, distracted when people brought in gramophone records to play music and there were performances by actors and dancers and buskers.
Living with so many people in un-demarcated space blurred fixed distinctions between public and private, between mine and yours. And it was stuffy, dark, unclean. While there were many pleasant moments, the space radiated forthcoming disaster, which happened when enemy soldiers invaded, assaulted the women, and left.
As a result of that attack several women became pregnant.
Before giving birth, they had terrible dreams. Some made plans to find a church to leave a baby in (though, in reality, none were safe) or to surreptitiously toss one off of a dock into the ocean, giving it a life with fish, or just ignoring it as if it were a doll or table. But as the women spoke, they bonded. And planned. And agreed to have the babies and swap them with one another as a small gesture of separating the births from their cruel origin.
After that agreement there were more bombings and some of those soon to be new mothers were killed.
But two—Nathalie and Christine—were not. They became close friends; felt for one another, relied on one another, shared a floor mattress, gave birth three days apart, and when the time came, exchanged babies.
Christine met and married a singer and music professor who accepted a position in another country and over time the two women lost touch.
Nathalie, who took Robert, nursed a sick soldier who she fell in love with and married. The three lived happily until he, a doctor, had to go off to another war and was killed.
For years Robert listened to versions of this story. He tried, but could not develop, a picture of his birth mother, the woman named Christine. Maybe because he did not want to. He very much loved the mother he had, who told him stories about Christine. She had a wide-ranged singing voice, ran fast, and loved blueberries. Once, a visitor bought a bushel of them into the tube station and she ate so many her teeth turned purple for two days. She loved, and spent hours swimming in, the ocean. Before the war she had two beloved pets—a cat and dog—that got along beautifully.
Robert absorbed what he could, but none of this helped him sense her. Until years later when he encountered this line: “I remember her eyelashes, her bulky gloves, and, once she removes them, all of the rings on her fingers.”2
The words dislodged some kind of festering particle in him, allowing something of her to pass on through to him.
1. Andrei Tarkovsky
2. Vladimir Nabokov
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.”
The line, “What is stronger in us—passion or habit,” from Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 story, “The Old World Landowners,” is a notion to keep in mind while reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book of science, nature, and history, Braiding Sweetgrass, and Georges Perec’s novel, Things.
And, while reading them, I keep returning to the question: When does excitement or even comfort turn into a careless act that develops into concrete patterns of apathy and harm?
A cornerstone of Kimmerer’s book is the concept of “Honorable Harvest,” which she describes as “the canon of indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life, ‘rules’ of sorts that govern our taking. The practice, both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth.”
Its violations have been devastating to human and non-human life forms. The author continues, “The Honorable Harvest protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this”:
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Take only what you need and leave some for others.
Use everything that you take.
Take only that which is given to you.
Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
Reciprocate the gift.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
While Braiding Sweetgrass is about respectful exchange between people and earth, Things portrays exchange between humans and the social, material, and linguistic worlds they navigate. In a conversation published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Perec described his novel as exploring “not people but relationships”—or, in fact, their paucity. The couple in his novel lack meaningful associations and find themselves adrift in a kind of malaise fog.
Things was published in 1965. Two years later, in 1967, Perec would join the French group, Oulipo, “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle,” translated as the Workshop for the Potential of Literature, which began in Paris in 1960. He was a key participant until his death from cancer in 1982.
The Oulipo proposed incorporating literary and mathematical structures, games, and exercises into writing. Its founders were Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Queneau described their circle: “We are rats who build the labyrinth from which we plan to escape.”
The French word “ouvroir” is a masculine noun with origins in the words “work room” and “sewing room.” It references humans, being and making together.
Not individually racing—or competing—to solve or invent.
Perec wrote his novel before joining (or, to my knowledge, being aware of) the Oulipo, yet his characters Jerome and Sylvie function within a self-imposed labyrinth, as habit rather than concerted decision, so do not recognize a need for escape.
For much of the book, their level of dis-ease is portrayed with dry humor, but later takes a chilling turn, when Perec introduces war into their lives; specifically, the Algerian War, which in effect came to Paris in 1961 when thousands were arrested, hundreds were beaten and some died, many killed in gruesome ways or disposed of with casual contempt.
Perec introduces the event with a series of passages, including this one, worth quoting at length:
“Yet it was the war in Algeria and the war alone which for almost two years protected them from themselves. (1961-2) After all, they might have aged less well, or less slowly. But it was not by their own decisions, nor acts of their own volition… The events of 1961 and 1962—from Algiers generals’ putsch 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.”
There is a lot to unpack here, and in future installments we will. But for now, consider how Perec does not equip Jerome and Sylvie with any tools to address or process the events; instead, they isolate, turning it into something about themselves, wherein they “suspend their habitual concerns.”
It makes sense that this couple, separated from so much of the world they dwell in, would not feel any connection to the devastation—their alienation assumes a menacing tone.
I also think of the way writer, philosopher, and poet, Édouard Glissant, in his Poetics of Relation, echoes these principles so closely, as he writes:
“We are not prompted solely by the defining of our identities but by their relation to everything possible as well, the mutual mutations generated by this interplay of relations.”
Both Things and Braiding Sweetgrass convey that relationships, and their ‘mutual mutations,’ require acknowledgement and tending to; otherwise, they wither.
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)
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.