Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Twelve
By Lynn Crawford
It’s an overcast late afternoon. Rose and I stand in front of the library looking at a bird perched on the lowest branch of a tree. Neither of us recognize the species, possibly because of our distance, the waning light, or that combination. We walk down the hill toward the ocean and stand just behind the throne-like chair made of driftwood that suddenly appeared several years ago. Forever it was not there and then one morning it was and now we cannot imagine our seafront without it. Deep-seated, high-backed, functional for holding several humans, although people mostly use it to put things on—a towel, book, pet, thermos, jacket, or tube of sunscreen.
The sun begins setting. Rose returns to the library. Robert steps out of the water, walks toward a standard bench where he removes his wetsuit, picks up the folded towel waiting for him, dries himself off, pulls on the terrycloth jumpsuit that also waits for him, and says, “As a scientist I play multiple roles and the longer I do it the more joy each brings. Joy might be the wrong word. Maybe fulfillment is more accurate. In any case I do not garner most of the funding myself for our ocean investigative work, but it is crucial that I am, to a certain degree, involved in the process.
Rose reappears, carrying a coffee thermos on a tray with three stacked cups, a creamer, a striped plate holding small confections, and says, “A bit of sustenance from our café. I did not bring sugar since these pastries are sweet. Just sip the coffee after you bite into one and that should be enough. Make sure not to burn your mouth and to chew thoroughly.”
Robert nods, accepts the coffee, declines the sweet, and elaborates on his role in securing financial backing. While it is not his primary job, he is, at times, bound to do it and in those cases, his personal, so far effective, strategy stems from a line he overheard as a young boy on a train: Hamlet is confused, Oedipus is not.
“That’s it,” he says. “That’s my approach to fundraising. Each time I do it, I start with determining if my ask requires presenting myself as needy (Hamlet), fueled with steely determination (Oedipus), or some version of both. Of course, I did not come to know either dramatic work until years after I heard ‘Hamlet is confused, Oedipus is not,’ but a powerful line can permeate even before you absorb its meaning.”
Sometime during our exchange, the bird re-appears. This time, perched on the back of a folded-up beach chair. Rose asks Robert if he knows its species and after pulling out a mini scope with light attached and examining it, he says, “No.”
The sun is nearly gone. Rose carries the tray holding the empty cups and thermos as we walk up the hill, say goodbye and head to our separate evening spaces.
Robert (Aquatic Researcher) Town Address:
“Greetings Good People,
I begin this late afternoon with a personal story so that you can get a sense of where I, your hired help, as they say, am coming from.
My youth was spent waving swords, or riding rugs, toys, and beasts, while decimating acts of evil. Yellow was my favorite color. Yellow was sun, picnics, kicking and throwing balls, swimming, saffron, citrus ice, daffodils, my mother’s gold earrings, sandals, bracelets, and neck chains.
Once, during a visit to the sea, my father read to us from his well-thumbed paperback, and I was caught by this passage:
A golden fork lying in the sun on a smooth spread of pale-yellow silk.1
The words took my breath away, and my love for yellow, to a higher sphere. The sentence seemed to be me, or at least a portrait of who and what I yearned to become. Nothing I’d ever hoped for seemed so right, so glorious. From then on, when frightened or in doubt, I chanted, “fork,” while imagining myself as the utensil; flat, swathed in silk, beneath the sun.
When I learned the line came from a novel, Bend Sinister, and it was by an author with a consonant-heavy name—Vladimir Nabokov—I knew that I could find the words anytime in a library, in fact in our home library, inside my father’s book, nestled on its shelf, and the words would be mine to see, to say, to never let go.
A few years after I learned of Bend Sinister, our region experienced extended spells of heat and dryness. With them came parched throats, burned skin, emaciated birds and livestock, low lakes, poor crops, barren rivers, and raging wildfires.
Bile, deep, bubbling toward yellow, toward anything yellow, especially the sun (not doing its job!) seeped into and then infiltrated my system.
Yes, it did.
Even though I knew, without doubt, my resentment was baseless.
Predictably, much with me went wrong, fast.
I won’t dwell there now.
But I did, at some point, rewire. It began with doodling, and those marks became shapes and then figures and then portraits; multi-generational families wearing protective body gear, forced to leave their homes because of excessive heat and to relocate into caves with dirt floors, packed with mushrooms and onions and turnips, and bubbling water sources filled with fish and edible algae, and as I drew these scenes the nuggets of rot that had invaded my system softened, and slowly, steadily seeped out.
The purge shifted my focus to a memory, from years ago, when our parents took my siblings and me to the theatre and I did not understand but enjoyed the play and it had a line I was deeply moved by and even whispered before I fell asleep each night for years and had since (so I thought) forgotten, but it reappeared, just when most needed. Here it is:
There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow, we missed it.2
So many times in the past I missed it only to chastise myself after.
I teared up with gratitude for those words, words that had meant so much when I first heard them but had not thought of for-nearly-ever, yet they did in fact stay with me and all this time later allow me to love all things yellow and focus on needs, beginning with preparations for drought. Remember: We’re better together!
That’s it for today. Thank you, and be well. Here’s to our tomorrow!”
The audience claps. Karl, who stood with his arm around me during Robert’s address, kisses the side of my face as we turn and walk to my home in the trees. We tend not to discuss lectures we’ve listened to in the evening since we have so many other things to share and since we both internalize thoughts best after an extended, deep embrace.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
Robert Macfarlane’s books include Mountains of the Mind, The Old Ways, Landmarks, and, with Jackie Morris, The Lost Words. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge.
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
By Georges Perec
Edited and translated by John Sturrock
Penguin Books Ltd, 1998
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.”
1. A body is smaller than the thought.
–Clarice Lispector, An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures
2. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace—and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.
–Robert MacFarlane, Underworld
3. To write: To try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.
–Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
- Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (New York: Henry Hold & Co., 1947) p 86
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1966
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)
Part Eleven (fall 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.