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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who comes when you call yourself?





Last Sunday night I found myself standing in front of the washing machine, chucking in the laundry as I sorted it, with the most peculiar existential question on my lips.  Who was I as I did this?  How old was I?  That last question was particularly noisy:  after a full day's work finishing Howards End for my honours/graduate class and responding to my honours and graduate students' research paper proposals, I had come home from the university, peeled carrots and parsnips, washed potatoes, and tucked them into my clay baker with a fresh chicken; then I had promptly gone downstairs to start the laundry.  (Lest anyone wonder where Bill is in all this, he'd cleaned the house earlier in the day.  We divide up the chores pretty equally.  Makes for a happy household.)  I don't like doing the laundry on Sunday night.  It makes me feel disorganized.  It makes me feel, if you must know, like I am fourteen and my mother still has to remind me to do things before I leave them until it's too late.  Also, my birthday is this month, so I'm all too aware that I am turning sixty-three, but those fourteen-year-old feelings wouldn't leave me alone.  Yet that was the easy question, the question that caused a dis-ease easier to describe.  Really, who was this person standing here?  It reminded me of the end of Woolf's Orlando where Orlando wonders who will come when she calls:

"Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, 'Orlando?'  For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not--Heaven help us--all having lodgement at one time or another in the human spirit?  Some say two thousand and fifty-two.  So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one's name) meaning by that, Come, come!  I'm sick to death of this particular self.  I want another.  Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends.  But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando?  still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selfes of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine--and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his didfferent selves have made with him--and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all"  (293-4).

You can imagine me, one hand on the top of the washing machine, one hand chucking stuff inside, suddenly stopping and calling, first, for the literary reference.  And then for myself.  Perhaps the call came from exhaustion, both physical and mental.  "Why can't one work 16/7 (with eight hours for sleep)?" I have often asked myself, never getting an answer but only the rather matter-of-fact "Well, one can't.  One's brain turns to soapsuds.  And one's self goes missing."

Perhaps it was the snow.  Chicken in oven and laundry in washer, I sat down to read David Bergen's The Age of Hope.  Looking out the window, I saw one of those mid-winter days when the world is nearly obscured by fluffy, floating snow almost suspended, draping the world in its curtain, obscuring it.  Such days can be almost cozy in December, an excuse to stay home and huddle under a quilt with cats.  But such days are out of place in March.  The day before, we had a nice man named Rob take down our back fence and bring in his bobcat and haul off the snow that would have ended in our basement when it melted.  We didn't need more snow.  But more than the frustration with snow that many people have called "relentless," was the sense that the light was wrong.  I was waiting for a late dinner, reading and watching the snow, and the blue hour was just coming down.   

Perhaps it was reading David Bergen's novel.  I realized that he was setting himself an important and intriguing problem in his attempt to represent the point of view of a housewife born in 1930s Manitoba, deep in Mennonite territory.  But the novel was dissatisfying in a couple of ways.  First, the more interesting moments in Hope's life (this is not a plot-driven novel) recall more successful works like Plath's The Bell Jar, or Doris Lessing's short story "To Room Nineteen" or even The Golden Notebook.  The territory of the woman who finds herself wanting more than what society has given her has been convincingly examined by other writers.  I'm not alone in this; Mark Sampson, writing in Quill and Quire writes  "Bergen channels Alice Munro, or perhaps Carol Shields, in trying to write a slow-boiling domestic novel with a political undercurrent. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything particularly new or inspired in The Age of Hope. Yes, things happen: Hope has a nervous breakdown and spends time in a mental hospital; her husband Roy’s car dealership fails and bankrupts the family; their son Conner marries a shrew who eventually leaves him; Penny falls in with a religious cult. But the book’s underlying themes have been presented before – and more skilfully – in countless other works."

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