I Think My Neighbours Have All Moved Away

Or maybe the sub-prime mortgage crisis has struck my street. (I’ve heard that the ridiculous mortgage terms many Americans accepted, but have had to walk away from by the thousands, were called by bankers “neutron mortgages”: when they blew up, the houses were still standing but the people were all gone.) Or maybe they’re dead. I never hear my neighbours, the ones on either side and in the three houses behind ours in this little pod of nearly-identical town homes.

Yes, I don’t know many of my neighbours, though I could navigate in the dark through every second floor plan of these cloned domiciles. (Reminds me: paint the garage door! Distinction!) On one side of us, I know Marie-Hélène is away – doing some mighty service work in Africa this summer – and Jean and Linda to the west spend most of July and August at the cottage. But if it weren’t for the Sodhi family, two doors over, right now we wouldn’t really know any of the folks in our in-fill housing development. Having grown up on a leafy small-town square, this is something I never quite get used to. It may be time for us to try a neighbourhood drop-in again. I do have loner tendencies, but I like to know my neighbours.

It’s a quiet contemporary disease. We build neighbourhoods with no front porches, houses that often look like gigantic additions to the primary home — the one for the CAR. Ever noticed? In most new houses, the garage is the most obvious feature and one of the main selling points. We love our cars, and most of us drive them absolutely everywhere. (Even in the “good old days”, my Dad drove his Mercury every day to his office a block away. Mind you, he did have an artificial leg.) And the other night, another factor in our progressive isolation from each other, even in cities and ‘burbs, became apparent to me.

I was reading. More specifically, I was reading aloud. Really loud. It was Chapter Five of The Hobbit. I’d been promising this classic tale to my son Sam for awhile – his brothers had all had the treatment when they were younger – and we began in August. (Bonus points, an elvish blade and a cosy nap by a peat fire if you knew that Chapter Five is the wonderful “Riddles in the Dark” section, in which Bilbo meets his — and eventually Frodo’s — nemesis, Gollum.

“Curse it! Curse it! Curse it! Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses?…My birthday present! How did we lose it, my precious?…But we dursn’t go in, precious, no we dursn’t. Goblinses down there. We smells them. Ssss!…Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

Yup, that was me, in my pantingly frantic, psychopathologically obsessed, creature-of-blackness-and-dread voice as Gollum, screeching out his loss and his terror and his rage. With my Sam. In our street-facing parental bedroom. With the window wide open. Oops. What did that sound like on the sidewalk? Some people down the street don’t own three cars; they actually walk a fair bit, and Presland Road is a bike route, too. And our neighbours? Gosh, what must they hear, with a seven-year-old who argues madly and tantrums daily, a music-blasting Dad and a Mum who starts conversations from the opposite end of the house? Sheesh. Our windows are mainly open for about six months a year…

And then it occurred to me that, while I sometimes hear the noise of the late-night pedestrians shouting and skateboarding and laughing down the street, I never hear my neighbours from inside their houses. Ah. It’s the air conditioning. Maybe we don’t get a chance to drive them nuts with our banging and hollering because they’re so tightly sealed inside their artificial climate pods. That’s a small relief, I guess. We have AC, too, by the way, though we use it little and only to keep the temperature below 27 degrees (Celsius, needless to say) or so. It’s about energy costs, you know, and about the impossibly large resource footprint our energy-dependent and pampered society leaves behind it from all our comforts. We’re globe-huggers at my house, I admit.

Still, big questions of climate change and economic disparity weren’t really on my mind that day as I thought about my invisible neighbours and their blissful unawareness of the howlings of Gollum. I’m sure they can do without my manic impersonations of wizards, dwarves and the Great Goblin, but I’m here to suggest that maybe all of us don’t do so well when our neighbours are strangers. Many people are finding that the price of their pleasures, their plasma TVs and their secure and spacious homes, is loneliness.  While our houses and cars got bigger, our social network of acquaintances, friends and readily available family got smaller. We’ve forgotten how to do community. Some of us are even mildly phobic about those casual interactions — in markets, public squares and street corners — that sweetened life for our grandparents. In my little hometown, they still happen, but less and less.

Curse us. How did we lose it, my precious? In a subsequent post, I’ll throw out a few ideas about how we can rediscover our precious sense of neighbourhood. It won’t be terribly original. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s start here: do you have someone close by to borrow a cup of sugar from? Does your snow shovel work on any sidewalk but your own? Rilke comes to mind. The German poet once wrote this:

Whoever you are: some evening take a step outside of your house which you know so well; enormous space is near…

Perhaps instead of the desperate shrieks of my good friend Gollum, I could soothingly chant this mantra from the sidewalks of my street. Well, I could if anybody had their windows open, or a lawn chair out front.

The Heart and the Congo

Until recently, the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver was best known to me for an article she wrote in Utne magazine, something to do with the virtues of off-grid, off-the-paved-and-beaten-track, off-beat living. Translation? Going rural. Growing your own. A willing ignorance of haste and celebrity and media and the quest for higher consumption. This is how I remember the piece, and it was a thoughtful and eloquent one. I was well aware, though, that this was the Poisonwood Bible woman, she of the large sales figures and the Oprah stamp of literary approval. This may account, along with my own embrace of slow literary living, for how long it took me to get around to the Bible. I should’ve gotten there faster.

It’s a remarkable book, hugely ambitious and earnest and uneven. I found it thrilling and irritating, filled with gorgeous and poetic phrasing (especially in the interior monologues) alongside sometimes clangingly explanatory and unlikely dialogue, with characters both beautifully and cartoonishly drawn. It follows a Georgia missionary family, the Prices, that goes to the Congo in 1960, where it experiences brutal hardship of its own (mainly of its patriarch’s) making, but also that of the Congolese in general as they go from Belgian colony to “independence” under the brutal Mbutu regime. We follow the lives of the Price women, a mother and four daughters, and their mainly male-made problems. The rich characters are the women.

Men do not come off terribly well in The Poisonwood Bible, which when it errs does so on the side of the Nobly Suffering Woman archetype. (It also portrays the dignity of women under hardship in a heart-wrenching way, don’t mistake me.) The ultra-zealous preacher Nathan Price is a bully and a bad advertisement for Christianity, an extremist and even a sadist in his manic, ignorant spreading of a patronizing Word. He never quite feels real, though there are some belated attempts to explain the creation of this monster. (There is no attempt to explain the other bastards at all.) Meanwhile, the two benevolent male characters are upholders of a stainless, if eccentric, goodness. They never quite seem real, either, though they are sometimes interesting.

Reverend Price’s deeply oppressed wife, Orleanna, is a poetic voice of bitter hindsight, and the voices of two of her daughters are the narrative highs and lows of the book. The mute and brilliant Adah is a fascinating creation with strange, gripping perspectives on the occasionally comic but relentlessly painful events of the book. The lovely and skin-deep eldest daughter, Rachel, is the counterbalance to the female heroism mentioned above. She became increasingly annoying to me as the book went on, so unrelentingly vain and self-absorbed was she. My vain imagining is that Kingsolver just had too much fun skewering the vacuous cheerleader belles of her own high school days. (The malapropisms were amusing at first, but Rachel’s verbal mistakes get wearisome. Her comments about language students working on their French “congregations”, well, okay, but when she complains about someone not having the simple “confederation” to get drinks for everyone in the room? I’ve now forgotten the most irritating examples; suffice to say that they begin to smack of Kingsolver trying way too hard, or having too much fun, or not knowing when enough was enough. Let’s blame the editor.)

About midway through this 650-page saga, the bloom came off what had been a terribly thorny but breathtaking rose. There were too many points to be made, too many clumsy character assassinations, social criticisms and historical observations that burst out of their literary clothing and lay there naked on the page. I was actually angry, at a certain point, because so much of the book had been so movingly, compellingly done up to that point. The story just went on too long, tried to do too much. But once I relaxed enough to accept what Kingsolver had in mind, I was able to enjoy the weaker back end of the book, though not quite with the wonder and alarm of the first half. Okay, she’s indicting the entire enterprise of African exploitation, American ignorance and materialism, male weakness and chauvinism. Let’s go with that. So I did, and I learned lots of history and context and continued to find narrative brilliance in some of the several narrators. The conclusion moved me again, and I felt content with the ending.

And a funny thing. (This reviewing of literature, I must say, is a strange and troublesome effort. I’m being forcibly reminded of what the producers of Brick, a literary magazine, place in the front of each edition, a quote from Rilke: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” There is a wonderful lot to love in The Poisonwood Bible. That sounds lame now. Well, and there’s this, too, which should undermine some of what I wrote above: Barbara Kingsolver is a fountain of good writing, and even with respect to novels, only part of her mighty flow, the score is BK 5, JH 0. So there.) So reading, thinking about books we read and remark on: you know what? Aside from its frequently stunning portrait of the colonial project, I may remember this novel most for something that precedes it. In Kingsolver’s introductory remarks, she ends in gratitude to Steven (her husband?) for his belief that “a spirit of adventure will usually suffice…” I love the brevity and punch of that line. Of course, it most spectacularly did not suffice in the individual mission of the crazed Nathan Price, nor of the European and American mission to get from Africa what they wanted. But for this pale adventurer, the words are branded on my brain. They’re beside my writing desk, too.

Why Read, Anyway? The Power of the Word

Serendipity lives. Despite my love for the contents of my own little basement-bound library, I still find myself looking for (and believing in) the Right Book at the Right Time. I’m an accidentalist by literary nature: am I dialled in to the there are no accidents synchronicity of the spiritually wired world? Or grasping at the bookish straws of superstition? Take your pick.

But I have learned that I don’t need to pack much homefront reading material when I travel, because text will find me. Sure, too often it’s just that day’s sports or entertainment in another town’s newspaper, but it’s surprising how often I whimsically come across a text that I’d been looking for, or one that filled a need I didn’t know I had. Today’s example comes from an aimless stroll through my local library. Living in the big city now – and Ottawa is hugely sophisticated compared to all my tiny towns – libraries are a whole new deal for me. They’re better than the one at home. There’s great stuff everywhere. On my way to the periodicals, I was stopped by the fairly plain cover of a book featured on the end of a shelf. Why Read? was its title, and why not? was my magnetized reply.

It’s another book on the importance of reading, of course, and though I figured it would be overly familiar, the Ol’ Readin’ ‘n’ Writin’ Coach couldn’t pass it by. Published in 2004, its author, Mark Edmundson, is an American professor of literature. I was attracted by his choice of title, yes, and then by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote with which he opens the book: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” [my emphasis] In the face of a literary establishment that favours detachment, irony and deconstruction (and which he skewers with bitter eloquence), Edmundson takes an unabashedly antique position. “Reading woke me up,” he says, and made him a teacher. His beautifully written opening essay, “Literary Life”, lays out his thesis:

[L]iterature…is the major cultural source of vital options for those who find that their lives fall short of their highest hopes,…our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.

You will see that Professor Edmundson is not one for the microscope, not an advocate for poetic alienation and identity politics.

“Books…are for nothing but to inspire.” Edmundson starts with Emerson, and builds from there a passionate and sweetly worded argument that is addressed firstly to those (his colleagues) who teach literature, and secondly to students who “read over the shoulders of your teachers”. He laments the loss of a truly liberal education in America: “Universities have become sites not for human transformation, but for training and for entertaining….[S]tudents use the humanities…to prepare for lucrative careers…[to] acquire marketable skills…[or as] sources of easy pleasure.” Edmundson, meanwhile, wants them to be MOVED, “to become other than they are”.

He insists on personal transformation as the basis of a true education. “’You must change your way of life,’ says Rilke’s sculpture of Apollo to the beholder. So says every major work of intellect and imagination, but in the university now – as in the culture at large – almost no one hears.” Mark Edmundson is gloomy about the way that his beloved literature has been used, torn asunder, isolated or completely abandoned in contemporary life, but goes on to suggest the ways it might be rehabilitated, and therefore help to rehabilitate us. He has something of the tone of the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, and this emotional appeal combined with his reasoned and gorgeous prose lends it real credibility.

I was reminded of another citation of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, this in the Canadian literary journal Brick. Included in the publishing data at the front of each issue is this statement of literary philosophy: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” Professor Edmundson would surely approve my added emphasis, and he echoes this frankly ecstatic tone throughout this excellent book. Why Read? is a profound meditation and a call to ivory tower action. I wonder how many are listening.