Sunday, January 31, 2010


A friend commented on Facebook on my last post, (which was about Quakers and plain dress).  "But clothing is alive!!" 

No response could have pleased me more.  I have a vaguely articulated theory that any art form--and I include human adornment--is like a vessel which the artist lifts up, up, up to try to scoop something of eternal weight from the sky.

The imagination and the spiritual paddle their fingers in the alive-ness of non-tangible things.  Religion comments on the morality of the non-tangible.  The realm of the imagination is like the old myth of the American Wild West--shocking things, even horrifying things can happen there, but different versions of that myth are embedded, for better or worse, in the American heart.

When I was a child, reading fiction was not consciously encouraged. It was viewed more like bread, as a non-tangible but essential kind of food. My brother and I walked home from the bus stop after school with noses in our books, half-aware of the cars speeding alongside.

My favorite books were fanstasies: The wonderful stories of E. Nesbit. A gem called A Traveller in Time, about a contemporary young girl who has an adventure with Mary Queen of Scots.  Harriet the Spy wasn't a fantasy, but Harriet goes around Manhatten spying on people and writing their imagined stories in her notebook. A fictional character generates fictions about other fictional characters, stoking my desire to be as daring as she is.  Is that so different from time-travel? 

I believed in what I called "magic."  An Amazon reviewer of A Traveller in Time writes: "It's hard to believe that the author has not actually visited the 16th century in person."  When I was ten and we visited Westminster Abbey in England, I decided that the sixpence in my pocket was magical.  It helped that the Abbey was a spooky, dark place.  Lagging behind my family, I touched the coin and wished with all my might to go back in history, somewhere, anywhere--and, in order to give the magic all the leeway it might require, I humbly granted that it would be fine even I returned to the ordinary world a split second after I vanished, with no memory of where I'd been.

Maybe it was jet lag.  But I knew--I knew--that in the next moment, I was not standing as close to an old stone tomb as I had been half a breath ago.  I couldn't see my family. I felt dizzy, disoriented. 

Then elated. It had been granted to me, and I kept the journey secret. Even now, in the rare moments when I can slip into my old, child's mind, I'm ready to believe that animals can talk (C.S. Lewis), that time is elastic (Garcia Marquez), and that yes, even clothing might be alive.  Which means that metaphors aren't really "like" something else. They are as real as I am, as real as the mind.

(If I knew how to post clean, short links to these books, I would.  Otherwise my friend Mr. Google can help you out.)


jdashfield said...

Helen, I love reading your recollections of your childhood with your nose spent in a book! It brings back memories of what was so necessary to me as a young person--the hunger to hold and read as many books as possible, to get lost in a world created by someone else. Not that my childhood was awful, but a book could certainly transport you somewhere that only you could be at the time you were reading it and the everyday realities of school and older brothers and taking out the trash disappeared for a while. It was always a bit sad to finish a book (still is) and end the journey. I loved reading "The Thyme Garden" series, about kids who time-traveled. Other important time-travel guides included Ray Bradbury (who I discovered through sneaking into my brother's bedroom), Rudyard Kipling, and yes, Classics Illustrated, and the biography section at the children's library. And I do believe that ordinary objects can become important talismans in the hands of the seemingly lowly-empowered. Something can have power if you let it. Who says you didn't time travel? My ten-year old self would have hoped it could happen. My 53-yr-old self knows it can!

hmallon said...

I love "talismans in the hands of the seemingly lowly-empowered."

Louise Erdrich: "All that's in a name is a puff of sound...How is it that the gist, the spirit, the complicated web of bone, hair, and brain, gets stuffed into a syllable or two? How do you shrink the genie of human complexity?" --what she says about names can be spread out to include language itself. Magical. (BTW thanks for lending me The Antelope Wife!)