It's been a dark week in our house. For once, this is not a metaphor.
I am not a huge one for symbolism or the occult or the Long Arm of Fate creeping out to grasp one from, for instance, the bathroom cupboard, but it was hard to find it entirely coincidental that, at the end of Obama’s speech last week, I walked back into my office to do some work to discover three wall lights had entirely burnt out.
This is, as they say, a true story.
In a week like this, I think it’s helpful to run directly up against the unknowability of the universe—the open question of how did we get here, and the absolute mystery of how we get ourselves out of it— and I find there are few better simulacra than the sheer brick wall of an entirely opaque and truly short story. No context to assist in deciphering, no themes to be underscored—just the invisible, unfathomable workings of another’s mind, the extraordinary distance between us made palpable on the page.
You don’t know why it’s doing what it’s doing, but there’s an unmistakably strong hand on the wheel, and the odds seem good it knows where it’s going. Practicing faith makes keeping it easier.
All of which is to say, it’s a superb time for Mary Ruefle.
There are many, many things in her book My Private Property that I don’t understand, that slow me down. I dogear the corners of pages to return to, and by the end the book lies next to my pillow at a tilt, off-balance with the weight of my confusion. The one about the keys! Why that story is called Little Golf Pencil! All of that really is wrapped around a shrunken head ‽ I try not to take the mystery personally. I take it line by line, stretch out a hand, let myself be walked down unfamiliar paths. And then WHUMP, genius or hope lands in the center of the page like an anvil, and suddenly you know why you came:
You are a woman, the ten years have passed, you love your children, you love your lover, but there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself—you have put your parents in the earth, you have buried the past. Of course in the meantime you have destroyed your life and it has to be completely remade and there is a great deal of grief and regret and nostalgia and all of that, but even so you are free, free to sit on the bank and throw stones and feel thankful for the few years or one or two decades left to you in which you can be yourself…
If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, severnty, eighty or ninety: she cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are but a girl to her, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.
You are just a girl on the edge of a great forest. You should be frightened but instead you are eating a lovely meal, or you are cooking one, or you are running to the florist or you are opening a box of flowers that has just arrived at your door—and none of these things is done in the great spirit that they will later be done in.
And then a page later you’re back in the bramble patch again, tearing and catching and lost, but now with something to hang onto until the other side.
I’m reading it again today, and again tomorrow, and God knows on Friday, with a glass or two of wine in the bath and my TV unplugged in protest. I like to think Mary would approve.
PS: It’s tempting to read these pieces quickly, in sequence, to try and discover The Theme. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that searching for the theme, the narrative, the argument, the Hook has more or less ruined us as a group, but that’s a topic for another time. All I can say is take this slowly. God is in the details, if anywhere: let them in.