Wednesday, May 4, 2005
A Thousand Acres
I need to reread the Pulitzer prize winning novel, A THOUSAND ACRES, written by Jane Smiley. Based on the tragedy of KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, it is set on a twentieth century family farm in Iowa. I could never understand when I first read it why or how the older sister, Ginny, could one day just walk away from her family farm, especially after doing everything to secure it for her family's future. She drove off and left everything behind her: her house, her family, even her marriage. Eventually she would return but it was from a place of new perspective and distance. She would never live there again and even let her sister have her share.
The reason for Ginny's departure is now simple: she was living in a hornet's nest, surrounded by misunderstandings from townspeople and her own family, especially her father. Her dreams and expectations had been dashed. No one knew the real truth and people began to attach certain labels to the sisters who were keeping the farm: Greedy. Liars. Who are they to treat their father like this? A dark secret hung over them all but the actual reality of having the farm and keeping it became so divisive that it destroyed all family relationships until there was just a handful of dust in the prairie wind. By then the place she loved was just not worth the human toil and sacrifice needed to hang on. And to what? A few tumbledown buildings, some barns and the land...perhaps it is the land that really holds us if we are fortunate to grow up amongst an entire landscape. Farm life is much like that.
What is it about families and their houses? What holds us to a place and keeps us there? What makes us flee?
An old gentlemen, after losing his large sprawling summer house to fire, a place in his family for many years and filled with the stuff of generations, said to me: "The fire was somewhat cleansing. Now I have no baggage." I suppose there would be a liberation of sorts, a chance to begin again. There is a Taoist verse to this effect: "My barn having burned, I can now see the moon." A rebirth is always on the other side of death or chaos.
For me, places and their associations are so powerful that they haunt my dreams. I return to rooms of my past where I can no longer walk--whether it is a college dorm, my grandparents' Spanish-style house, or my childhood home in Akron, Ohio where I have visited countless times in my sleep. Place is a powerful emotion for me--I am not bagless in this world and I am happy when I am settled in and nested. Now that I have children, that is even more important to me: to tend the roots I've been given and let us flourish from there.
I once dreamt, a long time ago, after we'd moved in with my grandmother at her farm, of my grandfather who had just died. He returned to me in the dream and said "Don't sell the farm!" Several years before that, when I wrote letters back and forth to my grandmother, just itching for summer when we would visit her at "the farm" and all of its welcoming places, I had another dream. I even wrote my grandmother about it in my thin penciled scrawl. I dreamt that I had taken a big yellow school bus all the way to New Hampshire. It stopped in front of their large white connected farmhouse and I got off, eager to see my grandmother and grandfather. I knocked on the red front door and she answered: "WHAT are you doing here? WHO are you? GO AWAY!" At the time I did not realize it but that dream was somewhat prophetic. Ten or more years later, after my parents divorce, we were living at the farm. My grandmother had developed Alzheimer's and she often posed the very same questions to us: "What are you doing here?" And for the first time in my life, I road a large yellow bus to the Jaffrey schools.
A place is about people but it is also about hopes and dreams and good intentions. We can move on from places that we love but we never really leave them behind. They are always with us, a part of who we are and all that we have met, to paraphrase poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. Perhaps Memory is the best place of all: our rooms of Memory are clean and organized, full of well-edited happier times, choice moments that we can relive again and again. To walk away from them would be the hardest thing, placing everything in a box or a book to reopen on occasion. Some people never do.
And what of the place you've left? Does it remember? In OUT OF AFRICA, Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen), wrote from Denmark, remembering her adopted country, a place to which she never returned:
"If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?"
This is the most beautiful and plaintive, even mournful, passage I have read about someone recalling a place of memory. It is also about being remembered, too, in the grand scheme of things. And eventually we are all just prairie dust. The land makes gradual changes on its own or because of our development. Even our buildings will crumble into the land. If all of humankind is gone, the land will reclaim itself. While we know this to be true, then while we are here on this earth, what makes our places so important?