Tag Archives: Willa Cather

“…this feeling in being in one’s own place”

Willa Cather’s 1931 novel on Quebec and the last days of Governor General Louis de Buade de Frontenac (1697-1698) is not one of my my favorites, but there is this passage that pulls  at me.

She put the sled-rope under her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb.  A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbour’s houses. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this?  For this rock and winter, this feeling of being in ones’ own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.

from Shadows on the Rock, Book 2, VII by Willa Cather

Day after day Cecile had walked about those streets trying to capture that lost content and take it home again. She felt almost as if she no longer had a home; often wished she could follow the squirrels into their holes and hide away with them for the winter.

from Shadows on the Rock, Book 5, IV by Willa Cather

It is not only Cather at her most eloquent and poignant, but it also bruises my soul with its beauty and love for a home never fully realized. Just as Cather endured homesickness for Virginia as a child when she was uprooted to the vast plains of Nebraska at age nine, so often did her characters feel the tug of nostalgia and the yearning for ties to land. In fact, land and location were primary characters in many of her novels. It did more than provide back drops to stories, but rather shaped the characters, sometimes even overshadowing them.  Antonia Shimerda from My Antonia, though born in Bohemia, was inextricably tied to Nebraska’s wheat and wind. Here, in the above excerpt, little Cecile born in faraway France, pulls the tiny, illegitimate Jacques through the snow on her sled, and knows she belongs to this “rock.” Quebec has claimed her.

There is a longing we all have to belong that will never be fully satisfied. We may feel awkward and foreign no matter where we go. Whether we fear leaving our hometown or whether we have an insatiable wanderlust, it all comes from the same place – a deep yearning for what is truly home. Last year I wrote about this here more at length using other favorite examples from literature.

Cather may not have recognized this as a spiritual quest, but we see her characters’ repeated struggles with belonging and place. One day, we will be there, never more looking around us, never more torn between belonging and being the “other,” never straddling coming and going. We will simply be in our own place. That place which has long been prepared for us. To which our hearts long. Home.

It was promised

“I am going there to prepare a place for you…I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the place where I am going.”

John 14:2b-4

 

 

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Where I Belong

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Although I was predominantly raised in Arizona, I have lived in six states and five other countries.  It creates awkward pauses and half-truthful answers when someone poses the question, “Where are you from?”  To make matters worse, everyone seems to think my husband has a foreign accent.  Their guess is usually German or Russian.  Really, he speaks with a standard American accent, albeit in deep tones.  My response may be based on whether I suspect they are wanting to know the origin of my birth, the greatest number of years lived in one place consecutively, where my extended family currently live, or even more complicated, where my heart longs for when I hear the call for “home.”

A true sense of belonging is something that has not been with me for years now.  Yet I don’t say this full of self-pity, but with a better understanding about myself.  I don’t expect to ever feel that I am of any one location.  There are several “homes” in me.  Several places I long for until I may be there again, and then a different “home” may arise in my thoughts.

I have lived in the Midwest longer than in any one place, yet as much as I love that my family and I are here, it is not “home” in the sense that most people think.  For this reason I find it unusual that the classic novels I am particularly drawn to feature characters who possess an almost fierce loyalty to geography.  If I cannot share with them their love of country, soil, property and culture, where does my delight come from with these masterpieces?  Although their attachment to land and soil may seem unlike anything I have known, they appeal to me deeply in resonant tones.

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The following are examples of some of my all-time favorite classics.  As foreign as the idea of genuine belonging may be to me, it is not difficult to appreciate the loyalty and passion with which these people meet the world and create a sense of “home” and belonging.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  While most readers are more familiar with the title character’s story thread, I gravitate more toward the story of Levin.  Written from the author’s own heart, Levin is an awkward aristocrat, sensitive, questioning, and more connected to his property and peasants than the parlor.  It is a beautiful scene Tolstoy paints with his words as the scythe moves  rhythmically, determinedly.

He thought of nothing, desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do the best job he could.  He heard only the clang of scythes and ahead of him saw Titus’s erect figure moving on, the curved semicircle of the mowed space, grass and flower-heads bending down slowly and wavily about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the swath, where rest would come…Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early.  A change now began to take place in his world which gave him enormous pleasure.  In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus’s.

pp.250-251

 

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather details the struggle, loneliness and victories of a Swedish immigrant family in Nebraska, particularly of the headstrong and reliable daughter Alexandra Bergson.

When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy.  Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her.  For the first time, perhaps since that land emerged from the water of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning…The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

p. 37

They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening star.  Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

p. 173

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The Good Earth by Pearl Buck recounts the life of poor farmer Wang Lung in pre-revolutionary China.  It follows Wang Lung from the morning of his modest marriage day through gut-wrenching personal and political events as he and his family are swept along as victims.  Wang Lung, however, refuses to give up what he has slaved so desperately for; he will not lose his land.  Here, the soil, a plot of ground, is as much a character, a driving impetus for story arc and plot, as are Wang Lung, or O-lan or Ching.

The weakness of surrender in him melted into an anger such as he had never known in his life before.  He sprang up and at the men as a dog springs at an enemy.

“I shall never sell the land!” he shrieked at them.  “Bit by bit I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth!”

Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric.  There is no other book on this list, nor arguably in literature that presents an inanimate object, an architectural structure, a man-made piece of the country as the main character throughout the novel.  Spanning centuries, the bridge emerges.  It is a part of the country, as is the Nobel Prize winner, Ivo Andric.

Hiding their emotion, they bent over the map which showed the future partition of the Balkan Peninsula.  They looked at the paper and saw nothing in those curving lines, but they knew and understood everything, for their geography was in their blood and they felt biologically their picture of the world.

p. 229

Everything appeared as an exciting new game on that ancient bridge, which shone in the moonlight those July nights, clean, young and unalterable, strong and lovely in its perfection, stronger than all that time might bring and men imagine or do.

p. 234

 

As momentous and thriling as these novels are, the sentiment behind them eludes me.  Yet not the desire.  Even though I will never labor over land, I see the beauty of these novels to be in their metaphors.  They are, for me, metaphors of a true home.  I feel blessed NOT to feel attached to any one place alone here on earth, because I have hope even more certainly in a place that has been promised to me.  Over there, far away.  There I will one day be “home.” For such a home the geography pulses within me because of His blood, and with His eyes I can feel the landscape of that world.

By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country….he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one…

Hebrews 11:9a, 10, 16a

But our citizenship is in heaven…

Philippians 3:20a

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Books with Bridges

Mysterious and inviting they call to us.  Monet painted them.  San Franciscans and New Yorkers venerate them.  The Midwest covers them.  They connect us to land, carry us over shallow and deep waters.  They tie land from one side of the gorge to the other, unite towns and communities.  They erase the distance between people’s hearts.

Bridges fasinate us.  G particularly loves them.  We have walked out of our way to cross them, thrown rocks and sticks from off their edges, used them to set out on adventures into new worlds, and  traversed them simply to see what lie on the other side.  Bridges hold both a charm and an excitement.  Below is a carefully thought out list, some of our favorite books and stories honoring that most common of man-made tools, the bridge.

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

    

A Full Hand by Thomas F. Yezerski – When nine-year-old Asa helps his captain boat father drive the mules along the canal, he makes his first “full hand.”  Traveling through Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the fall, Asa learns not only about mules, inclined planes, aquaducts, bridges and locks, but also about the courage of his father.  He, then, is able to imagine his own future, alongside bowls of beef stew.


Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel – Although some find this classic to be culturally insensitive, I am not sure I agree.  Lyrical and repetitive, this tale is meant to be read aloud.  Children are encouraged to memorize the oldest brother’s long, ridiculous name, as well as the route across the bridge to the “old man with the ladder” who ultimately rescues both mischievous brothers from the well.

The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wise- G and I just finished a fun week and a half with activities we created based on this classic.  From counting Ping’s cousins, to creating a construction paper duck with moveable wings, we loved this stubborn little waterfowl.  Living on the beautiful Yangtze River, Ping decides he does not want a spank on the back for being last up the little bridge to his home on the wise-eyed boat, so he hides.  Was it a good decision?  Will Ping ever find his family and the wise-eyed boat again?

Bridges to Cross by Philomen Sturges – My only non-fiction book on this list, this is a wonderful way to introduce preschool and early elementary-aged children to the amazing world of engineering.  Featuring famous bridges from throughout the  world, the illustrations are created surprisingly with layers of torn paper – a built in art project idea to accomplish on your own!

 

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne- Read the heart-warming classic and then go play Pooh-sticks off a bridge.

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson – A chapter book written for tweens, this is a beautiful story of friendship and family, the joy and freedom of imagination, and the importance of nature in growing up.  It is definitely a story for older children as death plays a role in its pages.

BOOKS FOR ADULTS

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather- Published in 1912, this first novella by Cather describes the conflicted Bartley Alexander, who as an middle-aged engineer begins repairs on a bridge in Canada.  His conscience plays havoc with him as he is tossed between loyalty to his wife Winifred and his former lover Hilda Burgoyne.  Cather presents to us  America as she emerges as a powerful, creative, industrial force, and the American psyche, sure of who he is neither morally nor innately.

 

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric- The most celebrated novel in the Serbo-Croatian language, it spans three centuries.  From the bridge’s construction in Bosnia’s Visegrad at the height  of the Ottoman empire to a period of a swiftly changing Europe during WWI, the bridge is the central figure of the novel.  Ivo Andric, Bosnian writer and distinguished Yugoslav diplomat won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 for this masterful epic.  Death, loss, and revenge all occur on the bridge itself or near its gates.

“Thus in all this fresh storm which had burst over the town, overturning and tearing up by the roots its ancient customs, sweeping away living man and inanimate things, the bridge remained white, solid and invulnerable as it had always been.”

 

 

 

Touring the Trees

After the winter of continuously plummeting temperatures and persistent ice, came the message of the harbingers of doom for the summer: it would be unbearably hot and sticky.  And yet, the last few weeks have found the Midwest enjoying gorgeously mild temperatures and azure skies with only intermittent days of storms and rain.  Beautiful.  Gently breezy.  Lush with leaves.  Let me just walk into my flip flops and I am out the door.

Both with and without my children I have been on walking trails, about the city, in parks, through mature neighborhoods, and sightseeing about the town I now call home.  A tour of the trees.  Here are a few I share with you all.

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

-Willa Cather in O, Pioneers

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119. Trees

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain,

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

– Joyce Kilmer

Enjoy the various locales about the greater Indianapolis area through the trees.

Traders Point Creamery

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If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!

– Luke 12:28

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The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.

-Proverbs 11:30

Holliday Park

Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky – up- up-up into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then, I’d just feel a prayer.

-L.M. Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables

 

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Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the LORD…

-Psalm 96:12-13

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Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?

– Walt Whitman

 

Grounds about the IMA (Indianapolis Museum of Art) and 100 Acres

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I couldn’t live where there were no trees- something vital in me would starve.

-L.M. Montgomery in Anne’s House of Dreams

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The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

-John Muir

Around my suburban trails

American Sycamore

That each day I may walk unceasingly on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees which I planted, that I may refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore.

-Egyptian tomb inscription, circa 1400BCE

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 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

-Psalm 100:1

DSC_0086_2510Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

-Psalm 90:1

And for those ultra-local….

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Can you name this location on a windy road?

 

Unseeing Eyes

Have you ever read something for the hundredth time, only to discover bridges linking it to other stories or pieces, at least in your mind? This is one of the myriad reasons why I love reading good literature. I love discovering similarities in myself or seemingly disparate characters across varying genres. Often humanity and fraility, vulnerability and faith convey the same basic truths even through vastly different voices.

Recently I re-read Willa Cather’s “Old Mrs. Harris.” It is a slow-moving penetrating story, a peering through a side window into a midwestern family at the turn of the century. In it we see the final portion of an elderly woman’s life, a woman who lived in a time when the female gender was marginalized particularly as they were widowed and grew more feeble. In it, we also see the beginning of a young girl’s life, a girl who desperately wants her life to be different. The story reveals the psychology of familial relations during this era in American history.

“When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers. They will regret that they heeded her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: ‘I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know. ‘”

Why do we still marginalize the elderly in the West? I even see this neglect in churches. Instead of taking advantage of the wisdom, knowledge,experience, and love they have to offer, I have seen us ignore them, discount the weightiness of what they still may offer. Have I been heartless, because I wanted something so much? Myopic because I found urgency in the wrong thing?

And here is the bridge my mind built. It connected Willa Cather to, of all people, the apostle John. Not to the young man who followed Jesus around, and leaned up against him during their final meal, but to the aged man, living in Ephesus, who had survived isolation.  Now, as a revered church leader, decrepit, elderly, he is carried daily to the city center.

There is a church tradition, which says, that when John was evidently an old man in Ephesus, he had to be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples. At these meetings, he was accustomed to say no more than, “Little children, love one another!” After a time, the disciples wearied at always hearing the same words, asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “It is the Lord’s command,” was his reply. “And if this alone be done, it is enough!”

 

It is difficult to imagine that the beloved apostle was ever marginalized or pushed aside, forgotten, or trivilialized. After all, he had been with Jesus! Do you know someone who has been with Jesus? Someone who is continually with him, and has been for decades? May we never underestimate what is behind a failing exterior. May we never demand something more complicated from life than what is. May our eyes be forever seeing, our ears always listening.