Dennis Dorwick, New South Wales regional Meeting.
I am seated at a heavy oak table in the State Library of NSW to read the first two sentences of a book, a copy of which I seem to have lost in a recent move. A card pocket has been partially removed by its previous owner, the Five Dock Branch library. The pocket has been forcibly stamped with the letters MWMMWWXX and, below that, CANCELLED.
With this book now in my hand I remember finding a copy in a second-hand bookshop, turning to the first page and thinking, this has to be one of the most remarkable openings of any novel in the English language. The first sentence crackles like the dried stubble of a harvested corn field.
“I was the only boy, or girls either, in the public school of the town of Dugton, Claxford Clounty, Alabama, whose father had ever got killed in the middle of the night standing up in the front of his wagon to piss on the hindquarters of one of a span of mules, and, being drunk, pitching forward on his head, still hanging on to his dong, and hitting the pike in such a position and condition that both the left front and the left rear wheels of the wagon rolled, with perfect precision, over his unconscious neck, his having passed out being, no doubt, the reason he took the fatal plunge in the first place. Throughout, he was still holding on to his dong.”
Robert Penn Warren, A Place to Come To (1977)
Perhaps you can imagine why the decision to remove this book from the hands of readers of the Burwood-Drummoyne Public Library System was made. I, however, was hooked by the voice of his narrator, nine years old at the time; this boy who watched
“the womenfolks, as they were locally termed, were trying to assuage what seemed to be the non-existent grief of my mother. She just sat on a split-bottom chair and stared at the cadaver, which had been deposed, insofar as rigor mortis would permit, in a dignified posture.”
Of course, I hear your question, where are we going here…? What’s he up to…?
Perhaps I am avoiding a question… Do you know of those too? Sometimes they can hang around for years and then will pop out unbidden and sometimes unwelcome. For example, I have been wondering, given the effect of auto and air travel on our warming planet, how long can we Quakers continue to traipse around this continent meeting once a year? It may be a fair question but, no, that’s not the question I have been avoiding.
Do you too find that books, ideas, radio talks, appear, unbidden and that they often open us to issues or ideas which may have been just out of our vision? Below, I write about two other recent such findings. Is there, I ask myself, a mysterious link between these three which I am supposed to discover?
Quite by chance I have come across the book Leaving Alexandria- a Memoir of Faith and Doubt (2012) by Richard Holloway, who resigned his role as Bishop of Edinburg in 2000.
“I don’t any longer believe in religion, but I want it around; weakened, bruised and bemused, less sure of itself and purged of everything except the miracle of pity. I know that the people who keep it going will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper? Who could even hear it? Anyway, I know longer want to persuade anyone to believe anything—except that cruelty, especially theological cruelty, has to be opposed, if necessary to the death.”
You might see why he found it necessary at the age of 66 to leave his role in the Church of England and the church altogether.
Again, I ask for your patience as I bring forward yet another ghost to the table. Well, he is not a ghost yet since he lives and works as a poet and editor of Poetry Magazine (USA). Christian Wiman, its editor for the past nine years, has been living for some years with a rare cancer. In his essay, “Mortify our Wolves—the struggle back to life and faith in the face of pain and the certainty of death” he writes,
“Whenever I find myself answering someone’s questions about my illness, explaining what is going on in my body or the bizarre treatments I am about to undergo, it is as if I am wholly detached from what I am describing, as if my body were some third thing to which both of us were impassively direct our attention. This is why any expression of pity can be so jarring and unwelcome. The sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self. All those people weeping in the mirror of your misery? Their tears are real, but they are not for you.”
Christian Wiman, The American Scholar, Autumn 2012
So, reader, we have the youth recalling the death of his father, the mute presence of his mother, a priest, as was, looking at his past with bemused and kind understanding, and a poet’s understanding of the elemental qualities of pity and compassion.
Still sitting at the oak desk, I return to the story of the youth who recalls a time when his father lay, not dead, but dead-drunk.
“When I was little, I’d see the body lying over there cool-cocked drunk, and her sitting across from it, not close, and staring at it, and it was like holding your breath until your head swam, and something was about to explode, and I’d find myself going to her, not meaning to, just there of a sudden, silent and hanging on to her skirt, pulling at it, not jerking, I wouldn’t have dared, but with a slow steady pull, to make something happen because I could not stand another second the kind of not-happening that was building up.”
And a little later he observes of this waiting child, himself,
“Something is going on and will not stop. You are outside the going on, and you are, at the same time, inside the going on. In fact, the going on is what you are. Until you can understand that these things are different but are the same, you know nothing about the nature of life. I proclaim this.”
When I am quiet, in places of contemplation like this beautiful reading room of the Mitchell library, I begin to tenderly gather these delicate and fragile threads. For me, they have to do with endings, leavings, fading regret, acceptance, not sadness nor bitterness.
It seems that I have only been able to recognise these threads after withdrawing from a Local Quaker Meeting. After a period of puzzled hope I found that the foundation of a spiritual life there, like that field of dry stubble, seems to me to have entered what may be a long fallow winter. And some kind of question is hovering over me. Perhaps you can see it clearly. Let me know if you do.
And what became of that boy, the 9 year old? I can tell you his name is Jed Tewksbury and his tale is drawing me back to my own beginnings. Second-hand copies of Robert Penn Warren’s beautiful novel A Place to Come to (1977) are available (you might try your local library or abebooks.com).
Richard Holloway’s book Leaving Alexandria is published by Cannongate Books (2012)
Christian Wiman’s most recently published book of poetry, Every Riven Thing, is published by Farra, Strauss, & Giroux (2011)