Here we are nearing the end of July…can it be? Our California son and his family, who are headed to Ireland for two years, spent this last week with us. We enjoyed many fun days with our four granddaughters, our three adult off-spring and their spouses–plus four dogs! John and I have somehow expanded from a simple pair to a dozen individuals. Going out to eat now together requires a banquet-size table.
Our soon-to-be Irish family has gone on their way to begin a new adventure. So the house is quiet today and a certain let-down feeling has settled over me as I walk around picking up torn-out pages of coloring books, markers, dog toys, puzzle pieces, and plastic doll dishes. The freezer is full of all the ice cream bars that we didn’t manage to eat, and we have no lettuce. So tonight’s dinner will include an ice cream bar buffet!
Still I have lots to do: preparing for a week-long creative nonfiction workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at St.Olaf College, working on a family memoir, practicing the piano, and reading George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Now this in itself is a huge undertaking–probably only begun because one of my book groups chose it. But it is making me slow down, way down, as I absorb the details of life in the late 1820s in a small English town, called Middlemarch. I don’t remember reading this novel in my college days, so it is pleasure to dive, or sink, into it now and savor the amazing prose of George Eliot.
People just don’t write this way anymore. I’m not sure readers today would have the patience for the slow pace, the complex sentences, the intrusive narrator. Yet readers in 1871 waited anxiously for the next installation of Middlemarch, the way viewers today anticipate a new season of “Orange Is the New Black.”
I’m also reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a perfect companion to the novel. Mead intertwines her own life and personal history with that of George Eliot as well as with the characters and events of the novel. In doing so, she shows how a single book can illuminate our lives. How often do we immerse ourselves in a book, then return to it at different points in our lives, and then reflect on how it shaped our life or the way we see the world? Such is the power of great literature.
Towards the end of her book, Rebecca Mead spends some time hovering over the last sentence of George Eliot’s novel–a sentence that resonates in my life as I tackle the writing I want to do about my family and especially my mother, Ruth.
Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:
“But the effect of her being [Dorothea's} on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
― George Eliot, Middlemarch
(Non)Writing Idea: So it's summer--those lazy days (really?) when we have time to read big books and write (or not). Take a few minutes to pause and look out a window. File what you see in your memory bank. Write if you wish--or not. No pressure. Nothing to do. No historic acts. As we faithfully live our hidden lives. As did those before us. It is all so simple.
One more quote from an essay by Eliot: "Love does not say 'I ought to love' --it loves. Pity does not say, 'It is right to be pitiful'--it pities. Justice does not say, 'I am bound to be just'--it feels justly." No bright apothegms, George Eliot writes, they leave "little energy for simple emotion"--or for simple living, which summer (with all its comings and goings) is all about. I hope you're having a good one!