Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden quesetion drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.