A note to my blog followers: I’m sorry you’re getting all these emails about new posts that are actually old posts. What’s happening is, I’m migrating my Medium.com content over to my blog. I haven’t earned much traction over there (or much money) because I haven’t put much energy into it. So while I decide whether or not I’m going to continue on that platform, I’m making sure everything is backed up on the blog. I’m sorry! Thank you for subscribing! Please be patient! Gesundheit!
There was Children’s TV before I knew there was such a thing; public television existed, but hadn’t reached the prairies of South Dakota, where I spent much of my first ten years. By the time we lived in a town large enough to have PBS, I was eleven years old — far too old for any of the lessons involved. Even so, I loved the frenetic nature of Sesame Street, the rhythmic phonics of The Electric Company. I’d secretly switch over from Gilligan’s Island to public television, watching for the songs, animation, puppets, and Morgan Freeman’s beautiful voice.
The undersaturated retro simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did absolutely nothing for me. The strange hand puppets? The dinging trolley car? An unapologetic opera singer? And above all else, someone with the last name of “McFeely”?
Mr. Rogers embarrassed me, to be truthful. The cardigan. The sneakers. Feeding the fish. And my god, the songs. His voice reminded me of my grandmother singing hymns beside me in the basement of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Aberdeen, South Dakota. When he came on, I’d switch back to whatever other rerun was on during the day. Something like Green Acres.
And then at age 14, I was left behind by my parents during a move. I wouldn’t live with my parents again until I was almost 20. I couldn’t afford a TV during those teen years, but I kept current with the state of children’s TV through my much younger brother, who watched a lot of Nickelodeon. The early Nick was commercial free and full of animated European shorts.
I moved back in with my family in 1980, the year Mount St. Helens erupted and covered the city of Portland with a rain of volcanic ash. My parents sent my younger brother to stay with grandparents in Minnesota for a month, until the ash settled down. He was eight years old, and baffled by an afternoon ritual there in Minnesota. At 3 PM, my grandmother would call him in from wherever he was playing, sit him down in front of the TV with a Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz sandwich, and turn on Mister Rogers.
We did not grow up with Wonder Bread, Cheez Whiz, or Mister Rogers. But we were raised to be endlessly, achingly polite. So my little brother sat down and ate the sandwich and watched the show, not really liking either one. He endured this wonderful, awful pairing without a peep of protest. Was it a relic from my uncle’s childhood?
I dismissed Mister Rogers, and went on with my young life. When I was twenty, I enrolled in the local university and got a job as a nanny to augment my BEOG money. I worked for a doctor, watching her three kids after school into the evening. She told me they all sat down at 3 PM for snacks (carrots, cheddar and Triscuits) and Mister Rogers.
I probably scoffed. Mister Rogers?
I remember the warm twinkle in my employer’s eyes, her sweet and squirrelly smile. “Oh,” she said, “He’s so gentle.”
This employer taught me many things when I was 20. She taught me how to prepare chicken and fish and brown rice and magnificent salads, lessons I put immediately to use. She taught me how to relax on beach vacations, which takes practice. She tried to teach me that intelligence would be the most important attribute to seek in a man, and I eventually did learn that one, but not for a while. And by example, she taught me that a single woman in her forties and fifties could be vital, attractive and pursued, a lesson I wouldn’t realize the importance of until I was in my forties and fifties.
The keyword was gentle. He was gentle with his viewers, and his viewers need to be gentle with Mister Rogers. We need to quietly anticipate the regularity of his entrance, his changing into his cardigan, the occasional plucky toss of a shoe from one hand to the other. We need to mildly care that the fish are hungry, and that he enjoys answering that hunger with just the right pinch of food. We need to approach Mr. McFeely with interest, since he delivers items of interest to Mister Rogers. We need to listen to the songs, because they contain surprising and beautiful messages about the anxiety children feel when they discover that boys and girls are a built little different from each other. We need to wait patiently for the dinging of the trolley, since it’s going to deliver us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
I had more fun than expected while visiting the Neighborhood of Make Believe with my young charges. I learned about the traits, the voices and the psyches of each and every one of the hand puppets; Daniel Tiger’s fearfulness, King Friday’s pomposity, and the selfish, grabby narcissism of Lady Elaine Fairchild. I experienced all kinds of happenings, but my favorite was an opera about a cow who wanted to be a potato bug. See some of it here. It was the very worst, and the very best. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.
Only one of my own children loved Mister Rogers. And she was the child I took to see the Mister Rogers documentary. We watched this wonderful portrayal of a singular, strange man who shared his personal vision of love and kindness with the world. I had a shiver over his attachment to the number 143, because I fear that this formerly chubby child only felt lovable when he weighed exactly 143 pounds. He was prescient, he was kind, and he believed he was doing important work.
I am so sad that that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was completely shut out of the Oscars. But I’m not sure that Fred Rogers would have cared. He was too busy with his imagination and his belief in kindness to care too much about awards.
But it would have been the best acceptance speech ever.
Let’s talk about Elizabeth Strout. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’m more comfortable talking about anything rather than my own work. So let’s go talk some Strout.
Photo by Leonard Cendamo (source) – Have you ever seen a more open and inviting gaze in your freaking life than this?
I came to Elizabeth Strout a bit later than many readers. She had already published Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me before my book group read Olive Kitteridge. My daughter had loved Amy and Isabelle, but there was something keeping me away. Sometimes that’s nothing more than professional envy. Someone writes the kind of book I want to write, and she’s published and acclaimed and I peer at the title through a haze of spite and decide to sit this one out. Very often, the book in question turns out to be fantastic and completely worthy of all praises heaped upon it, like, for instance, Angela’s Ashes. At other times, (and my apologies to those of you who love it) it’s more like The English Patient, which I didn’t love when I finally read it.
Amy and Isabelle was everywhere, all bookstores, all my friends’ bookshelves, even at Fred Meyer and Target. I kept not reading it. I also didn’t read her second novel, Abide with Me, but this is okay because apparently no one else did, either.
And then came Olive, which is a collection of linked short stories that function as a novel, which seemed bold and daring and wonderful before everyone else started doing it. Everyone in my book group loved the book, everyone who read this book loved it, and we all recommended it to everyone we knew, and a big web of love for Olive Kitteridge spread across the country. It couldn’t have happened to a better book.
Things happen in the book–even some shocking stuff, heart-hammering events. There is a plot, but this is a novel of character, and that character is Olive. Olive in some ways reminds me of my mother–her largeness and her sensitivity, her love of flowers and her care with/masking of her own physical presence. It is difficult to be a large women, it’s something of an indignity, and my mother felt that quite strongly, as does Olive. In other ways, of course, she is nothing like my mother. Olive is not particularly likable or socially adept, and everyone loved my mother, who was a brilliant conversationalist. But they could both be so spiteful. I loved Olive’s spitefulness. That one passage where she is having a lie-down after her son’s wedding, and hears someone mocking her mother-of-the-groom dress, a dress Olive loves because she has this secret love of colors and flowers, and the dress has a lot of both–well, it just breaks my heart. I cheered her on as she took her small and spiteful revenge.
If you were wondering, I did watch the HBO series of Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it like I loved the book, because I felt Olive was miscast. Frances McDormand is brilliant–her performance in Three Billboards is magnificent–but Olive is an ocean liner of a woman, and FM is not. Size is such an integral part of who Olive is.
I wanted to love The Burgess Boys but I only liked it, and I don’t remember much about it. Since it was the follow-up to Olive, I was disappointed and had to go looking. That’s when I read Amy and Isabelle, and of course I loved it. If you were to ask me what I think Strout’s main underlying theme is, I would say it’s women trying to get out from under their mothers; trying to be someone besides your mother, trying to understand that your mother is a person, flawed, a mortal human failure. Ridiculous at times. Frustrated. But loveable. And you can hurt her deeply.
Mothers are still objects of puzzlement and resentment after they die. They never make sense, because, of course, they are just people. And people mess up. But of course, as children, we have no idea that our moms aren’t superhuman and infallible. As a child, I didn’t question my mother’s words or her choices. As a young woman, I decided with brutal finality that my mother had never taken my needs into account once while making those choices. But as a young mother, I understood that I’d be messing up every single day, myself, and I’d better forgive my mom, because one day I would have to humbly ask forgiveness of my own children. Those are the terms of endearment.
So when friend loaned me My Name is Lucy Barton, I read it swiftly. And I have to say that it’s such a slip of a book that I read it, then gave it back, then borrowed it again a year later and reread it, and was two chapters in before I remembered that I’d read it before. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s the style of it. Lucy is so glancing, so evasive as a narrator. She is simply not going to say things out loud. She’s given slip to a past of poverty and humiliation and community scorn. Rather than being embittered, she finds her new life wonderful. She is a true innocent who Is determined to stay that way, and a lovely Candide quality colors all her perceptions. But you feel an undercurrent of tremendous darkness, and you are left needing more.
It’s like–living your entire life as a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I have a family member like this. She is the most oblique person I have ever known, other than my maternal grandmother, who was determined to see life as “lovely” even when there were horrors opening under her feet. But my grandmother’s denial kept her stepping so lightly that she never fell in. It was a complex balance of choosing where to look and where to step and what not to see. Life, to my grandmother, was a wonderful thing, and she simply chose not to deal with anything that contradicted this view. This can be supremely frustrating to the people around you, people with pain, questions and complaints, but for the most part we all choose what we deal with, and in the case of my grandmother and my unnamed female relative, they probably chose wisely.
So did Lucy. Elizabeth Strout wrote Lucy Barton with such luminous kindness that I read this book twice, and I still didn’t know the deepest, darkest truths of her life. And I think, in truth, Lucy didn’t know them either. But I was sitting around with my book group friends in June, and one of them had brought both Abide with Me and Anything is Possible to loan me, and she told me that Lucy’s story is revealed more in this book (yes, after reading Anything is Possible, Lucy and I are on a first-name basis, just like me and Olive).
I don’t want to ruin anything about the stories in Anything is Possible. Just–read Lucy Barton first, and then know that you’re going to get the skinny on all the people that Lucy and her mother gossip about while Lucy is recovering in the hospital. Lucy is present in many of the stories in Anything, as her memoir has hit the shelves in her home town’s bookstore, prompting reveries and regrets on the part of people who treated her with kindness, scorn, or as if she were invisible. She is not the main character, as some reviews have stated. The town is the main character. The book really lifts up a rock on its secrets, and you should be prepared for the exposure of a lot of squirming, grey, unattractive things. It is a FASCINATING look at small town living, and fills in the blanks of Lucy’s story in a heartbreaking chapter that left me cheering her on with however she chooses to deal with a past so ugly.
So then, of course, I had to read Abide with Me. Which is wonderful, by the way. It’s set in 1959, and it also peels back the lid on a small town. The book didn’t do well, though it appears to be doing okay, now. Kirkus Reviews said,”most of the characters in this novel are fundamentally bewildered, and many of them are quite bitter as well. The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” I fear this reviewer doesn’t see anything valiant, universal or worthy in the struggles of small town people. I do. I also love books about religious men, like Gilead (which sold a gajillion copies) and Leaving Ruin (which didn’t, but should have–it’s an older book, shoved over into the Christian section and it deserves a wider readership). Abide with Me is the story of a small town pastor, and it’s a big story about self-forgiveness and frustration. It’s moving and a nicely seamy between the religious ruminations.
Elizabeth Strout books connect–this innkeeper is Lucy Barton’s cousin, and this actress was probably molested by a character who shows up as a father-in-law in another book, and on and on in ways small and large that I wasn’t tracking in the first three titles I read. This is my absolute favorite thing for writers to do, this interconnectedness. I’d like to read Elizabeth Strout’s books from beginning to end in sequence and make a spreadsheet that links the who and where and what in each book, but that would take a lot of time and energy. I have other books to read and other books to write.
Also, here I go, urging you toward books not by me. So I will plug mine: RANDOM AND CLUMSY PLUG
Also, I could use some Amazon reviews if you can take the time!
Also, the next time I do this, it will probably be Haven Kimmel.