A Lament for Lily Bart

A month later, here I am. I haven’t been doing too much reading lately, but this last one was a winner.

I picked up a used copy of The House of Mirth at the recently-opened Y’s Books on Main Street, and started reading it at Queen Elizabeth Park (the day my bike got a flat tire). I love Edith Wharton novels so it wasn’t a surprise that this one also captured me.

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The main character, Lily Bart, is beautiful, well-bred woman in the upper echelon of New York society in the early twentieth century. The problem is, she is unmarried at 29 and has no money to her name. She must secure a man with a fortune so she can survive in the society she wants to continue to enjoy. However, her proclivity for gambling & expensive tastes lead her into more debt & bad decisions. She becomes a tragic heroine.

What makes Lily Bart such an interesting “heroine” is that she’s not particularly likeable or easy to sympathize with. As a money-conscious reader in the 21st century trying to make it in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Lily’s thoughts about how awful her aunt’s draperies are didn’t really resonate with me. But, where I think the genius of Edith Wharton comes into play is that even though I couldn’t empathize with Lily’s lavish tastes & subsequent woes, I felt Wharton fleshed out her character so well that I could understand why these upsets would be so distressing to her, even though they weren’t to me. And I think great writing can make a reader feel for the character, even one they don’t really love.

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While reading it, I was really fascinated by Lily’s name because I know authors never choose these things lightly, especially in the era Wharton was writing (House of Mirth was published in 1905). “Lily” is such a beautiful but fragile name, like the flowers. And like Wharton’s main character. A beautiful woman with perfect poise and grace, yet swayed with every passing wind.

I was dissecting my thoughts on her name to the Artist, and he brought up an interesting connection. “Where else do lilies get mentioned—in the Bible?” The wheels were turning. Ah ha!

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

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As an aside, who knows if this allusion was in Wharton’s mind or not, but if I was in grad school again, I’d write a paper making this connection and linking it to how many times her appearance is mentioned as “veiled”. Lily’s name was a reminder of what she already had and didn’t need to strive for. But she kept striving anyway. Striving after men, money, and a good position, betraying her own heart along the way. But even when she almost seals the deal on a man, she calls it off or discreetly runs away.

“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”

Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness—and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”

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I think that’s one of the best lines in the book: “She despises the things she’s trying for.” And what a commentary this is on the society that bred her. It’s a bitter twist of fate when the woman who is raised to wear the best dresses & vacation in luxurious places is refused by the society that created her.

By the end, yes, there is sympathy for Lily Bart. At the end of the novel when she goes over to the home of a working-class girl in a tenement area of New York and makes the following remarks, the reader knows, “Okay, this is a different Lily. A wiser Lily whose veil has been lifted and who relearns her understanding of frailty, permanence, and of what it means to have a home and be at home in the world.

The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meager enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff—a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.

On a side note, the theme in this novel loosely reminded me of this song I am kind of in love with:

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That Time When My Fiancé Bought Me a Taylor Swift CD

He drops me off at work, mentions he’s going to hit up Target to see what they have on sale before they close.

“Ooh, maybe you could get the new Taylor Swift CD for me?” I say not too seriously. A friend had it on in the car the other day and though I was sceptical at first, I kinda liked her full-fledged immersion into pop.

“Haha, ya right,” he jokes. A fan of Johnny Cash, Patty Griffin, and Guns N’ Roses, Taylor Swift is not someone he would ever listen to on his own volition.

I forget about the conversation the rest of the day but guess what is waiting for me on the passenger seat when he picks me up?

1989

“You didn’t!”

“I did.”

“You actuallly got it for me!”

“Well, you said you wanted it.”

Not only did my fiancé buy me Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, but he bought me the deluxe version, complete with 3 bonus tracks and 3 voice memos about her songwriting process, as well as 13 polaroid photos of her with various song lyrics written in her hand at the bottom. I felt a little silly and teenager-like having all this T. Swift hoopla on me when I’m not even a huge fan, but on the other hand, I was impressed by how much she gives her fans. You can tell she really likes them. Considering a lot of musicians don’t even put their lyrics in the album booklet anymore (which is the only reason to even buy physical CDs rather than just getting them off iTunes, in my opinion), it was really refreshing to find all her lyrics in there AND a foreword to the album.

I have not followed the ins and outs of Taylor Swift’s life at all—just liked some of her hits now and then—but this foreword offered a pretty personal glimpse into her life. I think that’s what’s attractive to her fans—she talks to them like friends, like she’s learning and growing with them. I’ve always thought she was a good songwriter, but she’s also a pretty good prose writer.

For the last few years, I’ve woken up every day not wanting, but needing to write a new style of music. I needed to change the way I told my stories and the way they sounded. I listened a lot to music from the decade in which I was born and I listened to my intuition that it was a good thing to follow this gut feeling. I was also writing a different storyline than I’d ever told you before.

She goes on to discuss moving to New York City, something she said she’d never do. The big synth-pop sound of  her opening track “Welcome to New York” starts the album off with a bang that lets you know we are not in Nashville anymore.

Everybody here wanted something more

Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before

. . .

It’s a new soundtrack

I could dance to this beat

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That’s probably my favourite song on the album and it’s fun to sing to when driving, bass up, windows down (and yes, even my fiancé sings along!). “Welcome to New York” could become the next New York anthem (after “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay Z). Full of adventure and hope, it sounds like everything I remember feeling when I visited four years ago. I like songs that bring you back in an instant. “Style” is another fun one to sing to while driving. For a slower one, “You Are in Love” (one of the bonus tracks).

Anyway, I don’t often write about celebrities or albums but it’s been years since I’ve bought, let alone received a CD, and I felt this was one worth talking about.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

When I recently went back to Victoria to visit some friends, the University of Victoria’s 50th anniversary was also going on at the time. I attended the English Department’s special 50th anniversary reception entitled For the Love of Books.

Part of the evening included readings by alumni, current students and professors, sharing from their favourite books they had submitted to this blog. At the end of the evening, I left with the list of 50 favourite books the department had compiled for the celebration. Of course I liked to check off which ones I have and haven’t read. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was on that list – another reason why I decided to read it in addition to this reason.

On the 50 Special Books blog, the contributors gave a quotation from the book and an explanation of why they liked the quote or what special significance it has had for them in life.

I just finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and there are many quotes I could pick out. Even though it went at a slow pace in many places, I appreciated that it wasn’t “about” one particular thing. Told through the young girl Francie’s perspective, it describes her family’s experience growing up in poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919. Over 500 pages, this experience seems to capture everything there is to capture about life. As the foreword says, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.”

Since two passions of mine are cities and stories (and Francie wants to be a writer), I’ll choose a passage for each of these categories to share with you:

Cities:

Not far away was the lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the East River, like a fairy city made of silver cardboard, the skyscrapers loomed cleanly. There was the Brooklyn Bridge further away like an echo of the nearer bridge.

“It’s pretty,” said Francie. “It’s pretty the same way pictures of in-the-country are pretty.”

“I go over that bridge sometimes when I go to work,” Johnny [her father] said.

Francie looked at him in wonder. He went over that magic bridge and still talked and looked like always? She couldn’t get over it. She put out her hand and touched his arm. Surely the wonderful experience of going over that bridge would make him feel different. She was disappointed because his arm felt as it had always felt.

I got very excited at this part because I feel the same way as Francie about bridges – they must change you in some way when you reach the other side. (that will be another post for another day). But then Francie eventually crosses the bridge near the end of the story and this is what she concludes:

The Bridge had been the first disappointment. Looking at it from the roof of her house, she had thought that crossing it would make her feel like a gossamer-winged fairy flying through the air. But the actual ride over the Bridge was no different than the ride above the Brooklyn streets. The Bridge was paved in sidewalks and traffic roads like the streets of Broadway and the tracks were the same tracks. There was no different feeling about the train as it went over the Bridge. New York was disappointing. The buildings were higher and the crowds thicker; otherwise it was little different from Brooklyn. From now on, would all new things be disappointing, she wondered?

Stories:

Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or were a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn’t tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been. . . Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction. If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar.”

And because I really like this one, here’s one about life and the necessity of story. Francie’s grandmother, Mary Rommely, is telling her daughter (Katie) what she should teach Francie as she grows up. She tells her to teach stories of fairy tales and ghosts and elves and dwarfs and Kris Kringle. Katie asks her mom, “Why? When I myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. . .”

“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”

“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

a fairytale gingerbread house

In the novel, you see Francie’s emotions stretch. You see her learn the truth. You see her believe with all her heart and then not believe. Whether you agree this is good – I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

That which we call a city by any other name . . .

October 23-30 – the dates I was in New York, almost a year ago now. Whenever anniversaries of big life events come around, I like to revisit their time and space.

I recently re-read The Great Gatsby upon finding this hardcover edition at my favourite used bookstore in Victoria.

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others – poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner – young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I also re-read it so I could compare Fitzgerald’s 1920s New York to Amor Towles’ late 1930s New York in Rules of Civility, which I was reading with my book club.

Fitzgerald’s protagonist is male; Towles’ is female. Neither book could take place in any other city in their respective times. Filled with young people and deceptive appearances, their characters climb social ladders and never cease to be invited to party after party after [really? I can’t believe what drives the plot of this novel is another] party. But then again, The Great Gatsby explores the Roaring Twenties and the disillusionment after WWI. The Rules of Civility explores the hopes and ambitions of two fiercely independent best friends still trying to make it in very much a man’s world in 1938 through whatever it takes. Towles’ book isn’t the kind I highlighted for profound or insightful phrases (the fact that it was a library book hindered this possibility anyway), but I liked it just the same.

Now it seems I am doing with New York what I do with CDs – exhaust a disc by listening to it over and over. I am exhausting New York by listening to it in song and conversation, in re-reading my own notes from New York and in reading it in others’ words.

Yet as much as I read New York, I could never exhaust it. The city gives more than it takes, and it gives something different each time.

Reflecting Absence

It was nighttime, and I was disoriented. I would have been disoriented anyway. After going through an extensive security protocol that I quickly learned was normal in New York, my friend and I followed a security guard/tour guide along dark, twisting pathways through the bowels of Lower Manhattan. We weren’t really inside, but we weren’t outside either. I didn’t know where we were. Still I followed the guide along with other tourists, all of us walking solemnly, single file through this labyrinth. I wondered if I should be weaving a string through it like Theseus in case I needed to memorize the route back.

We weren’t actually underground, but it felt like it. We had been waiting in line to see the 9/11 memorial site in one area and emerged at the actual site in a completely different area, as if we had hopped on the subway and poked our heads up from underground at an arbitrary spot along the route.

After more twists and turns and fences signalling construction was still underway, I found myself exhaling deeply, unaware that I had been holding my breath. I was standing here, in this open space:

16-acres with a North and South Pool surrounded by a field of white oak trees.

The New York minute slowed to a crawl. Although we were at street level again and skyscrapers stood above us, this space felt immune to the obnoxious traffic sounds of New York. It was in but not in the city. A sacred space where you don’t notice other tourists, where you don’t feel inclined to rush, where the sound of the continuously flowing water and the sight of 2800 names of men, women, and children etched into the perimeter of the fountains silences you into stillness and contemplation. I traced my fingers along the names arranged in no particular order.

As the architects of the site explain, “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”

Chantal. Garth. Richard. Garth – I pointed this one out to my friend standing beside me. The same name as her husband. Thousands of names. Somebody’s husband, wife, child, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, colleague, friend.

The imprints of the two World Trade Center towers were bigger than I pictured when my mom burst through my bedroom door eleven years ago where I was sleeping to tell me of the crash. Bigger because there’s nothing to fill them. Open, deep, and visible reminders of loss. Designed by architect Michael AradReflecting Absence is a suitable name for the memorial, as what do holes do? Remind us that something isn’t whole, that there is an absence that can’t be made present again.

How do you erect a monument to something that isn’t there anymore? How do you make present what is absent, without trivializing or ignoring the enormity of what was lost? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you let the absence speak for itself, which is what I think these fountains do well. Some have criticized the memorial for not offering hope, but I don’t think the holes are entirely devoid of hope. They’re filled with rushing water, a sound that never grows old, that never grows hopeless. There’s movement, there’s renewal, there’s maybe even a reflection in there as life stares back at life.

My friend and I left a different way than we entered. Out one gate and onto the street. That was it. As we crossed streets and were surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, people shouting, and taxis honking again, we looked back on the site, still unsure of how we got there. Some spaces are like this – they lose you in the best possible way.

New York, I am remembering your names today.

Where they Wrote

I have this fascination with where writers lived—it is as if seeing where they dwelt, called home, and took up a pen and paper gives remarkable insight into the words they wrote and helps me understand them a little better. I like to know the space they were inspired in—and, I’m sure, equally struggled in, fighting the demons of distraction and a blank page.

This was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village — just a sliver of a building between the two trees. According to my NYC guidebook, “rising real-estate prices inspired the construction of this house—the city’s narrowest house at just 91/2 feet wide—in 1873.” Millay was an American writer best known for her poetry–perhaps you’ve come across this sonnet before?

Sonnet XLIII

What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

The oval plaque on the brick exterior above the door reads,

The irreverent poet, who wrote “my candle burns at both ends” lived here in 1923-24 at the time she wrote the “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Staying in New York and the same time period, I’ll show you another literary abode—that of American author John Steinbeck famous for The Grapes of Wrath (for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize) and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck lived at 38 Gramercy Park from 1925 to 1926 where he apparently struggled as a reporter for a New York newspaper.

Moving to Canada and the West Coast now, I’ll take you to two places Vancouver author Wayson Choy lived in on Keefer Street when his family first arrived from China. The mixed-use space on the left consists of a grocery store on the bottom and a Taoist church on top. As it was cramped, his family shortly moved to the house on the right in a more residential section of Keefer Street. The house has been dramatically fixed-up since the time he lived here, and he didn’t do his writing there, but still, visiting these sites helped me better understand his characters who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s that he describes in his book All that Matters and that I analyzed in my master’s essay. Space played such a big role in forming the characters’ friendships and sense of community.

Sneak preview of next week’s entry — I’ll invite you into one of my former writing spaces (where I wrote about said spaces above), so check back later!