Today was the first day of the week that I have not had to go from school to the Duke restaurant. Instead, I came home to cook dinner. OK, first I took a basketball nap, meaning I dozed off watching first round games of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, and then I went grocery shopping, and then I cooked dinner. Around our table tonight were Cherry, Diane, and Julie, each one of whom we have known since she was sixteen, though they each marked that age in different years. Julie, our former foster daughter, is visiting from Boston, so I made Chicken Broccoli Ziti, her favorite, and the five of us sat around the table for three or four hours telling stories that moved through time as though it were a big old house with rooms of memories that could be explored at will.
I received my weekly email today from the Utne Reader, one of the things in my life that allows me to get caught off guard, to find a link to an article about “The Fine Art of Re-reading Books” written by Richard O’Mara. In the middle of it he writes of a recalled memory brought to light by his re-reading:
Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.
The article caught my eye because I am re-reading A Passage to India because one of my friends at the Durham restaurant wanted to read it. The last time I read it, I was teaching British Literature at Winchester High School, and I am finding the faces and questions of my students between the lines as I work my way down the page. When I was asked to teach the class, I asked my department head if I could do something other than start at Beowulf and march down through the years. When she said yes, I gravitated to colonial and post-colonial literature because it was what I knew experientially from my days in Africa and it was the literature that moved me. I knew from experience that offering literature that didn’t move me was to offer my students a corpse of a class: we would find no life there. That first year I went from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (still one of my favorites) to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Forster to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, moving from colonialism to the days of independence, from separation to the first attempts at friendship across the divides caused by imperialism and conquest.
Ginger, Cherry, Diane, and Julie were all a part of my life in those days, though none of them was in the class or reading the books. As O’Mara said, I find the memories of the days we spent together stuck to the pages as I read again of Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested:
They had made such a romantic voyage across the Mediterranean and through the sands of Egypt to the harbour of Bombay, to find only a gridiron of bungalows at the end of it. But she did not take the disappointment as seriously as Miss Quested, for the reason that she was forty years older, and had learnt that Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually. (23)
The five of us around the table tonight, eating and drinking and talking, took me back to any number of Thursday nights at our home in Charlestown. For several years we had Thursday Night Dinners for whoever wanted to come. If you came once, you had a place card; once you had the card, you always had an invitation. You just had to call by noon on Wednesday to let us know you were coming. The number varied, but the experience was the same: long after we had finished eating we sat around the table talking and laughing and making memories, just as we did tonight. Yet, we didn’t sit down tonight to recreate something that happened years ago. We re-read our lives together and fell into the stream of memory and meaning that remains as present as it does past.
An author puts words to page because he or she can do no other, I suppose, trusting that answering the call to art is a worthwhile response, even if that response feels somewhat feeble and futile. How could the story of an old woman in India be a response to the British colonial enterprise? I don’t know how to answer that question with anything other than I am reading the book again, eighty-five years later.
Wait. I have one more answer. The story is as significant as our supper tonight. On this seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, in the middle of the struggle for healthcare reform, in the silence and struggle that followed earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, in the middle of the change and grief and sorrow and hope that mark our own lives, we sat down for dinner together. We sat down with all of those who once gathered around the table in Charlestown, with the memories of our shared existence, and with the understanding that whenever the adventure presents itself we will be ready to remind one another to take the risk.
I left the table filled and ready for adventure, whenever it shows up.