I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

photo credit: Envision South Carolina

photo credit: Envision South Carolina

November 1, 2015: Josephine Humphreys

Josephine Humphreys is one of the writers I was reading when I decided, I want to do what they do. In those days, I inhaled Dreams of Sleep, Rich in Love, The Fireman’s Fair, and I can no longer remember which one I read first. Perhaps my favorite is her debut–Dreams of Sleep, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. I’m partial to novels about marriages. I’ve read it at least twice and have underlinings all the way through (and notes like, “see p. 112”).

Late in the novel, there’s this passage:

Iris is glad the clothes don’t seem to fit. May they never fit! If she were their mother she’d teach them these things are nothing, the clothes and toys and furniture. These things fool people into thinking they must stay where the things are. Leave it all, she’d teach them, even your hopes, and all the dreams of safe, calm places. Go with what is most terrifying, the dizzying empty night and the lonely stars until night slows and you see the whole design. Always choose love over safety if you can tell the difference, she’d teach them.

When I started writing this post, I was struck by how captivating, and different one from the other, each of the openings of these three novels is.

imgres-1Dreams of Sleep, published in 1984:

Before they wake, sunlight is on the house, moving on the high east wall and windows through old glass wavy as broken water, onto the hard bright floor of waxed pine. When Alice opens her eyes she sees its cool path stamped by the shadow of mullions, squares stretching to rhomboids of clear fall sun. Will sleeps behind her, his breath wisping her back. She loves the quiet of light and its mutable geometry, as those wizards did who chinked and slit their stones to let in messages from sun gods. The message to Alice is, Don’t move. Not till that first stamp of light touches the wide crack in the floorboards. Till then she is frozen. The room is frozen. Only two things may move–the slow light, and his feathery perfect breath between her shoulder blades.

I’m a language nut so I’m swooning. And I love being inside a woman’s head. Plus, from the first paragraph we know there’s a “they,” a narrator who can move outside Alice’s head (before they wake), and that “they” is Alice and Will. Frozen is repeated. Alice sees the world in light and shapes and messages.

imgres-2Rich in Love, published in 1987:

On an afternoon two years ago my life veered from its day-in day-out course and became for a short while the kind of life that can be told as a story–that is, one in which events appear to have meaning. Before, there had been nothing worth telling the world. We had our irregularities; but every family has something or other out of whack. We had my mother’s absent-mindedness, my sister’s abnormal beauty, my father’s innocence; and I was not without oddities of my own. We were characters, my friend Wayne said. But nothing about us was story material.

Until the day, May 10, when one of us betrayed the rest and set off a series of events worth telling.

With Rich in Love, right away we know we’re going to be told a story worth telling, a story that is only two years old and contained in that two-year period, a story about a family. Then we have the lovely list of oddities, but we are not told what the narrator’s oddity is. The specificity of the list combined with a missing element heightens the tension. And…we know there will be a family betrayal. Which can be specifically pinned to May 10th. How can we not keep reading?

imagesThe Fireman’s Fair, published in 1991:

In his lawn chair under the Carolina sun, Rob Wyatt sat recuperating, keeping an eye on what was out there–his ruined island town, the blue yonder–as if recovery could be gained by the old southern method of sitting, mulling one’s fate, watching things that don’t move much. Over the deserted houses, the water tower loomed. Air stirred in the oleander. Sunk in the mud marsh across the street, listing but upright, was a white piano, by now not a strange sight among the herons and the barn swallows–for now, and here, one saw extraordinary things. Past the piano was a stairway leading to nowhere, and then a four-poster bed, forlorn but inviting. Rob believed in salvage. He could have retrieved some good things; but instead he let them be, as reminders.

Whereas in Dreams of Sleep, the sunlight was moving; in The Fireman’s Fair, things don’t move much. Whereas in the debut, we started inside; here, we start outside. With strong “r” words: recuperating, ruined, recovery, retrieved, reminders. And Rob. Rob Wyatt–we’re starting at a farther distance away from the character than we did with Alice. Place is important–mentioned over and over in this opening–the Carolina sun, the island town, the old southern method of sitting, the mud marsh… “S” words too–sun, southern, sitting, sunk, strange, swallows, stairway, salvage. I just love language. And these images–the white piano, the stairway leading to nowhere, the four-poster bed.

imgres-3Nowhere Else on Earth, published in 2000, is a historical novel that takes place in 1864 in North Carolina amidst Union and Confederate fighting. Sixteen-year-old Rhoda Strong falls in love with the outlaw hero Henry Berry Lowrie, and she struggles not only for love but also for survival.

Josephine is a native of Charleston, South Carolina, which is the setting for the first three of her novels. She wrote about Charleston for the Smithsonian.com. 

I’ve lived my whole life here. I know too much. Nothing I see is simply scenery or event, but all is overlaid with memories, and those memories with other memories and stories, plus the truth of history as I’ve learned it over time, and finally with a film of dreams and losses, bits of music, discoveries, tragedies, wild comedy and fragments of desire. I never think of Charleston as my “hometown.” I don’t know what I should call it, except maybe my life.

Come back on NOVEMBER 1st to read how JOSEPHINE HUMPHREYS spends her days.