This is the fourth installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which will run every Wednesday this month.
The field where I played soccer before I had breasts was called Metacomet Park. A nylon net full of balls would be spilled on the field for drills, and we ate orange wedges at halftime. Metacomet, known otherwise as Metacom or King Philip, was a Wampanoag chief, and in 1676, fifty-six years after the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Plymouth, he was assassinated in a swamp. The Puritans dismembered him, tore apart his limbs, hung his body parts in trees. The man who shot him got his hand as a trophy. For over twenty years, his head was displayed on a stake in Plymouth.
Around the time that I played soccer at Metacomet, I also took walks with my mother in the fields near our house. Now those fields are no longer fields; they’re a subdivision where houses rise out of the land like crops, lined and alike, and the driveways arc at the same angles and the cars in the driveways are large and the bushes are tidy and round and all is neat and safe and lobotomizing. When my mother and I walked in the fields, no road or roof in sight, I thought about arriving on a land with no houses, with no streets or sockets or sinks, with no supermarkets to buy Fruit Roll-Ups or grapes. I imagined myself stepping onto the sand, seeing trees and high grass at sway in the wind. Now what? You’d have to be brave, I thought, facing that space. How do you just create a whole new world? I learned later that wasn’t the right question. A world had already been created in that place. How do you steal a world? How do you destroy it? How do you rewrite the story so it sounds so uncomplicated?
In a story about Metacomet, Washington Irving writes: “Society is like a lawn, where every roughness is smoothed, every bramble eradicated, and where the eye is delighted by the smiling verdure of a velvet surface; he, however, who would study nature in its wildness and variety, must plunge into the forest, must explore the glen, must stem the torrent, and dare the precipice.”
All this pruning, smoothing, and de-wilding; all this denial of mess and tangle; all this false comfort found on the surface of things. In my family, we don’t make much eye contact with each other. Rarely do we hug. We laugh hard and tell the same stories and like being around each other, but we do not look each other in the eye. I have wondered about this. Growing up, I felt bewildered at other people’s houses, seeing my friends embraced by their parents, their heads petted, their faces kissed. How strange, I thought. When we gather now, we laugh and the feeling is mostly of ease and well-being but discomfort, too, because who is more frustrating and devastating than the members of your family? The comfort and discomfort of brothers and sisters and parents, of knowing each other so deeply and so well, in ways we don’t ever know other people, and also not knowing each other at all. There’s a distance there, born of embarrassment. It’s the embarrassment of intimacy, of this shared blood chugging in the veins, and the embarrassment of mortality, You will be gone, and you will be gone, and I will be gone, and I cannot know that and meet your eyes right now.
Gaston Bachelard ranks intimacy as the ultimate aim, our highest value. Mark Doty, in his slim book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, grapples with the view:
I resist this statement at first. What about artistic achievement, or moral courage, or heroism, or altruistic acts, or work in the cause of social change? What about wealth or accomplishment? And yet something about it rings true, finally—that what we want is to be brought into relation, to be inside, within. Perhaps it’s true that nothing matters more to us than that.
Bachelard writes of the memory of first homes, of being within our original nests: “If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” How do we create, or re-create, that feeling of quiet and sanctuary, of being enclosed, enwombed, and held? And how do we balance that with a need for movement, independence, thrill, and elsewhere? Doty writes of the dueling impulses between home and away, the need “for the deep solid place of roots and belonging” and “the desire for travel and motion, for the single separate spark of the self fiercely moving forward, out into time, into the great absorbing stream of the world.”
That great absorbing stream is exactly where Ishmael aims himself when it’s a damp, drizzly November in his soul. When he turns grim about the mouth, he takes to the sea where “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.” Away from home, rootless, wild, one can ask the simpler questions. One can find out what one misses and find out what one needs. Getting out is also another way of looking in.
It’s no coincidence that Melville raises Narcissus in those opening paragraphs of Moby Dick, Narcissus who gazes at his rippling reflection and cannot grasp “the tormenting, mild image” and so plunges in and drowns. Every water surface, velvet smooth, offers up that tormenting image, with the “ungraspable phantom of life” below it. Lean over. Look. What’s there? What’s on the other side of that smooth surface? Fathomless depths, total dark, the great yawn, the shadow, the gape, the frightening mess that’s easier to avoid. Look and look. The surface is penetrable, just slip on through, but you don’t come out, or maybe you just don’t come out the same.
Maybe it’s why we have a hard time holding each other’s eyes in my family: to look too long is to risk that plunge, to see ourselves reflected back and see what’s there beyond. We face ourselves, we face the history inherited to us, and we rush backward in time to an original nest, to an open field, to a source we only rarely get to touch.
In that aching intimacy between the ones who share blood, the ungraspable phantom lives behind their eyes. “I love to sail forbidden seas,” claims Ishmael, “and land on barbarous coasts.” That’s what’s there to be found when one veers toward the darker, less hospitable pockets of our minds and selves. “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” says Ishmael. We run, and we return.
In a letter from 1865, Emily Dickinson, who never left New England, writes, “It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sundowns sterner … —is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon … I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.” And she goes on to write of the death of the maid of the family. “I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her.” Being in the habit of someone is a good way to describe love. What is love if not a habit? An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary—a deepest sort of intimacy—and a tendency or practice that’s especially hard to give up. And even more, to inhabit. I am in the habit of you. I inhabit you. I exist within.
And maybe, like Doty says, nothing matters more. But it can be a hard place to be. So we take to sea, hurl ourselves into the world. But those remote and barbarous coasts are close by, too, right across the table, and there to be found as you lock eyes for a moment passing a plate that’s full and warm. We leave home and return to it. We re-create approximations of it from memory or imagination. We learn and then learn more. The way I was taught, Thanksgiving was all so simple and so lovely in its aims—food and gratitude, a feast to celebrate the bounty of the harvest. It wasn’t until much later that I learned how much more complicated it is, and the part we play in that history. It’s hard to look and necessary to look, to know ourselves and know the world, to know that a thieving took place, and a smoothing of the surface of the story. Look, and look harder, to better reckon with who we are and what we come from, and to mourn what’s been taken by violence or time.
During these feast days, dare the precipice. Look out and in, deep as you can. As you gather around a table to celebrate the bounty of the harvest, let things be messy and strange and complicated. How strange it is, to exist within, to belong, and how alienating, to be inside and outside at the same time, part of something and separate. How painful, how lucky, all this blood and love. A plate passed across space, a laugh, an easy or uneasy acknowledgment: here we are. For now, here we all are. And that is plenty.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read earlier installments of Novemberance here.