Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Walking with Maeve Brennan's Spirit

"Somebody said, 'We are real only in moments of kindness.'"
The above quote is from the "Author's Note" to The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan. The book is a compilation of columns she wrote for the New Yorker in the 1950s-60s about her walks around New York. These are not sightseeing walks, yet she sees sights, most of which are contained within a few blocks of wherever she is currently living. There are old brownstones with restaurants underneath them, buildings in various states of demolition, one of her favorite eateries, Le Steak de Paris, and "The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown" (43). But more importantly to her are the people that come and go from these places and how they behave towards one another, the little moments of humanity within the rushing city.

In "On the A Train" from February 15, 1958, a man offers her his seat but she declines, mistakenly saying her stop is next. Although it becomes very important to her that she right her mistake so that the man does not think ill of her, she worsens the situation. She ends the piece with "Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do" (16). This feeling carries over into a story from July 23, 1960, "Giving Money in the Street" (175). Brennan gives an "unfortunate-looking woman" a dollar, but the woman repeatedly calls after her, "It's too much." Brennan feels uneasy thinking about why this should be so. Her moments of kindness, such as the one in the latter piece, actually become her challenges. Perhaps this is the reality, then: we face conflicts when we are awakened from our entrenched thoughts and worn routines, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Brennan finds these moments of challenge in what I call the "stories in the days." I'm a fan of the story in the day—and one is always there, if only we watch for it. Brennan made watching for those stories her job, and she got paid to notice them. Reading her observations, frettings, and musings heightened my own awareness and got me looking very closely at a routine walk that I take around my neighborhood. I started choosing objects along the walk to revisit and I started watching for changes. A monumental urn was placed in a park where the day before no urn existed. A house was demolished over the period of five days. Chairs migrated to the curb, then disappeared. A discarded wooden box was eventually spraypainted with a colorful face. I started listening to the snippets of conversations and arguments of other walkers passing me, and I imagined the kinds of challenges they faced.

I walked with a friend recently past some Jehovah's Witnesses who commented on her "nice hound." When she and I sat down at a shady bench in a park nearby they approached us, asking us if we would like some reading material. It was a Friday. She told them "Shabbat Shalom" and that she was Jewish. "Shalom means peace, doesn't it?" asked one man. Yes, it does. She smiled radiantly at them and they went on their way. She said, "Instead of an uncomfortable moment, I like to make it a teaching moment."

All these details are teaching moments. I'm still walking, examining, revisiting, and listening. The focus on these details is like getting a hearing aid or a new paintbrush and adds clarity, humility, and color to my walks. I thank my friend, and if I could, I would thank Ms. Brennan (1917-1993). These are real gifts, just right, not too much at all.

At the New Yorker's website you can read some of the abstracts/summaries of the Maeve Brennan's columns by searching the archive for "long-winded lady." If you are a subscriber already, you can read the full stories.



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