Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Family of Time

Lionel Basney

When I was a boy, most of the people I knew called me "Joe." I'm not sure what prompted the name, except that it had begun with my parents and was therefore official. I had no other nickname; I was too young for a locker-room label, and the neighborhood used Joe. So intime did everyone else - town, cousins, mere acquaintances, even (though they lived a long waysaway) my grandparents.

I suspect most of us have nicknames, and perhaps many like this, the parents' name, the family's name. When we pass 18 or so, the rites of passage require that we give our nicknames up. My students will admit having had them but will not tell what they were. This is plain enough: 18-year-olds don't want childhood, recent, urgent, calling to them in the college halls. But they give themselves away. Even as the refuse, their faces color with a look of longing. The names they cannot say are still calling to them in their hearts.

When my sister was old enough to go to school, my parents pronounced a fiat in favor of my legal name and began to reel in the network of Joes. The name disappeared in the family overnight, and cleared up more slowly on the block. In time the uncles and cousins lost it, though I think they still have not become accustomed to "Lionel" and say it (as many people do) with a slight hesitation.

Finally only one person stuck with Joe and has stuck with it to the present day. She was the nurse and office manager of the local doctor, witness to the midnight flus and eruptions of allergy, to which I was particularly susceptible. She was always gossipy, gruff, and careful. She had grown up in a small north Pennsylvania town, gone to college, and settled in the little college town, as it turned out, for life.

The doctor she worked for was gray and quiet, with the learned calm of the professional man of crisis. She was brisk and loud. She was the kind to take the town over, to criticize all its doings and conduit all its news. She worked with a kind of belligerent casualness: her desk always a reef for paper, she always standing behind it in her uniform, talking loud, apparently never consulting the records, stuffing folders into the filing cabinet apparently without checking where they went. No matter how tense the moment, she was talking; no matter how raucous her laughter, her eyes mourned. These were advantages: the wretched child, abandoned in the green ­walled, odd-smelling consulting room, with the blank dampness of the middle of the night around him, was quieted if not solaced by her sad glance and the rasp of her laughter. Anyhow she struck with the nickname, or it stuck with her, for decades after its official revocation. She shocked my fiancee with it - "Joe? What's a Joe?" - and I imagine puzzled everyone else, because by the time I was a man, all my siblings and playmates, everyone who would remember, had moved away. It was still in my mind, of course - the anchor caught in the dark harbor of the past, the line tugging back - and still in hers, though what it meant to her, if it meant anything but habit, I don't know. Was it loyalty? Were "Lionel" and all the pretensions to adulthood that went with it just aberrations to be corrected by that sharp north-country tongue?

Did she see in my lank face the round grave face of the child ill with poison sumac? My medical record must have said "Lionel." So much for the record.

I go back to that town, not often but regularly, and on my last visit I heard that she was ill. One afternoon as we sat and talked in my parents' living room there was a slight sound outside, a footfall. My father was first to the door. It was Barbara, halfway back to her car. She turned as he came out, irresolute, at bay; we followed in a flood. She had been driving by, she said, had seen the Michigan plate, and figured it was Joe. She just wanted to say hi. We said hi all around, awkwardly, estranged by the feeling that there was nothing more to say. Later we talked it over. "You know Barbara," my mother said. "All these years she's been so hard. Now that she's sick, she wants everyone to know she really cared about them."

But we had known that; we had always seen it. This is a small place we shared for 30 years, the prototypical small town where everything is known and individuals come to play supporting roles to their entire acquaintance - community handyman or shower-giver, community provider of comfort or amusement. Barbara had been everyone's older sister­ resourceful, scornful, as dependable as illness itself and therefore a source of comfort. She had taken our measure as often as our temperature.

This devotion to a limited, repetitive mob in a narrow place - keeping records, laying out the charts and bandages, calling the ambulance, turning up at two in the morning in her small sports car, shadows around her eyes darker than every, ushering the hysterical children, chatting with the frantic parents, keeping the endless lines of gossip clear through the waiting-room window, the hair graying, the walk thickening, keeping the children straight with the parents and grandparents, keeping the town straight - what else could this have been but love? No one needed to have it said.

Or not at the time. Now, of course, things were different: when ordinary routine life breaks down, as it must, words are instantly necessary. We need them, urgently, at the moment when their inadequacy is clearest.

Afraid of the moment, embarrassed, we prepare things to say, litanies, the jargon of ministers and counselors, thank-you luncheons and service pins. All of this is beside the point. The experience has been spontaneous, unanticipated, the language is preformulated, stiff, and general. Life comes downstream to us in a jumble - people places, obligations, trouble, disaster, communities assembled piecemeal like the contents of our memories and the names we know each other by. Better, perhaps, to speak of it that way - casually, using the ordinary words the nicknames; saying what comes to mind.

The Spirit will tell you, in that hour what you must say - partly because it is the hour that makes the words. When Barbara said, "I just wanted to say hi to Joe," she was speaking poetry, certainly to me and I suspect (without knowing) to herself. For me it was one more twitch on the long line into the past of my self, that secret land no one else will ever enter and I will never leave; one more half-recovery of the time when I ran my chipped metal cars around in the dirt under the tall, sharp-skinned firs, themselves now only a memory. For her it was. . . but I have no right to say. She was making contact again; she was reassembling the town, clearing one of the lines of succession, announcing to us and to herself that she was part of the family. She is, of course; only the family, as we all saw for a moment, is larger than the town, or my parents, wife, and children. It is the family of time.

P.S. I wrote the first draft of this essay about a year ago, all in a sitting. A week or two later, with many misgivings but counting on the advice of people I trust, I sent Barbara a copy. It was partly an act of writers' conscience. I thought she has a right to see what had been written about her. I didn't expect to hear from her directly, and I didn't. I heard, indirectly, that she had been touched by the piece, and had given it to friends to read.

It would be easy to make too much of this. She had better things to do in those days of her illness than read my prose. My largest hope was that the essay would fit in with those other matters; that it would help her to think well of her life, or at least of God's difficulty intentions and how they had in fact worked out. I hoped it would help her to see her life in order; to know that she had not lived unnoticed.

I saw her, briefly, for a last time, a few weeks ago. In her terrible descent into illness, she had become all but unrecognizable. My mother bent over the bed: "Here's Joe come to see you."
"Give me a hug, Joe."

She came in and out of the morphine, groping and paddling with her hands in the air, murmuring. My wife and I linked hands and sang across the foot of the bed: "Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations. . . . " I don't think she understood. She was already beyond us.

She has since died, after great pain long-continued. The thing about her passing which gives me most comfort is the patient willingness of members of that small town to stay with her, hour after hour, as she went. It is particularly good to record that even people who for one reason or another have lived on the margins of the community - the tiny minority of Roman Catholics, for instance, in that overwhelmingly Protestant and evangelical place - came one by one to take their places in the vigil. Many others might have come: people from small towns all around that part of the county, hill people from the welfare farms. Barbara made them all family.

My attendance at that bedside was brief and easy. It was full of the suspended emotion you register when you are afraid pain or embarrassment is coming. But I was obliged to it – I had earned the right to it - simply by having grow up in that place, as I was, as I was called.

Now the place and the time are a step further off.

Now this essay is orphaned. Its first use was to help in someone's last summing up, her last effort at reconciliation. I don't know whether it served or not; I am humbled by the fact that I will never know, for certain, what its effect was. It alters one's notion of writing, in a healthy way, to see it not as gift or craft or cultural mandate but as response to mortal need.

I believe that crafts like writing are ordained for us to practice. I also believe that little of our work, even when we do it carefully, has its proper motive or place in other lives; most of it, therefore, will have to be repented of.

The image of this repentance, for a writer, is Job repenting of his words about God. He has not sinned, but he has been inadequate; he has spoken of what he did not know. I feel like that: I said something, as I felt compelled to do; but I have my hand across my mouth. Seeing my writing in the light of Barbara's need, I saw some of its pretentiousness and irresponsibility and tried to remove them. But the artist's repentance is deeper than that, and less easily performed. It has to do with the status of the art itself, its place in people's lives. It is less important than we sometimes think, and claim. Its best economy is simply to be one of the expedients by which people endure their coming hither and their going hence.

There are better expedients, known and practiced by people who do not care about writing. What writing knows of wisdom depends on its willingness to settle down among other things - those day and night hours of simply waiting by the bed, keeping company with fear and pain, those acts of a harder, purer charity. There, if anywhere, this odd business of words must find its place.