The ProsenPeople

The Dignity of an Empty Parking Lot

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor, taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf's short stories, wrote about the blog post as literary form and imagined the interior lives of two strangers in a coffee shop. Today, in her last post, she ruminates on bodies, and the struggle to align our outer selves with our inner selves. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside of us.
—Virginia Woolf, “Montaigne”

I love when we watch TV shows I’ve already seen because I can fall asleep with impunity, awkwardly arranged on our crummy couch. It’s better than shifting miserably for ninety minutes trying to find an adequate arrangement of throw pillows to relieve the hot throbbing at the base of my skull. So much easier to just pass out. It’s after eleven anyway.

I was brilliant and energetic last night. Between Foyle’s War and bed, I thought to take three ibuprofen and also to ice my neck. I slept better than I have in weeks and didn’t need to move cautiously in the morning, lest my head roll off my body.

I dreamed that I was doing cartwheels across a sun-drenched lawn, every part of my body arching muscularly against the vortex. Every time I inverted, diving down like a superhero toward the grass, my left arm gave way, over and over again.

My friend Diane and I took the kids to a park in central New Jersey for a hike last week. It was a promising morning, the sunlight dappled and clean, the blue air freshly washed from three days of rain. It was a bit of a drive to get out of the city and we all gasped dramatically as we turned off the highway onto a country lane dotted with pretty stone farmhouses and geese ponds. We hadn’t had a GPS signal for miles by that point, and made our way by feel to the park entrance. 

Just as we turned in, the skies opened up. “It’s just a summer storm,” we said merrily to the children. “It’ll clear up.” “They said it wasn’t going to rain until four,” Diane reassured me. “Who knew it was going to rain at all?” I protested, and then laughed because the drops kept coming down faster and harder. We pulled the car into a good spot, under a tree, near the trail maps, and then watched through the sheets of rain as drenched families emerged from the park, shirts wet to transparency, hair plastered to forehead, soft sneakers extruding little puddles around each footfall. “I cannot believe our timing,” I repeated absurdly. “It’ll pass,” offered my daughter fantastically.

The children ate their sandwiches and then decided that the best way to wait out the storm would be to change into their bathing suits (an elaborate process that involved arguing about who goes first, shouting loudly, diving over the seat into the way back, kicking the car roof on the way, exacting solemn oaths of not looking, and then shouting some more because it was all taking too long), and play in the rain. Nature’s sprinkler! It was a grand idea.

I sat in the driver’s seat, gnawing without pleasure on a gluten-free meal bar. It had been a long August. I had slept too much and too little, hadn’t worked as much as I needed to, and only had sporadically satisfying solutions for quality family time. I was frequently irritable, icing my neck, or distant, engaged in endless conversation with my imaginary friend, Mandy Patinkin.

The night before I’d barely slept, nor had I slept much the night before that. I was exhausted but cheered by how beautiful it was even in the downpour. Diane ate shortbread cookies and pressed cool water bottles to her forehead, trying to ward off a migraine. We watched the children frolic in the parking lot. We were proud of their resilience and antics. I tried to calculate how much extra energy I would need to just get out of the car and join them.

“Why aren’t you going out?” I asked my son, who of the three children had resolutely decided to stay in the car and just watch. “They’re having so much fun,” said Diane. “I have my dignity,” he answered unsurely.

I’ve been working for the last five years with my godmother on a book about her life in twentieth century music. Last spring, soon after we’d sent the completed manuscript off to the publishers, she took a spill in her garden. She’s in her nineties now, outlived all her siblings and all but one of the great musicians we gossip about in her memoir. Pierre Boulez and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both managed to die within months of each other and just as we wrote the final chapters. There were many instances over the course of our project when she would lash out at me for my leisurely pace. “Minna,” she would email me, “I’m going to die before we finish this and that will be on you.”

“Minna,” she emailed me, “I fell in the garden. It was scary.”

Later she described to me how she’d been picking beetles off the roses and just tripped. She described the event as if it happened silently and in slow motion, as it must have been on the soft carpet of her lawn that sunny morning. She is so small and round, I imagine that from inclining over a rose petal to the ground must not have been a great distance. She told me that she stayed there where she fell, flat on her back among her flowers, staring up at the blue sky. First, trying to figure out if she’d died, then just to see the sky and feel her body against the ground. Hours passed. And then she got up again. Nothing broken, just some bruises.

I love to dance—if that’s what you can call what I do. It feels more like thrashing into entropy, swinging my limbs fast and high, releasing myself from the horizon line. Barking at the volume and heavy beats. Leaping into shapes, stomping, landing hard with my bare feet. I’m here, my feet insist to the ground. Feel me as I feel you. It’s not dignified in the least. I danced this summer at a university event, out in the formal garden. There was a split second, a reckless movement, and I tossed my head too fast, too suddenly. I caught sight of the full moon out of the corner of my eye, in an instant felt my neck crack, the sound splitting up between my ears and the gleaming moon exploded into so many dizzying flashes of pain. Keep dancing, I told myself. If I didn’t stop, it would mean that nothing had happened.

I regret, though the moment is now long gone, not getting out of the car in the rainstorm. Regret not grabbing my son by the hand and making him run with me in the rain. No one would have seen. What’s the cost of sheer sensation? It was only a few minutes, after all, before the wet clouds blew away and the golden light of a late summer afternoon flooded our eyes.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

On Why You Must Never Depend on One Coffee Shop

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor wrote about Virginia Woolf's short stories and the blog post as literary form. Today, taking inspiration from the narrator in Woolf's "Street Haunting" who attempts to inhabit the minds of the people she passes on London's streets, Minna imagines the interior lives of a couple in a coffee shop. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”

There is a couple in the coffee shop where I'm working today who are talking about running away together. I’m trying hard not to eavesdrop, forcing their perfectly audible conversation to muddle itself in my ears, the way you can make your vision blur by relaxing your eyes. But the mutter and rhythms of their conversation is just as revealing as specific words would be. Sometimes they stop talking entirely, reach across the small table to hold hands and stare deeply at each other, at a length that only belongs to the besotted. The prolonged gaze that would make a friend look away or bore a spouse. Between these two, the looking feels like a hungry tattoo, imprinting this stolen time. Because neither one has actually abandoned their real lives. This is stolen time in a crude and absurd coffee shop—forged bohemian in a neighborhood of immigrants, pensioners, taxi drivers, and substitute public school teachers—with amber light bulbs, putty colored walls, a series of seventeen provisionally framed sketches by a local artist hung in a distressingly uneven horizontal line…

He’s older than she is by some years. Bald and white grey, in a short sleeve chambray button-down that fits loosely, timeless casual, over khakis. He’s wearing socks under his sandals. She’s in jeans and an expensive, form fitting fleece. Clogs. Her curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and held off her face with a brightly colored headband. She has her back to me but I can see from this angle that she has beautiful cheekbones and practical glasses. Her earrings are from a museum gift shop.

It’s pouring out and still early morning. Even though I’m only catching snatches of conversation, I know they are talking about how to make big decisions. Talking about the way people in their lives, a son maybe or sister, are resilient. Anticipating consequence. At one point, he tells her the story of a great betrayal. I don’t mean to listen—but up look up accidentally from my book and catch him wiping tears when he says, “He was the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Tall, grown men crying breaks my heart. Nothing else makes me want to solve everything in the world that can’t be solved more than a crying man, not even when my own children weep (children always weep). “I either want to come back to Brooklyn,” she says suddenly, “or Boston.” I understand, I think. “But do you have another offer in Boston?” he answers and there’s more silence before she answers with a long discourse on failings that I can’t hear but think would sound too familiar if I did. Boring to hear one’s own endless neuroses rehearsed once that first shock of recognition has evaporated.

They stand to leave. They embrace with great affection and sadness, for letting each other go, for having to let each other go. Affection so chaste and enduring. The physical contact of a lifetime. I see now as he turns from her and walks out the door, upright and bravely inclined as tall people are, before he even hits the street, against the rain. Leaving her standing behind, phone already in hand, preparing for the next moment of her day. I see now what’s been grotesquely evident all along, they are not lovers, they are father and daughter.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

Cat Without A Tail

Monday, September 11, 2017 | Permalink

Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories, out September 15th from Catapult. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing the occasional piece, such as this one, is a special kind of torture. Not least because I’ve had in mind for as long as I can remember putting names to forms that the term “occasional piece” actually and officially described something literary (and not a piece of furniture). And that “something” would correlate to a blog post—a gorgeous lineage that would have taken its primordial urge in vast antiquity, philosophy and spiritual writing, taken form under Montaigne and rolled forward steadily gathering variations on substance and style through Virginia Woolf, to the contemporary moment. Though if the writing has been a shapely snowball descending through the centuries, its labels have been troublesome entropic pebbles. I have decided to call this an “occasional piece” for the same decorative reasons that I decided my book of personal essays should be referred to not as personal essays but as true stories and although there were moments in the course of writing them that I was convinced I was advancing theories of narrative forms, I was more accurately writing memoir. Oh, for the days when everything long was a novel and everything short a story.

There are three most important tools for an essayist, or memoirist: truth, storytelling, and observation. Though classified historically as automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness, seldom as memoir, Virginia Woolf’s occasional pieces are paragons of intricate and sensitive observation, in which the evolution of her perception is always the story itself, and truth breathes like an organism in her perfect transparency.

Virginia Woolf tossed them off—my fantastical perception. I have this (potentially ahistorical) idea that in the period before blog posts, the occasional piece was an exercise, a writing calisthenic that Woolf performed muscularly between novels. She was exercising her pencil—why a pencil? Because it was the pursuit of a pencil that led her out walking “half across London,” late afternoon, in “Street Haunting.” “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one.” Though widely anthologized, however, I can’t read “Street Haunting” with pleasure. To me it reads too much like work, like sweaty, impeccably executed calisthenics and a treatise on observation: “The eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances.”

Her pencil led her in brilliant circles. Frequently cited as Woolf’s first published “short story,” “The Mark on the Wall,” is more than story or essay in any classical sense a dramatic musing. I have a colleague who lectures eloquently about “The Mark of the Wall,” singing out in his lectures the brutal devastation of the First World War—the voluminous compression of a war story seen in a spot. As devastating the final shrinking of all life, all those young boys’ lives lost, to a mark on the wall, I can’t read that magnificent piece as anything but an indictment of domesticity. This pencil at work, flying over the pages, almost orgiastically as it searches for what, or rather where, the mind will lead, I hold my breath every time because I know what’s coming—they always do in real life. There’s “a vast upheaval of matter and someone is standing over me—.” Her husband has walked into the room, the scene, onto the page. The spell is broken as it always is when a writer is absorbed back into life. The piece must end because that was the time allotted by circumstances to the thought, the journey, the door on the room of her own, after which there must be resolve. It is only a piece and inspired yet formed entirely, as blog posts must also be, by its occasional-ness.

My heart instead belongs entirely to “The Death of the Moth.” For in this very small piece a battle is waged for significance, vastness, and eternity by a very small moth—“He was little or nothing but life”—and the moth wins. Because in the course of this most remarkable account, Woolf transforms the moth: “Watching him,” she writes, “it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.” Here Woolf ignites a cosmology, a spiritual transcendence, the link between her ability to see, witness, observe and what’s vast and unseeable, what makes faith.

With her pencil, Woolf prods at the moth in her window frame, as if by righting its tiny body, she could suspend its death throes. “I lifted the pencil again,” she writes “useless though I knew it to be.” But a moth, coming to the end of its life cycle, doesn’t need saving from death—the gesture is useless—it needs, we need, its life to be saved from insignificance. Which she does, ultimately, by lifting her pencil and putting it to paper—a moth, a testament, the book—immortalizing the moment, this moment, and linking it to eternity.

Can one hope that in all these words, this proliferation of words that fills every screen and waking moment, there are some few, exquisite ones that can stop time long enough to see God?

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.