‘Watchman’: True colors or subtle shades?

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What do we do when the distinct colors of childhood show up in shades we couldn’t discern before? (Photo by Alexas_Fotos)

When illusions about people and places we have long loved come crashing down, we are left to either reassemble something we can live with or walk away.

But were the things we thought we knew, in fact, illusions?

Such are the perplexities faced by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now twenty-six, in the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015). She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, who is in his seventies and struggling with rheumatoid arthritis but still practicing law. Working alongside Atticus is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, current boyfriend, and probable fiancé.

Only this is not the Maycomb we and Jean Louise knew in To Kill a Mockingbird  (originally published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.), where Atticus courageously defended a black man against a false rape charge. Now, in the 1950s, tensions over racial justice and who has the right to make the rules for whom are turning Southern communities, families, heads, and hearts into battlegrounds.

Sitting in her old spot in the courthouse’s “Colored” balcony, where she and brother Jem used to watch Atticus at work, Jean Louise observes a citizens’ council meeting. Both Atticus and Henry are present. She is sickened not only by the racist language and ideas she hears, but by the apparent agreement of both men.

Difficult (and rambling) conversations follow; with Henry, with former housekeeper Calpurnia, with offbeat intellectual Uncle Jack, and finally and most painfully, with Atticus. Readers who have spent half a century with this family no doubt share the young woman’s anguish.

What Jean Louise is now seeing — for example, her father’s view of blacks as childlike and incapable and Henry’s need to belong at any cost — has always been there. Her hometown has long been segregated. It would be easy to say Jean Louise, who has been living up North, is the one who changed and leave it at that. However, our way of seeing things changes as we grow up and create our own realities, no matter where we are.

When the distinct colors of childhood give way to a puzzling array of shades and gradations, it can feel like a betrayal … especially at a time when basic human rights and dignity are being questioned and fought over. Jean Louise, navigating the shifting terrain of young adulthood in this setting, has to decide whether and how to find a way forward.

As I understand it, Watchman was Lee’s original novel, and a publisher convinced her to turn the flashback sequences into a separate work, which became Mockingbird. There was some controversy, just before the release of Watchman, over whether the then elderly and ailing Lee actually wanted it to be published. She died in 2016. What I wonder is: If the younger Scout and Atticus had lived between the same covers as their older counterparts, would it still have become a beloved classic? These questions cannot be answered.

What I can say is this: If Watchman taints our appreciation of Mockingbird, we are in the same boat as Jean Louise, trying to reconcile what we knew with what is now before us. Perhaps, in these equally polarizing and vitriolic times, that is a useful exercise.

Accessible help for grief

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My refurbished Christmas star.

When my mother died two years ago, the last thing I wanted to read was a well-meaning but too-much treatise on grief. Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart, with its 100 practical, one-page ideas for things to do or think about, was exactly what I needed during those first weeks and months.

Its user-friendly format also makes the book easy to revisit, as I did recently when the holidays brought a fresh load of “Crap … I should be doing better with this.”

Grief is a process, not a destination. I know this. The Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year stretch is cold and dark in this corner of the world, and the holidays add another layer of challenge to whatever we are facing. I also know “shoulds” hurt more than they help, and they’re so not in the spirit of God using the humblest, darkest circumstances to show the greatest love.

51u5HQKtEoL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So I took the slim volume off the shelf and opened it — right to No. 68: Prepare yourself for the holidays. Wolfelt’s top bullet point on this page is, naturally, the sadness felt over no longer having your parent around to share these special occasions and gatherings. Having lost both parents, as I have, makes it feel all the more sad and strange; we are orphans no matter how old we are.

However, Christmas is about memory as much as it is about the here and now. Wolfelt notes in his second point: “Your family’s holiday traditions were formed decades, sometimes centuries, ago and resonate with layer upon layer of memories.”

He’s spot on about the layers. In addition to the happy, quirky Christmas memories that reside in my consciousness are ones of my mother’s terminal diagnosis two days before Christmas and her passing two days after. In between was a blur of travel, consultations in poinsettia-bedecked hospital hallways, the beep of monitors, relaying information to other family members, waiting for doctors, talking with Mom, sharing Reiki energy to ease her transition, and almost, but not quite, forgetting about the holiday.

The following Christmas, I had the tree-topping star that has graced a Crowe tree since the 1950s refurbished. It doesn’t twinkle and blink like it used to, but the blue circle around it glows in a way I swear it never did before. It casts a new light in some of the darkness, which is what Christmas is about in the first place. It also lets the happy memories begin to re-layer themselves over the sad ones.

This year, for another layer of memories, I dug out my dad’s favorite Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music and let some of the meditative tracks underscore my yoga practice.

And I flipped a little further in the Wolfelt book, finally landing on No. 96: Let go of destructive beliefs about grief and mourning. Such as: “I need to get over this.”

Your grief is your grief, Wolfelt says: “It’s normal and necessary. Allow it to be what it is. Allow it to last as long as it lasts. Strive to be an authentic mourner — one who openly and honestly expresses what you think and feel.”

I’m still working on that … and following yonder star.

 

 

 

Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”