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Monday, June 05, 2006

Bubbles of longing

Some longtime readers may remember that I have a soft spot for John Steinbeck. Particularly for two stories set in Monterey California; 'Cannery Row' and 'Sweet Thursday'.

Every few years I reread them and have never really given much thought to what draws me back.  However, the personal story of a journaler I follow has finally helped me figured it out.

The central character around which both books revolve is a man called 'Doc'.  He is a marine biologist who lives on the row and makes his living collecting specimens from the sea, and selling them to schools and universities.

I never realized it before, but I have always loved Doc.  Every other character in the two stories  looks to Doc for help or advice... and without exception they all have the deepest desire and purest intention to 'do something nice for Doc someday'.

The problem is, the characters with which Steinbeck has populated Doc's small world are poor... or even indigent... and mostly are left to simply wish that fate or G-d or provenance will intercede on their behalf and 'do something nice for Doc'.

We all know someone like that... a person whose very existence makes us happy just thinking about them... a person from whom we receive wisdom, or even joy.  Invariably when we see these people (or even think about them) our thoughts turn to how much we wish good things for them.

If we were children we would rush to action and draw a picture or pick a flower and run without hesitation to let the person know how special they are... how important their happiness is to us.

But we aren't children... and we seem to have forgotten how to channel our braided feelings of gratitude, affection and bonhomie.

These two Steinbeck books give us a rare glimpse at the inner workings of this lovable man called 'Doc'  We are told that his soul sings in three voices. 

"The top voice of his mind sang peacefulness and order, and the raucous middle voice was gentle; it rumbled and snarled but could not be heard.  The lower voice of all was silent, dreaming of a warm safe sea." *

This description of his inner contentment came from a point in 'Sweet Thursday' where Doc was happy with his lot... doing the familiar work that made him comfortable and safe.  He was content.

This type of personal contentment was a large part of what first attracted me (and likely most other readers) to Doc's character.  He was a rare uncomplicated person who had identified the things that made him most secure and happy... and he spent his time quietly celebrating those things away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world.

This quality of personal contentment/fulfillment... of being truly happy with her lot... is also what first attracted me to a San Francisco journaler/artist/photographer named Andrea Scher

I have been reading Andrea for years as she has modestly allowed a peek at the things that make her happy; her husband, her friends, her artwork, her photography... her life. 

Andrea's the journaler I want to be when I grow up!

Nearly every one of her posts is a conduit to her inner voices.  Although she has hundreds, or even thousands, of readers... each one is made to feel that a rare confidence has been imparted... a secret shared. 

Andrea's top voice is always full of plans and excitement... her middle voice sings primly of a penchant for sensible decadence and quiet hedonism.  And her bottom voice has always been a quiet lullaby of contentment with her life, her love... her world.

But things are not always as they seem... especially to our heroes.

When Doc is alone with himself in his laboratory late at night struggling unconsciously to define what is suddenly missing from his life... a life that everyone else assumes is perfect and complete... he is startled when "the bottom voice mourned "Lonesome!  Lonesome!  Let me up into the light and warmth! Lonesome!"" **

Amid the beautiful photographs... the stunning jewelry creations... the descriptions of friends and celebrations... the personal and professional adventures and successes... Andrea has occasionally allowed us to hear a small whisper of her most private lower voice. 

In so many of her photographs Andrea documented her friend's transition through the beautiful stages of pregnancy and motherhood.  Yet for those who followed her writing and tracked the trajectory of her charmed life, a careful observer could discern something missing... a picture hanging slightly askew.

Doc had been startled by the simple message delivered by his inner voice, but he immersed himself in the things that had always made him happy in an attempt to rediscover the calm, happy person who people found it so easy to love and be around.  But that person had changed... and was no longer there.  His friends sensed the change even before he fully admitted it to himself.

Doc's inner longing finally bubbled unbidden to the surface while he sat in a restaurant with the woman who had unwittingly made him aware of the void in his life.  As he sat across the table from her, "the low voice of Doc's gut burst through at last.  "I'm lonely", he said. He said it as a simple matter of fact and he said it in wonder. Then he apologized." ***

Andrea had such a lapse a few months ago on her site.  She isn't the type to be an infertility blogger or to rage at the unfairness of all the people she loves and respects moving on to this next stage in life without her.  Yet she allowed her readers a rare peek at her inner disappointment and loneliness... and in typical Superhero fashion, managed to comfort her readers when it was she who so clearly needed a hug.

I've juxtaposed these two lives... one fictional and one real... to point out that sometimes our heroes are rewarded with some of the good things we wish for them.  Sometimes fate or providence or G-d seem to answer the innermost pleas of those about whom we care.

I don't know if this is what has happened with Andrea and her husband, but I'd like to think that sometimes... when someone's inner longing for personal completion is allowed to innocently bubble to the surface... we are allowed to see 'nice things' come to those who richly deserve them.

This is obviously not always the case.  In life - as in fiction - there are also sad endings and tragedies.  Not every hero we root for is allowed to end up with the prize.  This is why I can't bring myself to shout the happy stuff I'm feeling right now.  I'm bound by my knowledge of both tradition and literature to confine my excitement to a simmer of quiet optimism. 

For those who don't understand Hebrew (or who might be confused by the incongruity of saying 'at a good time' to an expectant mother, instead of something like 'congratulations' or 'Mazal Tov')... we superstitious Jews shy away from making a fuss over good news that has yet to come to fruition, so we grin like idiots and obliquely mention that 'things should happen 'at a good time'.

B'Sha'ah Tovah Andrea!   

[Thank you to my lovely wife Zahava for practically shouting "Go read Andrea right this second" when I staggered in from work a little after 11:00 last night.]

* Source, ** Source, *** Source

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Posted by David Bogner on June 5, 2006 | Permalink

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Nu, are you going to send her a red string from Kever Rachel?

Posted by: westbankmama | Jun 5, 2006 3:28:25 PM

Westbankmama... Funny you should ask. Zahava and I were told by a person we respect that there is a strong aspect of avodah zarah to the red string cult which has sprung up around Rachel's tomb. There are, however, those who allow a blue string that has been around that site. I'm open to opinions.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 5, 2006 3:34:06 PM

Trepp, lovely title...for such a touching post.
I would weigh in on the blue vs. red string, but have no idea what you're refering to. The only red string I'm aware of, is the one Madonna and Britney Spears wear. That's enough info for me to keep from wearing it:)
So, if there is more to understanding the red/blue strings...maybe you'd be willing to fill me in.

Posted by: cruisin-mom | Jun 5, 2006 4:53:43 PM

That was a nice post. It is always nice to see the softer side of you.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 5, 2006 5:21:07 PM

I've never read either of these books and now I will. (shocking, I know)
That was a lovely tribute to someone you obviously respect and care about. I hope, too, that at a good time, good things happen for Andrea.
And I'm with Jack on liking when you show the softer side of you.

Posted by: val | Jun 5, 2006 5:36:29 PM

Cruisin' mom (Randi)... I'll leave it to my wife to explain since she heard it first hand. I know that Zahava sent a few blue 'bendels' to another blogger (I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say who) who had been having some serious infertility problems and she now has a (tfu tfu tfu) healthy baby, so go figure.

Jack... Yeah, like I go all Clint Eastwood on you guys on a regular basis. :-)

Val... Just make sure you read them in the right order (Cannery Row and then Sweet Thursday) or the character development will seem odd. As to my showing you my softer side... if you're lucky I'll do it more often. Are you feeling lucky, punk? ;-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 5, 2006 6:02:27 PM

you have mentioned her before and like you, I love her writings. I don't the talent for writing or expressing my thoughts, but you did a beautiful job describing her and how one feels when reading her words.

Posted by: jaime | Jun 5, 2006 6:56:05 PM

Clint Eastwood is a fine actor with a soft side too. Did you ever see Million Dollar Baby.

Good flick.

Don't worry, I'll keep your secret.

For a couple of bucks I'll hire the kids down at the corner to sing praises of your virilty. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Jun 5, 2006 7:53:16 PM

I guess something good indeed CAN come out of Nazareth.

Posted by: Scott | Jun 5, 2006 8:40:07 PM

Jaime... At first you think, 'this must be some sort of new-agey act'... but then you realize she's really that nice.

Jack... "or a couple of bucks I'll hire the kids down at the corner to sing praises of your virility. How so? By telling people they're mine? :-)

Scott... Um, ya lost me. How did Nazareth come into this????

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 5, 2006 9:05:37 PM

How so? By telling people they're mine? :-)

I could, but first we better hide that cast iron skillet Zahava likes use.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 5, 2006 9:10:37 PM

Oh I just hate it when I have to explain my obtuse comments. It's a quote of Nathaniel in the Gospel of John which he uttered upon hearing from Phillip that they had found the Messiah.

I lived in Berkeley 35 years ago and you could not pay me to go there today and I feel pretty much the same about San Francisco where I also lived once upon a crazy time.

Does that suffice?

Posted by: Scott | Jun 6, 2006 1:29:39 AM

I've thought a lot about this red string and the fears of avoda zara. (I also went through infertility problems and am sensitive to this issue). I think some people read too much into the "object" and the "powers" that it might have, and there is room to fear avoda zara. But there are other people who keep it in the right perspective. My take on it is that one, when you see the string it reminds you of another great woman that suffered the same problem, and had children in the end. Two, when you receive a string from someone else who is thinking of you, it connects you to all of the wonderful people who care about you - and this positive feeling can only help your situation.

Posted by: westbankmama | Jun 6, 2006 10:06:55 AM

As a person who had to try for six years for a baby, and who succeeded finally through IVF, I heartily agree that counting one's chickens is foolhardy, as tough as it is to not do so.

The good news is that pretty much anyone who wants to be a parent can. It just may be through adoption or foster parenting, etc.

Posted by: Alice | Jun 6, 2006 6:34:27 PM

Now I must go find those books! Funny, I always thought of myself as "not a fan of Steinbeck", though every single book of his that I read I enjoyed. They CAN be very sad, though. I'm very happy for Andrea and hope that everything continues to go well for her. Thanks for introducing the news in such a sensitive manner.

P.S. A little off-topic, but I was away and didn't have a chance to wish you Chag Sameach, so I hope you had a good Shavuot!

Posted by: Irina | Jun 7, 2006 2:35:25 AM

I love her photos...such a nice, joyful, fulfilling, happy, wonderful post! Made my day!

Posted by: aliyah06 | Jun 8, 2006 8:25:31 AM

Jack... Smart move.

Scott... Did you really think I would catch that? Note to readers: Christian theological references need to be explained here... preferably with pictures and arrows. :-)

Westbankmama... I agree with you and really don't feel strongly about it. I was actually relieved when Zahava told me about the blue string option because I hated the idea of being in the same club as Madonna. :-)

Alice... Wise words. Thanks.

Irina... Thanks. We had a great time. I highly recommend those two books... as well as my third favorite of his; Tortilla Flat.

Aliyah06... You should make a habit of visiting her site. Whenever I need a little inspiration/push to think positively about something I usually find it over there.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 8, 2006 9:20:49 AM

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