The Elephant in the Room

puccini on stairs newAs my regular readers may know, I have always been a cat person although currently I am the catless owner of an eight-year-old Maltipoo named Puccini. In fact, my very first essay published on Cajun Girl in a Kilt was “License to Carry”, a tongue-in-cheek essay about Puccini’s reluctance to go up and down the stairs of our two-story home. He is mostly cured of that but still sporadically will climb to the fourth step from the top and wait there, whining, hoping someone will come and carry him the rest of the way up. Even though Puccini has been a major part of our lives for six years now, and in many ways has improved our quality of life, I still miss having a cat and often toy with the idea of getting another one.

puccini and charlie

Charlie and Puccini

There are several cats in my neighborhood, but the leading male character of Briarwood Terrace is Charlie, a beautiful long-haired tabby tom cat who prowls up and down the street, in and out of yards, on and off of porches, and back and forth from underneath our parked cars. He is very clever and has escaped direct contact with automobiles although he occasionally can be spotted with minor wounds indicating he has been involved in some sort of scrape, obviously with someone or something that doesn’t know he is the “mayor” of our street. When I am out walking Puccini and I see Charlie basking in the sun in his own driveway, I always stop to pet him. Puccini is now used to this minor detour and the two of them no longer hiss and growl at one another.

My reoccurring desire to have another cat in my life, particularly strong right now, makes me think of one of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, “Cat in the Rain”. This very short story is indicative of Hemingway’s writing style, lean and tough prose, with only enough dialogue and details to give the reader the bare minimum required to follow the story line, or at least the surface level of the story line. It’s up to the reader to dive deeper into the subtext to discover what lies beneath. Hemingway himself coined a term for this structure, the iceberg theory.

asiago war memorial

Asiago, Italy, WWI War Memorial

“Cat in the Rain” is the story of an American couple traveling in Italy. As usual, Hemingway doesn’t tell us where in Italy, but we know it is on the coast since the hotel faces the sea, and we know there is a war memorial in the center of town that is a tourist attraction, even for Italians themselves. We also don’t initially know the names of the Americans, they are only referred to as the husband and the wife. In the courtyard of the hotel there is a cat, crouched under a table in the rain trying to stay dry. The wife is looking out of the hotel room window at the cat while the husband lies on the bed reading.

Hemingway devotes valuable space in the exposition of the story to make sure the reader understands the emptiness of the setting. They are the only two Americans in the hotel. They don’t know anyone and don’t make any effort to meet the other guests. Because of the rain, there are no artists out with their easels and sketchpads. The parking lot is empty. The town square is empty. The courtyard is empty—except for the cat and a waiter, standing in the doorway of a café looking out at the empty square.

The wife goes out to get the cat out of the rain. She encounters the hotel-keeper, the padrone, and here Hemingway allows us a bit deeper, in the way he tells us what the American woman thinks of the padrone, what she likes about him, what she feels about him. The padrone makes her feel important, and when he sees that she is going to go out in the rain into the courtyard, he sends a maid after her with an umbrella. The American woman knows the padrone has sent the maid, to shield her from the rain, to take care of her, unlike her husband who remains upstairs on the bed reading.

When she is unable to find the cat, she returns upstairs, empty-handed. Her husband, whom we now know is called George, makes small talk with her about the cat and about her hair, after she says she wants to let it grow out, so that she doesn’t look like a boy anymore. She continues to carry on about her hair and the cat, and how she wants to have a cat to hold and pet. She branches out in her whining and talks about wanting new clothes and wanting to have dinner at a table with real silverware and candles. Eventually her husband grows weary of her whining and tells her, “Oh, shut up and get something to read”. She pauses but does not stop…she starts up again with how much she wants a cat, and if she can’t have the things she really wants, then she wants a cat.

Obviously this story is not about a cat. It is not about an American woman wanting to rescue a kitty from the rain in a hotel in Italy. This story is more about what it is NOT about than what it IS about. Most agree that this story is about a woman who is feeling empty and unfulfilled, about a woman who wants to be loved and cared for, about a woman who wants to have a baby to love and hold and pet. Her unhappiness with her life and her marriage is the elephant in the room, not the cat in the rain.

family christmas 2015

Family Photo, Christmas Eve, 2015

I can’t identify with the American woman who has an empty life and an unhappy marriage, who longs for a baby. I am happily married with a full and rich life, and I have two wonderful daughters whom I loved and cherished as babies and whom I now love and cherish as young adults. But, the elephant in my room is that they are no longer my babies, they are young women who are living their own lives, seeking their own happiness, walking their own paths, creating their own dreams. In a blink of an eye, we went from sippy cups, play dates, and bedtime stories to college graduations, tax returns, and different zip codes. In spite of my confidence that they are well-grounded, bright, intelligent, loving individuals who will go out into the world and be successful, it is still heart-wrenching at times to want to turn back the clock and draw them closer, hold them a bit longer, as they go farther away from us, into their own space and time.

In today’s society, there is much talk of the empty nest, and much of it is positive, the middle-aged couple with fewer responsibilities and perhaps a bit more disposable income, combined with the free time, energy, and flexibility that did not exist with young children at home. In “Cat in the Rain”, however, Hemingway described the empty courtyard, the empty parking lot, the empty town square, all to establish a foundation for the woman’s yearning for a baby, for a loving marriage, for a full nest, not an empty one. It was not about a cat.

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Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.

The White Hills of Rockville

Author’s Note: Some of my more liberal-minded readers might not agree with my positions in this essay, and that’s okay. Read or don’t read, the choice is yours, these views are mine. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur: “Last, but by no means least, courage-moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle-the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

backyardIt’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning, and temperatures have reached their projected high for today of 30º. My family just “attended” Mass via the television, where we streamed a taped broadcast of this Sunday’s Mass from the television ministry of the Passionists order of priests. We are snowed in, thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #blizzard2016, so no trip out to attend Mass at our parish, the Shrine of St. Jude here in Rockville. As I look out my windows I see white everywhere; something in excess of twenty inches of snow has fallen in the last 36 hours. My yard and the surrounding landscape is a series of white, sloping mounds of snow, sparkling in the sunlight.

sideyardWe’ve already received word, via multiple social media sources, that school has been canceled for tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that we will have school on Wednesday at this point, and some of my teacher friends are saying the clean-up from this blizzard is so monumental we might be out all week. We were kept home on Friday, when I was slated to start The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. I start my Hemingway unit with a short story that is found in their 7th grade literature textbook, “A Day’s Wait”, a short, innocent yet poignant coming of age tale of a young boy who thinks he is dying because his temperature is 102º and he has confused Fahrenheit with Celsius.

EH 7018P

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. 

When we begin covering Hemingway I give them a brief bio to read and explain to them the significance of his winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel. We discuss his beginnings as a writer, working as a journalist overseas, serving during WWI as an ambulance driver, coming home from the war wounded in action, recuperating and healing through his writing and eventual success as a novelist. We discuss his life story: his four marriages, his adventurous and athletic nature, and his eventual suicide at the young age of 62. We talk about the political incorrectness of two of his passions: bullfighting and big game hunting. Mostly, however, we focus on his writing style in preparation for 8th grade when I use a unit on John Steinbeck to compare the writing styles of the two great American authors.

hemingwayWhile I do teach at a Catholic school, I don’t talk about one of Hemingway’s early short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants”, published just a year after Hemingway’s 1926 break-through novel The Sun Also Rises, which established him as a major literary force.

“Hills Like White Elephants” came to mind today, as I reflected on the events of the last few days. Winter storm Jonas made his appearance to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on the same day as the annual March for Life, where hundreds of thousands of Christians descend upon the US capital to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. Our 8th graders attend the March for Life Youth Rally and Mass each year, as a religion field trip, in support of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. This year’s field trip to the event was canceled, as was school for the day.

rod serling march for life imageA good friend of mine, a devout Catholic, posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story entitled: “CBS News Ignores March for Life, Attacks Pro-Life Presidential Candidate Instead”. It was accompanied by a meme of Rod Serling, creator of the sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone, who started each episode with a monologue, “Imagine if you will …”

snow altarIn spite of Jonas bearing down on the nation’s capital, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims did make the journey, some becoming stranded on the interstates on their return trip home. One high school group from Iowa created a snow altar and with the help of a priest from another stranded bus of Catholic school students, attended Mass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was captured by photographer Chris Coleman and publicized widely on social media.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the story of a couple traveling by train. In true Hemingway style, the background details are as sparse as the word count itself. The male character is unnamed and only referred to as “the American”, while the female character is called “Jig”. Even a cursory reading of this story gives the reader the niggling sensation that this is not an entry from a travelogue. It is much, much more. In casual, yet purposefully encrypted, conversation, the couple discusses “an awfully simple operation”. It becomes quite clear that the man is in favor of this operation and Jig is struggling with it. He goes as far as to say that it is all perfectly natural, “just to let the air in”, and then everything will be alright, back to normal, back to the way things were before.

Much like the media’s avoidance of the coverage of the March for Life, now in its 43rd year, the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” goes to great lengths to avoid directly confronting the decision to have an abortion. The baby is never mentioned, the medical procedure, which at the time and place of the setting of this story, Spain in 1927, was illegal and highly dangerous, is discounted to being absolutely nothing to worry about. The man goes on to say that he has “known lots of people that have done it” … “it’s perfectly simple”.

It is interesting to consider the writer’s voice in analyzing this piece of fiction. Hemingway is careful not to tip his hand, offering not so much as an adjective or adverb describing how the bullet-like sentences are delivered or their underlying subtexts. We can, however, look to his own life for his views on marriage, family, and religion.

At the time of the writing and publication of “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway was in the process of exiting his first marriage to wife Hadley Richardson, with whom he had his first child, Jack, and after their divorce, he converted to Catholicism, in order to marry his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was a devout Catholic with whom he had two more sons. In spite of a divorce from Pfeiffer and two more marriages, history documents that Hemingway remained Catholic, donating thousands of dollars to churches and making frequent pilgrimages to religious sites. He spent much time in countries of predominantly Catholic status: Cuba, Italy, France, and Spain. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea can be studied from the viewpoint of an allegory of the Passion of Christ. Was “Hills Like White Elephants” some sort of statement on abortion or was it just a writing exercise on the dynamics of this one relationship?

In the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since the writing of “Hills Like White Elephants”, a lot has changed in America. Abortion is legal and “safe”, if the taking of a life can be considered safe. Political campaigns and elections are polarized by the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Hashtags, the bumper stickers of today, are created and disseminated, both for and against abortion. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the research and development of contraception and fertility. Millions of dollars are spent each year on abortions and the repercussions of those which were less successful. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the legal battle of overturning vs. preserving Roe vs. Wade. Millions of prayers are offered each day for the end of abortion. its a child not a choiceFeminists want the message to be that women should have total control over what happens to their bodies. Their message is that women should have the choice of when to be pregnant, when to have a baby, when not to have a baby. When it is all said and done, they are right: it is a choice. It always has been, even in 1926 Spain. Except in the cases of domestic violence, rape, and incest, it is a choice before, during, and after. It is a choice. Choose carefully.