Thursday, February 24, 2011


This blog was originally called Walks With Dogs, a title I dropped because I was no longer walking with my dogs the way I used to. I have missed my routine, and that walking meditation. The dogs have, too. My foot has gotten better now, though, enough so that I can walk on it briefly. I wanted to get back to normal. So last weekend I tried to take the dogs up to Mills Reservation. I haven't been up there in months; a combination of snow and my foot injury had prevented it. But it was 68 degrees outside!

I saw we were in trouble when we pulled parallel to the parking lot. The snow had been melting for a few days at my house--now I faced true winter again; ice, thick, white-blue, a landscape in miniature of rolling hills, glowing even under gray light. There were two cars in the lot, though, so I decided I'd join them, and try for a walk. The car crunched over the ice pack, cracked its back. Melt from up the small mountain cut channels through it, and cold clear water sluiced with great force toward the bare street. We began our way up the hill. Immediately I began to slide around--the ground was still sheer glass. (I'd worn sneakers! It was spring at my house.) Tuffy, a snow dog, leaped over all the impediments of slipperiness; I took tiny cautious steps, afraid to fall as I was still recovering from a car accident concussion. Jesse's little feet immediately turned dark with wetness, and the cold shivered upward to her ears. She turned around frequently to give me dirty looks; sorry, girl, I'll make it up to you!

I could barely inch forward. Even on the side of the gravel pathway, on the snow, the crust was slippery. Tuffy could tell his companions weren't enjoying this as much as he was. He turned down a side path and looked back to see if that was okay. I'd try it. Crunch crunch, we were on the equivalent of the frozen surface of a pond. The ice occasionally gave way, and my heels tipped down. I half enjoyed it--sensations from childhood, the first delight of breaking ice, the strange disconnect between mind and body as the shoe fills with cold water. The memory of how exciting it was not to know the world, to be in a constant process of discovery of the rule of cause and effect, and learning that nature is in charge.

Then the ice became even less stable, and soon I plunged through and was up to my calves in cold water. Time to go home. I called to Tuffy, who'd run ahead. He turned around and looked at me with some alarm--mirroring my own alarmed voice. I'd picked up freezing Jesse--we must have looked forlorn to the eyes of the dog up the hill. I calmed my voice to coax him down. He came reluctantly,  and we walked back to the car, through ice water. Tuffy was disappointed at the brevity of the adventure. Jesse was glad to be back in the front seat, with heat pointed at her. I was exhilarated, but also flummoxed by the hostile conditions. I had imagined spring.

During this whole adventure, I was still thinking about Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout's book of connected stories. I'd taught it over a couple of classes as part of the course that pairs with our reading series at Rutgers-Newark. One of the most striking features of the book is how Olive is portrayed. Often, she isn't the protagonist, yet she isn't a peripheral character either, except in a couple of stories, where she is basically a walk on, a character in the town.  She frequently occupies the unusual role (for the eponymous character) of being the complication. In classic story plotting, after the character's goal is set, there is a major complication, an overriding oppositional force. This is very often Olive herself, and the ways in which she complicates a story reveal who she is.

For example, in the story "Incoming Tide," a young man called Kevin has returned to town with a plan to shoot himself under a tree at the house where he grew up. He's sitting in the car looking at the bay when Olive Kitteredge gets in and sits next to him. Most of the story is taken up by their conversation. We don't go in to Olive's thoughts, but only see her through Kevin's eyes, and therefore can't quite be certain of why she is so persistent with him, why she won't move on. She brings up the subject of suicide; she knows Kevin's mother had committed suicide. She tells him "that was the case with my father." A bit later Kevin asks:

"How'd he do it?"He rubbed his hand over his thigh.
"My father? Shot himself."

She goes on to describe how her father left no note, and how hard that had been for her mother. The conversation gives Kevin the mental space to remember the existence of the world outside himself.

At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure.

He quickly turns away from this temptation, but Olive still persists with him, won't leave him alone. She's still stubbornly sitting there when the opportunity arises for him to save the life of another--always a redemptive act, in fiction--and she urges him to move, to step up. For all her prickliness and her blunt speech, she has become his conscience in that moment--undepresssed, and sane.

In a similar way we get other aspects of her in other stories. She is characterized by the effect she has on a particular situation. This is very smart, and works to allow us to know her well, so that by the time we come to stories where she is the protagonist, she is a fully rounded character. This strikes me as being an economical and effective way of putting together a connected of connected stories. Her acerbity and no nonsense ways also serve to counterbalance the deep sweetness of some of the events. Olive provides relief from our own urge to sentimentalize the stories. Perhaps she served as a stabilizing force for the author as well.

In my anecdote above, I have a goal of taking a walk with the dogs in the reservation. The major complication is the abiding presence of winter, even on a warm day. The temporary spike in temperature cannot get around it. If I were writing this as a story, I'd render the description in ways that would have the ice take on symbolic value, and the dogs' varying responses to the environment would acquire meaning.

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