This place is, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.
Well do I know my own character negatives - bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded. The good parts are harder to see, but I suppose a fair dose of sympathy and even compassion is there, a by-product of the writer's imagination. I can and do put myself in others' shoes constantly. Observational skills, quick decisions (not a few bad ones), and a tendency to overreach, to stretch comprehension and try difficult things are part of who I am. History seized me a long time ago. I am like Luigi Pirandello's character Dr. Fileno, who thought he had found an efficacious remedy for all human ills, an infallible recipe capable of bringing solace to himself and all mankind in case of any calamity whatever, public or private.
Actually it was more than a remedy or a recipe that Doctor Fileno had discovered; it was a method consisting in reading history books from morning till night and practicing looking at the present as though it were an event already buried in the archives of the past. By this method he had cured himself of all suffering and of all worry, and without having to die had found a stern, serene peace, imbued with that particular sadness which cemeteries would still preserve even if all men on earth were dead.4
That attitude may have something to do with building a house suited to one's interests, needs and character. Basically I live alone, although summers are a constant stream of visitors and friends. I need room for thousands of books and big worktables where I can heap manuscripts, research material, where I can spread out maps. Books are very important to me. I wish I could think of them as some publishers do - as "product" - but I can't. I have lived in many houses, most inadequate and chopped into awkward spaces, none with enough book space. When I was a child we moved often, sometimes every year. My father worked in New England's textile mills, trying hard to overcome his French Canadian background by switching jobs, always moving up the various ladders of his ambition: "bigger and better jobs and more money," he said.
The first house I can remember vividly was a tiny place in northeastern Connecticut, not far from Willimantic, a house which my parents rented during the late 1930s from a Polish family named Wozniak. I liked that name, Wozniak. I can draw that house from memory although I was two to three years old when we lived there.
I have a keen memory of dizziness as I tried to climb the stairs, of being held fast when my sweater snagged on a nail. I was coming down with some illness, the dizzy sensation and the relentless nail still vivid after seventy years. When I was sick I was moved from my bed upstairs to a cot by the kitchen window. My mother gave me a box of Chiclets chewing gum, the first I had ever seen. One by one I licked the smooth candy coating off each square and lined the grey lumps up on the windowsill. How ugly and completely inedible they looked. Another time I took the eye of a halibut my mother was preparing for dinner (in those days one bought whole fish) and brought it upstairs to the training potty, dropping it into the puddle of urine and calling my mother to see what I had wrought. She was horrified, not seeing a halibut eye but think- ing I had lost some bizarre interior part. I recognized her vulnerability as a warning to be more secretive about what I did, an impression that carried into adult life.
My mother, who loved the outdoors, and whose favorite book was Gene Stratton-Porter's Girl of the Limberlost, took me for a walk in a swamp. It was necessary to jump from one hummock of swamp grass to another. I was terrified of the dark water distance between these hummocks and finally stood marooned and bawling on a quivering clump, unable to make it to the next one.
Excerpted from Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. Copyright © 2011 by Dead Line, Ltd. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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