“Building a World”
A Service Auction Sermon for Roger and Judy Kamm
January 15, 2012
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Books by Elizabeth Enright still in print, also available in audio format:
These books are all for approximately ages 8-12
Thimble Summer (1939) – set at Taliesin during the drought of 1934; won the Newberry Medal
The Saturdays (1941) The Four Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, (1944) and Spiderweb for Two These books are referred to as The Melendy Quartet – the four siblings are named Melendy. They live in a brownstone in NYC, and later move to a big house in the country, and a fifth sibling is adopted. These books were my favorites, especially the first two.
Gone Away Lake (1957) and Return to Gone Away. Two cousins exploring the woods find a bog surrounded by Victorian cottages. Two elderly people who have been beaten down by life in the outside world are living in these cottages, subsisting on what they can grow, forage, or what was left behind decades ago when the lake dried up because of a dam upstream. The children befriend the old people, and learn from them, and the old people re-learn how to be in the world.
Enright had stopped writing for children in 1945. She wrote many, many short stories and had four collections published (none in print now) – but in 1957 she returned to writing for children briefly. This is partially because of her family – she had two sons, born in 1932 and 1938, and she had dedicated books to them. In 1949, she had a third son, and she wanted to write and dedicate a book to him. She also wrote the Gone Away books as a marketing technique – their publication generated renewed interest in the Melendy books.
Tatsinda (1966) is a fairy tale; quite different from the other books. It has been reprinted with new art work. Close readers of the Melendy quartet will recognize this as a story that Randy tells..
Two other books no longer in print are The Sea is All Around, 1940 – set on Nantucket, where Enright spent summers and more from 1914 to 1940; and Zeeee, a fairy tale written in 1965.
Opening Words from The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, Alexander McCall Smith
As children we try to create the world along the lines we want it to be. We wish an imagined world into existence through play – castles and kingdoms, fairies and elves, imaginary friends….. For some, the memory of that power to create, the memory of that universe of imagining persists… They can (invent) in loving, nostalgic detail, a world that is innocent and fresh and happy.
Reading from Round Rock, by Michelle Huneven pp 228- 230
In this section, one character approaches another, who has explained his background in therapeutic massage and pain management as related to a tradition of Mexican healing taught to him by a great uncle.
“Can I borrow you for a minute?” Lewis asked…”I think I need one of your… you know.. ritual things.”
Let’s do it,” said David.
The walls of David’s room were white and the floor looked like still brown water. An altar occupied one corner – candles and branches, bones and flowers, arranged beneath large painted tin retablos of Santo Nino and the Virgin, around which hung smaller retablos, and on dressmaker pins, many silver and tin Milagros of animals, disembodied limbs, hearts, stomachs, and tiny trucks, buses, passenger cars.
David closed and locked his door. He lit the candles in front of his altar, then swept a space on the floor and asked Lewis to lie down. He gave him an egg to hold in one hand, and a short, sturdy stick for the other.
“I feel,” Lewis said, “like I am being prepared for burial.”
David smiled. “You are, in a manner of speaking,” he said, and crossed Lewis’s hands over his chest, pulled one leg a little to the left, aligned his head with his spine. David’s touch was gentle, confident, matter of fact. Once satisfied with how Lewis was laid out, he pulled a clean, coarse white sheet over him and tucked it close. The cloth smelled vaguely of corn. Lewis was relieved to be covered, especially his face; it eliminated his considerable self-consciousness.
“I’m going to call you several times,” David said, “and each time you must answer “I’m coming.” Now, take a deep breath… Let it out…. Another breath… Keep breathing.”
Lewis lay there breathing for a long time, maybe ten minutes. The room was hot and still. He heard David moving quietly, the birds outside, and a distant pop – people setting off fireworks. Then the room brightened and the air smelled sharp and crisp, as if the smoke of a medicinal campfire were blowing through.
The floor creaked. Something touched Lewis very lightly. A shadow descended. At first he thought David was touching him with his fingers; then he understood from the whispery scratching sound that David was pulling a small broom over the length of his body. He was speaking Spanish in a low soft voice, a prayer or a chant.
“Come, Lewis,” David said firmly. “Don’t stay there.”
“I’m coming.” Lewis’s voice sounded strange to him, sudden, as it did when he blurted something out loud to himself. The broom moved across his chest, grazed his crossed hands holding the egg and the stick. David prayed continuously in Spanish, his tone gentle and straightforward, as if prayer were the most reasonable discourse. “Don’t stay there, Lewis,” he said. “Come here.”
“I’m coming,” Lewis said, and meant it.
David, praying, swept around Lewis in a circle. The broom’s work was hypnotic, soothing; the adjective that came to Lewis was “loving.” Suddenly he was keenly thirsty, and drops of water instantly fell on him; it was alarming how loud they sounded landing on the cloth.
“Lewis, are you here with me?”
“Are you here?”
“Yes, I’m here,” Lewis said, flooded with relief. His eyes welled up. He heard David sweeping all around him, chanting softly; it was like being a child in the room of a mother so quiet and gentle, all you could feel was her devotion. David swept in a wider and wider circle, then came close and knelt down.
“You are here, now.”
He touched Lewis’s forehead, his belly, each of his shoulders. He lifted the sheet off his face and smiled, as if in recognition, then slowly removed the sheet, folding it up length by length and setting it to one side.
David took the egg from Lewis’s hand, made the sign of the cross over him, and set the egg on the sheet. Taking the stick from Lewis’s other hand, he again made the sign of the cross and set the stick next to the egg. He wrapped both the stick and the egg in the sheet and stood up with the bundle.
“Rest a minute,” he said. “Sit up when you are ready, and I will bring you a cup of tea.”
I want to start off with an experience, rather than words. If you are feeling somewhat brave and comfortable, please take the hand of the person next to you and steadily squeeze past the point of comfort. Break social boundaries, create anxiety about the possibility of crushed bones, and then abruptly let go. If you are not feeling brave and comfortable – or if you were until I started this nonsense – you can do this to yourself. Put one hand in the other and apply pressure past the point of comfort, and then let go.
Okay. Everybody ready and relaxed now?
Do you remember the story about Pooh being stuck in a doorway? Pooh has gone out walking in the Hundred Acre woods and comes across a hole. He bends down and calls in to see if anyone who might invite him in for a little snack might be at home. Rabbit tries to pretend he is not in; then he disguises his voice. To no avail. Pooh comes in and stays til the honey is gone. But when he tries to climb out the way he came in, he discovers it can’t be done. He tries to sigh, but can’t breathe deeply enough to do even that, so as he faces the fact that he will not be going home, he asks Christopher Robin to read him “a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?” Then, after a week of only this kind of sustenance, Pooh is popped like a cork from Rabbit’s front door.
Frank Lloyd Wright could have designed the houses in the Hundred Acre woods. You all have probably heard some of his quotes about nature being God, and the need to be of the hill rather than on it. You may have seen Fallingwater – the house with the waterfall running through its foundation – so you get the feeling that he’d be at home in the woods. He was. On one visit to a site where a friend hoped Wright would build a home, the surveyors were astonished by the architect’s behavior. If you know anything about Wright, that fact isn’t surprising at all. He had an outsized ego, but he also just did not grasp social conventions, and so he spent much of his life imperiously offending others, even when he didn’t mean to. But that isn’t what happened in Fishkill. That day, Wright — who was then in his 80’s – scampered like a goat up and down the steep, rocky hill, which had a tree cover so thick that moss was all that grew. There was an icy brook, carrying off snow melt, and at the bottom of the hill, the brook tumbled into a pool, and the woods gave way to a meadow. Wright talked ecstatically of the beautiful house he would build there, almost pacing it out as he talked – then dashed off to the top of the hill, sat down and slid all the way to the bottom and into the meadow. He landed safely in the grass, and the surveyors and engineers rolled up newspapers and plans and stuffed them down his pants to help dry out his clothes during the ride back to the city. His colleagues noted that he began referring to his wife as “Mother,” which was a sign he had acted too impulsively; run too far with his feelings, and there was a price to pay.
So, yes, he loved the woods, and nature. He grew up in a deeply religious Unitarian family that worshipped Emerson, and so nature meant something more than the physical environment to him. It was a signifier; a way of connecting to generations of an ancestral faith that tended to fiercely defend its freedom even when no one had challenged it. Coming across a beautiful vista in a hilly landscape reminiscent of Wales was, for Wright, the equivalent of a devout Catholic, descended from martyrs, entering the cathedral of Notre Dame. Which is to say that there was an acutely spiritual element to his relationship with nature, but that is not synonymous with complete comfort. There was a certain sense of freedom and joy and belonging; but also a great deal of pain and desire to rebel and to make it all work on his terms while reconciling himself to reality.
And this is what I mean about the Hundred Acre Wood – it could be a little microcosm of Wright’s own mind. Or maybe of all of our minds – I think of the line from the Gospel of John about many mansions. Wright’s family used the Wycliffe Bible, which was the first English translation and was the version that inspired the Unitarian movement in Wales. In their Bible, that line from John reads In the house of my father been many dwellings; if any thing less, I had said to you, for I go to make ready to you a place. It sounds funny to us, because there are no conditionals– it doesn’t say “I would have said” and it doesn’t put anything off to the future, either. “I go,” not “I will go.” The present-ness of this fits Wright. And though you can’t really tell in this one line, the wandering is more evident in this version – there is an evanescent nature to dwelling; an itinerancy that is quite the opposite of “mansions.” Wright could not stay still. At his most settled he was constantly caravanning across the country, setting up tents in the Arizona desert, then returning to the farm in Wisconsin, a perpetual nomad. He was a builder, but he reacted far more than he planned, and because of that he was extremely dependent upon all the things he seemed to disparage. So in Ashdown Forest we have Eeyore’s house: a pile of sticks in a gloomy bog, a sad structure that the others don’t even recognize as a house. This would be Wright’s commentary on the typical home – uninspired, valueless. Owl, who speaks Kentish and drones on at times with opinions and unsolicited advice – Owl lives in an “old world residence of great charm” called The Chestnuts. This gives us Wright’s opinion of Europe – predictable boors who have major gaps in their understanding, but still think they are in charge. But when a storm comes, The Chestnuts is simply swept away – gone for good. Owl appropriates Piglet’s home, and no one even dares point it out. And then we have Rabbit’s house. Rabbit is the responsible, intelligent inhabitant of the forest. His friends exasperate Rabbit at times, because they are slow, and he is not. I don’t think I need to point out any more than that.
How does your hand feel, after having been squeezed? Do you feel the remnant of pain, or anxiety – or does it feel liberated, and more aware; sensitized? Rabbit’s house is designed to provide an experience of compression, and release. This is a technique Frank Lloyd Wright used quite frequently, in a huge variety of settings, but especially in his houses. He made entrances low, and tucked around corners. You might have to hunt a bit, or feel that you had to duck to enter. He’d make a hallway narrow, with no view. It might feel like the walls are closing in on you. And then, you reach the end of the hall, or you turn into the entry, and the space opens up, and you do, too. The sudden width and expanded horizon provide a kind of relief that makes you feel that you were looking for exactly this all along. It isn’t the beautiful comforting room that you want; it is the beautiful comforting room that you reach after being afraid, for a moment, that you never will escape the walls, or find the door. Compression, and release. If you have seen a furnished dining room by Frank Lloyd Wright, you might see this same principle at work. He would create unusually tall backs to the chairs, so that the table was virtually walled off. A group of people sitting at the table would be forced to engage with each other, and unable to see past the chairs. And then, when the meal concluded, they could stand and immediately would be released — they were in a room, with windows and a fireplace and artwork.
Last year Judy and Roger Kamm purchased me at auction, and today is the result. They asked me to talk about the biography I am writing, which is of Elizabeth Enright. She was a writer – primarily of children’s books, but also of short stories for adults. She was the niece of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in many ways, the family member with whom he had the most stable and respectful relationship. Her first memory of him dated to 1911, when she was four years old. Elizabeth wrote that his funny hat, cape and cane; his long hair and the scarf around his neck in place of a tie “made me think of a certain picture in my book of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. So I remarked pleasantly, “You’re a very old-fashioned man, aren’t you Uncle Frank?” And to this very day I remember the hilarity of his response. He was one of those people who really do laugh until the tears come. I had not expected this reaction, and I stared like an owl, offended.” She had no way of knowing that her uncle had been in Europe for over year, having left his wife and six children in favor of the wife of a client – or even that she was growing up in New York City because Frank’s scandalous behavior prevented her parents from finding work in their native Chicago. This, of course, is a different experience of compression and release.
It turns out that trying to write a sermon about the book I am working on is a little bit impossible. The book is a project that seems to encompass my whole life. When I was nine, I discovered Elizabeth Enright on the shelves of the library, and I simply kept returning to them. When I worked as a nanny, I read the books to the children; when my nieces were eight or nine, I sent them copies. Enright wrote eight children’s books between 1939 and 1957, and all but one are still in print. This is virtually unheard of, especially in children’s literature. Given this, and the fact that she won the O. Henry prize for her short stories five times, it is surprising that no one has written about her before – especially since she provides a new avenue for exploiting Frank Lloyd Wright. But no biography exists, and there are complicated reasons why, but at least part of the reason is that it is hard to be recognized as a whole and separate person and still be in Frank Lloyd Wright’s inner circle. Enright really needed this relationship. Frank was her connection to a lively, interesting family, and a dramatic world, full of possibilities. She was an only child, and her parents separated when Elizabeth was young. In many ways, her stories of feisty, funny, adventuresome siblings were all wish fulfillment. The children in her books were oppressed by simple things like the weather, or time; not scandal, or feeling abandoned. She used imagination to set herself free, and the most important thing from which to escape was tedium. Her last book was a fairy tale, and in the very last paragraph, she writes that there “is no word in their language that means boredom. There is no word that means war. There is a word that means hate, but no one uses it except the children, and they use it only in their games.” That is a sentence that could only have been written by someone who had spent some childhood time surrounded by adults who did hate. She found her release in books, and later created the same for others.
Once I read a reference to Enright as “Jane Austen for the children’s set,” and thought, oh – that’s why she is so suitable for re-reading. I became an authority on her by constantly looking for someone who knew more than I did, until I slowly realized that it was highly unlikely that this was possible. Last July, I was visiting with Enright’s son Nick and his wife, doing research. Carol, who married Nick in 1954, turned to her husband and said, “Nick, she knows more about your family than you do.” This is even more true now, because all of her papers and letters are in my attic, and I have read them all. I have her very first drawings, which are of fairies and flowers made in 1910, and her diary from 1967, in which she records that she is reading a biography of Beatrix Potter, and then goes on to mention meeting Potter when she was a child visiting England with her mother, who, as an illustrator and a Unitarian, had a connection to Potter.
Old fan letters have been fun, too. My favorite one was from a girl named Janey, who wrote this fabulous letter in which she told Enright that she had made a mistake in her book, because in one chapter she says Mona slept without a pillow, and in another she says that Mona put a pillow over her face. She included a quiz she and her family had devised based on the books, and asks Enright to take the quiz, saying “I did very well on this; see how you do!” It took me a while, but I was able to track down Janey. She was delighted to be reminded of those books, and over the summer she and her sister Jacky made a little pilgrimage to meet me. They told me that in 1941, they were living in Kansas City, and were sick with the mumps. Their mother brought home The Saturdays to read to them, and they had to beg her stop because it made them laugh too much, and laughing hurt their swollen throats. Then they told me that after the war, they moved to Connecticut, and their mother wrote to Enright and invited her to tea. She said, my daughter is turning 14 and she loves your books so much, you are only a short train ride away, please come and have birthday cake with us. Shockingly, Enright did! She drew pictures inside all of their books – and I am glad she did, because I am not sure I would have believed this story without the evidence. And I wouldn’t blame you if you find it hard to believe, but Janey – who is in her early 80s and lives in California, is a retired special ed teacher. Where did she retire from? The Carroll School, where my son Dana has been for seven years.
Reading fan letters and knowing what they meant to Enright changed my perception of my role as a reader. Last spring, when I read Michelle Huneven’s Red Rock, I wrote to her. I told her how much I loved her books, all of them, and mentioned that I found the scene of Lewis’s sweeping moving and also challenging. She wrote back to me! Michelle is an active Unitarian Universalist and she had some insightful things to say about being on a search committee. It was a fun and enriching little exchange. And then, about two weeks ago, she sent me a note, saying that she was having a terrible time trying to write and that she was using my fan letter to convince herself to keep at it. She said she had always felt uncomfortable about that sweeping scene, but that because I had found value in it, she was trying to just keep writing and stop being afraid. I wrote back, and told her I was working on this biography of Elizabeth Enright, which had convinced me to write her a fan letter. It turns out that she, too, read Elizabeth Enright obsessively as a child. She compared her not to Jane Austen, but said she was a primer for Willa Cather. I like the combination; the romantic and the realist; the late 18th century British social formality and the American frontier. Enright really did encompass it all. I also want you to know that Michelle wrote in what seemed to be a longing tone: “I bet Elizabeth Enright got a lot of fan mail.” This is a prompt to any of you who have read Jamesland, or Blame, or Red Rock. Write fan mail!
During Pooh’s period of compression in Piglet’s doorway, he asks for a sustaining book, and Christopher Robin provided it. Somehow he found a story that let Pooh feel at home, until at last he was released. And that is what we all want; to find a way to be at home in the universe, even as we twist and turn and face unwanted troubles and tight spots. Books are comforting. They let you know that there are indeed many rooms; spaces for all of us; and that someone has gone before us; is ahead, and can lead the way. They can also open doorways into imagination that frees us from sorrow and pain. In 1958, after her uncle’s death, Elizabeth wrote “I …treasure the memory of a certain winter evening at Taliesin. I am eight years old, curled in a corner of the couch in the living room, reading. A great fire snaps and blazes on the hearth; there is a white fur rug across my feet. The bracket lamp by my shoulder is festooned with necklaces of Venetian beads; it casts light on a bowl of apples beside me. The apples have a lovely smell, and I am reading The Secret Garden for the first time. Now and then my uncle saunters into the room, greets me absently but kindly, sits down at the piano to play a few measures of his own personal music, saunters out again. Then there are only the sounds a fire makes, the sleet stinging at the windows, the page turning; and the best moments of my childhood.”
Her father was away in France, fighting in the War. Her mother had left with a new love interest. Elizabeth had been left with her Uncle, who most of the world thought unfit to be around children, at a house only recently rebuilt after having been the site of seven murders and a fire. And she describes reading by the fire with a kindly, disinterested adult passing through, as one of the best moments of her childhood. And I believe her. Compression, and release.
Closing Words from The House Beautiful, William Channing Gannett,
There is a Bible verse that reads “A building of God, a house not made with hands.” Paul meant the spiritual body, that would house the soul, but how well the words describe the home – a home right here on earth!… Watch two birds foraging to build their nest. They preempt a crook in a bough or a hole in the wall, some tiny niche or other in the big world, and singing to each other that this is their tree-bough, their hole, they bring a twig from here, a wisp of hay from there, a tuft of soft moss, the tangle of string which a school-boy dropped, the hair the old horse rubbed off on the pasture bars, and weave their findings into a cosy bowl to hold their little ones. Man and woman are but larger birds, borrowing more of the world’s materials to make a bigger bowl a little cosier.
A building of God, a house not made with hands.