Friday, September 23, 2011

At the Bottom of the Stair

First, I must wish a happy birthday to two of my favorite literary characters: Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. So convenient that it's also the first day of autumn. It's only fitting to celebrate with a chocolate hazelnut cupcake from Esther's Cupcakes (voted Best of Sacramento). That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

What a great discussion this week! Katy was knocked flat with the idea, then got up, brushed herself off and wrote about it. And Sharon's post reminded me of my favorite go-to book, Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, Mr. Bradbury tells about the fear he had as a child having to go upstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Things waited up there in the dark for him. Fears he'd collected throughout childhood. Wild imaginings from his fertile mind. And he issues a challenge: "I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen and a list to be made." What fears are waiting for us, and can we dispel their power over us with a pen?

His fears were common everyday childhood anxieties and terrors that paraded as skeletons, martians and carnival oddities. From those, he conjured a deathly chase on All Hallows Eve, familiar faces plotting evil deception and a man's tattoos that illustrated impending death. What a rich imagination! Our fears may be different, but they can still keep us doing the wiggle dance at the bottom of the stair, glancing at them through the side of our eye, unable to look them squarely in the face.

It could be something we did or didn't do when we knew the right course of action. Or maybe it's the thing we figured out too late to do anything about. Is it still our fault? We never intended bad to happen, but our lack of intuition made us slow on the uptake and we live with regrets. Sometimes, bad regrets. We wouldn't clothe them in skeletons or fantastical creatures, but in more everyday attire that makes our fears even more insidious because they can hide in our natural responses and we're left to wonder, "Where did that come from? What was the origin of that?"

We may feel we don't have fears, but if we have regrets, we usually fear exposure. We imagine, perhaps wrongly, that others will finger point. We worry (fear) our children will turn out differently than us, or that they will become just like us. We feel anxiety (fear) that others will know we've experienced bankruptcy, or were abandoned by the ones who knew us best and found us unlovable or that we couldn't keep ourselves or our loved ones from substance abuse. Sometimes, it's a sense of unworthiness or insecurity about whether God loves us. We read that He does, but do we believe it when we experience failure or that old dread lifts its head and gives us the evil eye?

There are many books written today that expose the character's (author's) desires and fears, which result in messed-up situations that escalate until there seems to be no way out. Someone is pushed out onto the ledge and they don't find a way back. I recently read about halfway through The House of Sand and Fog and I'm glad I only paid $1 for it. The writing is excellent and the characterization is insightful, but the story leaves me cold. I can't root for either character to 'win.' Neither deserves the house, and perhaps that's the point. But even if Oprah liked it, I'm sticking the book in my upcoming garage sale.

From the bottom of the stair, we call down our fears one by one and look them full in the face. We have at our disposal the hope of genuine redemption, not a Pollyanna resolution but a drawing of swords with our shadowy adversaries and keeping them at bay, if not completely dispatching them. Readers need to hear the truth about the stuff at the top of our stairs, that we wrestle with it daily and that we know there will eventually be resolution, even if it's not found within the pages of the book.

I won't ask you to name your fears. Save them for your list. Instead, I will ask if you know of stories with satisfying, realistic resolutions even if they have no complete sense of closure. And have a cupcake to celebrate.


Megan Sayer said...

Good thoughts here Debbie, I like it. I love Ray Bradbury as well...I think I need to read Zen and the art of Writing.

To answer your question, the first book I read that felt finished yet unresolved was Breakfast at Tiffany's (does anybody read old books any more?). I loved it, and that lack of resolution in the way that I thought it should have resolved made it feel all the more wonderful. It made me want to start from the beginning all over fact, I think I did. I miss that feeling in books that tuck themselves up tightly at the end. I think open-ended ones allow us as readers the freedom to delve into our own thoughts and fears so much more adequately.

Anonymous said...

Oh, The Brothers K. I have to tell you, just thinking of that novel makes me weepy. It's been a few years since I read it, and yet there are scenes that are so vivid that I forget they are from a book and not my life.

I need a cupcake now.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Megan, now I'll have to read Breakfast at Tiffany's. It sounds like the movie version was tampered with (as usual). You will love Ray Bradbury's book. It has nothing whatsoever to do with zen.
Susie, another book now on my TBR pile. Can you remember what exactly made those scenes so vivid that they crossed the line? Was it the writing or the place you were in, perhaps spiritually or emotionally when you read it?

Nicole said...

Of all the novels I've read, Consent to Kill by Vince Flynn was the first one to come to mind. Kind of bizarre to think of that one. There is a certain resolution near the end which is so powerful I read the scene over and over, and I think it's Vince's best writing right there. But yet the ongoing pain and plight would not be over and would not end there.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, the writing is phenomenal. But, even more that than that, the characters, in part, reminded me of certain family members. So, in a sense, it made me look into the old family basement.

Another one that made me do that is "This Much I Know is True" by Wally Lamb. One of my close family members was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was 15...but he struggled and suffered for many years before. I read Lamb's book at a point in my life when I needed to have mercy for my family member's illness. It prompted me to reconcile with that person.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Nicole, sounds like a great read. Do you think it would have been as memorable if it hadn't been left a bit open-ended?
Susie, I think The Time Traveler's Wife did something similar for me. I could look back at situations with a slightly more detached perspective and gain some closure of my own.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Megan, I specialise in old books, love the smell and feel of old hardcovers! Every time we travel we come home with a suitcase full of them.
The Ale Boy's Feast is the concluding book to Jeffery Overstreet's series Aurelia's Colours. There is so much more story after the final page, so many characters that are frozen forever now in their journey toward redemption. He has given so many vivid details of those journeys.... I would love to know how he thinks they make it through and in the meantime I have lots of fun imagining for myself.

Nicole said...

Deb, it's like you know there are more novels to come in the series, but even knowing that, the impact of that scene and the reason for it will continue to be a factor in the ongoing stories and will leave the character forever changed. If it had been a tidy wrap up after that scene, it would've blown everything.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Henrietta, I love to bury my face in the middle of an old book. It reminds me of many happy hours spent in the basement of the library of my childhood where the children's books were displayed - a cozy, silent space with few grownups around to interrupt your imaginings.
Thanks for sharing, everyone!

Lori Benton said...

Debbie, so fun that you also celebrate Frodo and Bilbo. This year I made them a peach pie. September 22 may be many things, but it'll always be first and foremost the anniversary of a long-expected party. And a good day for starting out on journeys.

My mind is blanking on stories with satisfying resolutions, yet no complete sense of closure. I'm not the most analytical of readers, but I must have read some. I'll let my subconscious stew on it.

Lori Benton said...

I suppose I wrote a book like that, come to think of it, though I didn't set out for it to end that way at all. The characters and their journeys changed before I'd finished and I had a choice to make. Wrap it up super-neat like I'd planned, or let the characters live with the consequences of their choices. The challenge was making the ending satisfying, since I made the latter choice.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Lori, I wrote one like that, too. A woman grabbed my arm at church and demanded to know if the main character ended up with the guy. I said yes, at least that's what I thought happened. : )

Nikole Hahn said...

I like what you said about Ray Bradbury. I used to love his stories. I haven't read one in a while. I should.

Anyway, reading on fears has really got the wheels turning and churning right now. :o)