Looking back at E.B. White’s collection of essays the other night I was reminded of his genius, inspired by his simple yet profound style, and once again brought to my writing knees with the connection I feel to this man who is gone from the earth but still alive to me in his writing. E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little, but I only realized this after reading his personal essays and feeling like I’d come home.
Here’s a bit from one of my favorites, about moving from his apartment in New York City:
…As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy. I look out onto Forty-eighth Street; one out of every ten passers-by is familiar to me. After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on. They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play – the greatest of dramas. I shall miss them all, them and their dogs. Even more, I think, I shall miss the garden out back – the wolf whistle of the starling, the summer-night murmur of the fountain; the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow. And the visiting birds of spring and fall – the small, shy birds that drop in for one drink and stay for two weeks. Over a period of thirty years, I have occupied eight caves in New York, eight digs – four in the Village, one in Murray Hill, three in Turtle Bay. In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation according to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable. (Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street)
I feel it, I see it, I am completely taken into that world by his words. And I don’t want to leave.
There is a theme among White’s essays of his delight in familiar things. Coming home felt good, leaving it was hard. He rejoiced in the comfort of a recognizable landscape, a worn-in rocking chair, animals he knew well and those he merely viewed often from a window. I have the same affinity toward the familiar. When I moved from Kansas to L.A. after I got married, it took years to shake off the longing for home. For the recognizable landscape of Pin Oaks and Sugar Maples, the rolling, rocky Flint Hills that offer a grassy view for miles, the older-than-the-sixties architecture, the seasons. And in fact, the longing never left. It calmed down and laid low, allowing me to learn to enjoy my new home for what it was, but it never died. The Flint Hills called to me from the middle of the country, tempting me with room to breathe, and think, and write. So when we moved back eight years after I left, there was a sigh of relief in my gut when I sat on the porch, silently watching the Sycamore’s swaying leaves shimmer in the sunlight, seeing the Cottonwood tufts float past in summer, or the fat snowflakes fall in winter. Being back home made me calm. Made me happy. Made me sit still for a bit.
But E.B. White had two “homes,” one New York City, one rural Maine. He loved them both. Saw the goodness and beauty in each place. They became familiar over time. After living in L.A. for nearly a decade it also became a part of me. I was happy to move back to the midwest as I raised my children, but there are parts of that city which became players in my story, and I am happy to see them again at our semi-annual reunions. The Magnolia and Palm trees lining Orange Grove Ave, the wild parrots that nested outside my bedroom window, the birds of paradise and poppies that bloomed year-round, the dependable sunshine, the absence of bugs. I learned from living in such a different place that change is hard, but in the end it’s good. It expands your repertoire of normal, which makes you more at home in the world. It helps me know that wherever I live, if given time it can become home, or a home. Perhaps no place will ever be as much a part of me as Kansas, but it’s ok to leave, to be reminded of why I love it so very much. And then I can return and give a sigh of relief at the place I know so well.
White writes about returning to Maine at Christmastime:
What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at the cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three french hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spires of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do. It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river – a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, “It flows through Orland every day.” I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the consistency, the dependability of small, familiar rivers. (Coming Home)
I once took the StrengthsFinder personality test, and one of my top five strengths was Past. In their terms that means I “like to think about the past” and I “learn by studying and researching the past”. No surprise there. One of my two majors in college was history, and I have always appreciated a look backward to see the present more clearly. My love of the familiar fits right in with this Past strength – until something has a past with me, it is not familiar and therefore not as precious.
That isn’t to say that I don’t love exploring the new – I love to travel to new places, for a chance to unwrap a different culture and see what the world holds. I lived in Taiwan for a summer just after college, and it was a crash course in all-new-all-the-time, even though I had studied East Asian culture quite a bit in school. It was short, but there were elements of it that became normal as I lived in Taichung. I latched on to anything that became commonplace: the route I walked to work, the scooter ride to the village for fried rice, the nightly boba I bought in broken Mandarin. I instinctively held tight to anything that felt typical. Living in such a different place than I had known was exhilarating, and hard, and fascinating, and lonely and so very good for me. It was a summer of exploration, of Taiwan and of myself. I’m glad for the experience. But the return, even just walking off the plane into the United States, which looked, and felt and smelled familiar, made my shoulders drop from their two-month hike up to my ears. My body physically reacted to what I knew so well. I was home.
Before I moved to L.A. I could never imagine living anywhere else but Kansas (northeast Kansas to be specific), but now when I go someplace new I picture myself living there, wondering if I would enjoy it, thinking about whether this place could be another home to me. In many places it’s possible. (Syria, Siberia, and Branson, Missouri are a few it’s not.) E.B. White had more than one place he called home. He valued those places like a member of his family, or more so, the solid base beneath it. So far I have two as well, but I imagine someday I will have more. And perhaps, dream of dreams, someday I will write as eloquently of them as E.B. White did of his.