I listened to an interview today with William Maxwell, the writer and one-time editor for the New Yorker magazine, who was born in 1908 and died in 2000. The interview was aired on the NPR program Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross. I have read Maxwell’s book So Long, See You Tomorrow, and after listening to him speak today, I will be reading it again.
Terry Gross asked him what he thought about living through so many changes in the world, having been born in the time of horse and buggy, and seeing things like moon landings, cell phones, and instant messaging come into being. His answer stopped me in my tracks and held me captive for a few moments. He talked about how his “condition,” his place in the world still existed some 40 or 50 years ago. Here is my best attempt at memorizing what he said while driving down I-80 in a fierce rain storm, because I wanted to hold onto the words for as long as I could:
“I like the world I came into as a child. It was a beautiful world..unhurried...it left time for brooding and for thought. It left time for being nice to other people. It left time for making presents instead of buying them. It left time for telling stories.”
What struck me about these words is how much we all still want those things in our lives, and how certain he was that this world leaves no time for them. We still regard careful thought and kindness as important, and we strive to teach our children to practice both. We all like it when our children hand make gifts, when we receive them ourselves, or when we make them for others...they seem – no, they are – more meaningful. And telling stories...well that seems to be what life is about. How sad, then, that from his perspective, we just don’t have time for them anymore.
Last night, as Elizabeth was settling into bed, she asked me to tell her the story about when she was born. “You know mom, that one!” I had no idea what she meant, but her big sister reminded me: “She wants to hear about how Sam forgot her name.”
So I told her:
When you were born, Elizabeth, Samuel was the happiest big brother imaginable. He went around telling everyone about you, and wore a smile bigger than his face. Your birth also coincided with his first few months of Kindergarten. A few days after you arrived, he was at school, and his class was in the Church, practicing for some Mass or other special event. He was standing at the alter with his classmates, when his teacher noticed that he was just sobbing away. She went to him, knelt down next to him, and asked him why he was crying. Between breathless bursts of tears, he managed to tell her: “I...can’t...remember...my...baby...sister’s...name!”
Thankfully, she knew it, first and middle, and was able to help him out. “ELIZABETH ROSE!” He felt better immediately! He was so happy to remember the name of this little person he had just met and about whom he could not stop thinking.
Who cares if the past three and half years have changed their relationship a little bit...to the point where I had to ask him four times this morning to leave her alone, and I have to keep an eye on her so that she doesn’t wreck his stuff just to be sneaky and spiteful?
Point being, I hope I always have time to tell the kids the stories that make up their lives, and I hope they will tell me stories when I am old and gray. I hope that Mr. Maxwell is wrong about the world we live in. And yet, I know that he is at least partly right, and that the world can indeed keep us from the things that really matter if we do not fight the good fight to keep those things alive.
The language of warfare, while violent, is apt. We must fight with everything we have to keep the world from running over us, to know that the world’s values are not the ones that will nourish our hearts and replenish our spirits, to keep this knowledge foremost in our minds, and to make time for thought, kindness, homemade gifts, and stories. What more do we need?