A sense of place: Looking into the life of Mary Gordon
It's a relief, really. Mary Gordon seems no more inclined to answer deeply personal questions than I am to ask them.
Of course, the questions flutter at the periphery of our conversation about her collection of meditative, autobiographical essays, Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity. How can I not wonder about the pain of a child who dreams of fairy princesses and kisses the knee of "Grandpa" Haubrecht in hopes of forming some sentimental connection with the old man, only to recognize in his unbending silence that she is not the magical child of her imagination, and probably not even a child at all? Or the desperation of a 15-year-old living alone with her alcoholic mother in increasing dishevelment, who hears a bird trapped in her closet struggling toward death and reacts by pulling her clothes from the closet, laying them on a chair, and never opening the closet again until it is time to go to college?
But, really, what more could I actually learn by asking Gordon about her implacable grandmother or her cruel aunt? Her mother and the priests who "embodied her idea of the desirable male"? Or the fact that her father, who died when she was seven, was the only person she liked to play with?
In these eight linked essays about the places that have shaped her sensibility—as in her recent memoir about her father, The Shadow Man, and her novels Final Payments and The Company of Women—Gordon writes with such brilliant specificity and with such sensitivity to the fine gradations of human emotion that readers simply infer the answers to such questions. To actually ask them is a betrayal of one of the deepest pleasures of reading writers as good as Gordon: that sense of one mind and spirit connecting with another's. To ask also invites a kind of reductive pop psychologizing. Or worse, the commodification of spirit, which is a sorry hallmark of our era, and an increasing concern for Gordon.
"What makes me nervous," she says midway through our conversation, "is that even people's interest in religion has become a commodity. I mean, the corporate world is now getting spiritual advisors so that their executives can be more productive, because they need to be in touch with their spiritual roots in order that they can make a better Web page . . . There's no other narrative, except commodity and profit. I find myself wondering, is there anything that is not commodifiable?"
Religion has never been a commodity for Gordon. She was raised in a family that "took deep pleasure in the liturgical world of the church" and assembled at her grandmother's on Tuesday nights to watch Bishop Sheen on television. But in the 1960s, in a moment described in the essay "The Architecture of a Life with Priests," a young priest's well-meaning remark "demolished the walls of the confessional," and led her to realize that she "would have to leave the church, because to live with this new sense of lightness and clarity I would need a dwelling that let in the light."
Thirty-some years later, Gordon has returned to the church. "Those sacred spaces were very formative, and irreplaceable," she says. "I began to understand that the habit of mind that was generated by those sacred spaces was very important to who I am, and that if I didn't honor my hunger for that, I would be less than truthful about who I really am. This is another reason why the metaphor of place is so important to me. I needed to be in the psychic space that only church ritual and the ethical framework that is expressed in ritual could give me. Nothing else would substitute for that."
But sacred spaces are not the only places Gordon reflects on in Seeing Through Places. There are also the houses of her grandmother and her babysitter and the neighbors next door, the public places of New York, and a forsaken house on the Cape. Seeing Through Places developed "without an intentional arc," Gordon says. At some point she realized that the essays she was writing were about place and that she wanted to "talk about where I am, I mean literally where I am and metaphorically where I am. So I organized the book around the motif of a journey." That journey spans only a short distance in miles—from Valley Stream, Long Island to Manhattan—but it is an immense psychic journey from a seemingly cloistered life in a working class neighborhood to public life as a best-selling novelist and English professor at Barnard.
"I really wanted to meditate on a place being at the center of a consciousness," Gordon says. "The accidents of place, the pressure of place that enables certain kinds of behaviors and makes other behaviors impossible. So that place becomes an agent in ways that are practical, in ways that can be tyrannical, and in ways that are very atmospheric and hard to pin down. . . . Often when people write about place it's from a sensibility that believes that place is divorced from people and has a kind of life of its own. I was brought up to think that people were more important than place and more important than things. I was even brought up in a sensibility that said that the invisible is more important than the visible. So the way that I come at place is not the way that Protestant males come at place. If this were an equation, I would be talking about place minus Thoreau."
In the most poignant essay in the book, "Places to Play," Gordon writes that as a child, she was not good at playing and always felt that she "was only masquerading as a child." Desperate to be taken seriously, she couldn't wait for childhood to end. Gordon later writes that she graduated from college younger than when she entered, and credits Barnard and the 1960s for teaching her the value of play.
"Far from being a '60s basher," she says, "I am so grateful for them. Because we were all allowed to play and to be serious. . . . The playful and the serious were able to flow in and out of one another in a way that for me was extremely freeing. And at Barnard, my mind was given play. I was given tremendous attention, a debt I can never repay."
Little wonder, then, that she has returned to Barnard to teach and that she writes of the place in her final essay with such affection. "I'm always afraid that with one false move, which I can't predict or name, I could be back at that old place I was in when I was young," Gordon says near the end of our conversation. "But I also feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and amazement that life has had so much more pleasure and amplitude and graciousness than I ever believed it would have when I was a child."
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California.