I shoveled snow from a neighbor’s driveway on Tuesday and cleared a path to the rack of mailboxes that serves 10 families along our section of street. Sometimes I enjoy mindless work, like washing dishes. It gives me an opportunity not for thinking but not-thinking. The mental blankness is restful. Our neighbor is 78 and shares her house with a revolving collection of offspring, offspring’s offspring and others who constitute family. Someone’s always working on a car in front of her house. In the summer, she plants corn and gladioli in her front yard. A Cadillac with four flat tires is parked beside her house.
Ms. Johnson is black and was born in Houston. She moved to Seattle as a young woman. Her late husband worked for Boeing – “A good job for a black man in those days,” she says. Ms. Johnson has lived in this neighborhood for almost 33 years, longer than anyone else still around. She remembers the occupants of each house, even renters like us. If she doesn’t remember or never knew their names, she comes up with a colorful Homeric epithet: “The loud Russians.” “Nice folks, the Chinese couple. Very clean.” “They were quiet ones. Even the children.” At this point history, gossip and the oral tradition converge. Her tone is dispassionate even when she’s snippy. By temperament she’s a chronicler, a keeper of the trivial and less trivial, and most of it will be lost when she’s gone. Of course, I wonder what she calls us.
I just read Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970, the newest book by R.F. Foster, the Irish historian and biographer of Yeats. He’s a great admirer of the Irish essayist Hubert Butler (1900-1991), one of the sanest voices of the last century. Like J.F. Powers and Daniel Fuchs, he’s a writer whose readership and reputation have never been commensurate with his achievement. His admirers, little islands of devotion, hoard his work like rations in wartime. Foster writes of Butler:
“In his very last piece of published writing, in 1990, he turned to the question of ecumenicism and remarked: `what is likely to unite us is not the spectacle of a pope embracing a patriarch or a heretical archbishop or the return of St. Andrew’s skull to Petras or some holy keepsake from Byzantium to Rome. We have to venture out from the well-kept museum of symbols on to the junk-heap of cast-off clothes, broken crockery and maggoty corpses which is history.’”
That suggests the flavor of Butler’s pungent thinking and prose. Foster’s mention was enough to send me back to Independent Spirit, the selection of essays published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1996. In “Beside the Nore,” written in 1984, I found the passage I remembered while speaking with Ms. Johnson:
“I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. There should be an archive in every village, where stories such as the old man told me are recorded. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of the great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us.”