Thursday, September 08, 2016

`Let Him Only Look for It in the Right Spirit'

I found myself in a familiar dream with an unexpected plot twist. I was on foot in a small town that I recognized in pieces, and wanted to get home but had no idea how to do so. Where did I live? In the dream, I remember working hard to visualize my house and neighborhood, but they wouldn’t come. I felt like Earl Holliman in “Where Is Everybody?,” the first episode of Twilight Zone. I was starting to panic when I woke, and realized it had never occurred to me in the dream that I lived in Houston. The dream town combined elements of three small towns in Ohio, Indiana and New York where I lived between 1977 and 2004. I carry around with me internal maps of those places. In waking hours, I remove one transparency before putting another on the overhead projector. In dreams, they overlap. The experience was interesting but it revived my distaste for Indiana, where I lived for a little more than two years.

That was Tuesday morning, when I had an email from Marius Kociejowski, who mentioned a writer about whom he has lobbied me several times: “I will press only one author on you for now, who absolutely dazzles, Robert Louis Stevenson whose essays are among the greatest in existence.” Marius is a rare trustworthy reader, widely read and blessed with good, unpretentious taste. I’ve read little Stevenson as an adult, and only the fiction as a kid. I borrowed a collection of his work from the library and almost at random read “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places” (1874). Stevenson’s cheeriness is bracing: “. . . when we are put down in some unsightly neighbourhood, and especially if we have come to be more or less dependent on what we see, we must set ourselves to hunt out beautiful things with all the ardour and patience of a botanist after a rye plant.”

There was a time this would have smelled annoyingly like Pollyanna’s mushy optimism. But I’m less sophisticated today, less likely to strike a cynical pose just for the hell of it. The war between grimness and gratitude rages, but life musters reinforcements. Even Indiana doesn’t seem so bad. For the first time, while living there, I read H.L. Mencken systematically. I made lasting friends and saw the late Phil Woods perform for the first time. Stevenson prompted my reevaluation of the Hoosier State:

“So, wherever a man is, he will find something to please and pacify him: in the town he will meet pleasant faces of men and women, and see beautiful flowers at a window, or hear a cage–bird singing at the corner of the gloomiest street; and for the country, there is no country without some amenity – let him only look for it in the right spirit, and he will surely find.”

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