Peter Orner reads “Upper Moose Lake, 1990,” from his new essay collection, Am I Alone Here?, published in November by Catapult.
Upper Moose Lake, 1990
I’m twenty-two, I’m drunk, I’m in a canoe. The Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota: Midwestern heaven, mosquitoes the size of St. Bernards be damned. It was up north—on Upper Moose Lake—that I found myself transfixed by another watery place. A blazing day, upper 80s, and I was base-camping with two old friends. Boundary Waters trips were always an excuse to base-camp, another term for just sitting around all day and bullshitting. What happened to sitting around all day and bullshitting? Goshko and Alex were in a canoe on one side of the lake, fishing and drinking. I was on the other side, in another boat, reading and drinking. I’d propped myself up on the stern, a life jacket as my pillow. With both hands I held a book up against the sun and tried not to finish it.
There are certain rare books. You know the ones I’m talking about. Finishing is agony because you know you will never again read this bookfor the first time.
Lily Briscoe is painting a picture, or at least she’s trying to. Things are going badly and Lily’s frustrated. Bizarre to me now that reading about someone not painting well could be so spellbinding. And I remember lying in the stern of that canoe and slowing down, almost to a standstill, the water lapping the boat, and counting the pages I had left—the paragraphs, the sentences, the words, the letters—when a dragonfly ambushed me and drilled so deep into my left eye socket it was like somebody twisting a screwdriver into my face. I screamed and fell out of the boat. When I broke the surface of the frigid lake, I could hear Goshko and Alex yawning across the water. Orner fell in the lake again. But all that mattered was Lily Briscoe. She was floating, calmly, a few feet away. I let the canoe drift, rescued the book, and swam it to shore. I laid that waterlogged novel on a rock in the sun. And I waited. I sat down beside the rock, watched my canoe wander around the lake by itself, and waited for the book to dry so I could turn the pages again without their sticking together.
I’m not an especially patient person, and in my twenties I was less so, and yet I didn’t do anything else. I just waited. True, I’d been drinking, and I’ve always been convinced that I concentrate better after a few beers. In the Boundary Waters we start drinking in the morning while still in our sleeping bags. But I know that something else beyond five or six Leinenkugels had taken hold of me. It took me at least an hour before I could start reading again, and even then the words bled through the wet pages.
I reread To the Lighthouse this week. I wondered about my younger self. Who was this guy so entranced by a book that I’d sit and wait for it to dry? It couldn’t have been the plot. For me, it usually isn’t. Plot is what goes on in the rest of the world while I’m trying to remember how the light looked under the door from the hall when I was a kid and couldn’t sleep. Plot is the low noise of my parents’ voices as they argue deep into the night. My mother tries in vain to keep my father quiet. That bar of light, my mother’s too loud whispering. My father erupting into a hiss. Let them hear us, let every nosy piece of shit in this entire town hear us. In the dark I count the sea horses prancing up and down the wallpaper.
And in fact, in Part III, “The Lighthouse,” the final section that had me so entranced, nothing much happens at all, aside from Lily having trouble with her painting. We lose Mrs. Ramsay, the beating heart of the novel, in Part II. She actually dies, if you remember, in brackets.
[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
This has to be the saddest afterthought in fiction. By the end of the novel, all the characters—and all the book’s readers—can’t stop reaching in the dark for Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is gone, all seek Mrs. Ramsay. The final section focuses on people who have returned to the scene of what they believe was their greatest happiness, the times they spent at the Ramsays’ summer house off the coast of Scotland, before the war. They can’t let go of that past, of their memories of Mrs. Ramsay, who was—and this might be the most holy thing about the whole book—a beautifully ordinary person. She was a loving mother who tried to do right by her kids, a wife who doted on her husband even though he didn’t always deserve it, a host who liked to bring people together. She was also someone who could be seductively aloof.
Mrs. Ramsay could be my sanctified mother. She could be yours.
Lily Briscoe tries, through painting, to replicate the old feeling of being back at the summer house. She can’t do it. She can’t translate her visions to the canvas. And can’t I relate? How many hours a day do I now spend trying to trap my own ghosts? Words, like paint, will always be static, while the life we work so hard to animate remains forever in motion. Mrs. Ramsay, even in death, is so dynamic in Lily’s mind, yet a single person’s unknowables are infinite.
One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty
pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman
with, she thought. Among them must be one that was stone
blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine
as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her
where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window
alone; which took to itself and treasured up, like the air which
held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations,
her desires. What did the hedge mean to her, what did
the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave
Mercifully, To the Lighthouse embraces the creation of the work itself, whether it is bad, good, or indifferent, as the only possible way forward. One pair of eyes is all we’ve got. The conclusion of To the Lighthouse is as generous as it is moving. Lily accepts the fact that her mediocre paintings are going to end up either rolled up under someone’s bed or in an attic somewhere or, more likely, thrown out with the trash. Even so, she’ll paint. She’ll paint. What choice has she got but to paint? The only way to honor her visions of Mrs. Ramsay and those lost days is to try to get them down. Come what may. The failure to capture the vision is the vision.
* * *
And what about my drunken younger self, desperate for a book not to end? What about me out there on that rock? Thoughts about the nature of art couldn’t have had me so mesmerized. I was twenty-two and all hormones. Was I hot for Lily Briscoe? For sure I was. She wasn’t the first literary figure I’d been aroused by (Laura Ingalls Wilder), nor will she be the last. And Lily wasn’t taken, either. She and Charles Tansley never did get together as Mrs. Ramsay had once schemed, so long ago.
Rereading the book, I stood in solemn awe of its indelibility. I was duly astonished by the technical risks that Woolf takes on page after page. It’s like watching aerial acrobatics. And I was emotionally wrecked, too. While Mr. Carmichael lies in bed reading Virgil, the Ramsays drop like flies. First Mrs. Ramsay, then Prue just after giving birth, then Andrew is blown up in France during the war . . . But I couldn’t muster the idiot love I had back then on my rock. What did I know? More than I know now, I think. I was a better reader. I knew how to just exist, without any writerly la-de-da crap, deep inside a book. And I believe what I wanted, even then, along with getting into Lily Briscoe’s pants, was to hold on to what the book tries so hard to bring back: irretrievable time. This is what the book does like few others. It regains the weight of what’s vanished. How else to say it? Mine was the only wasted youth I’ll ever have to waste. Goshko and Alex and I talk, every year we talk, about going back to Upper Moose Lake. We haven’t made it back there together in almost a quarter century now. No tragedy, just something that’s never happened. Still, can’t I grieve for what’s been lost, however small it seems? Once, in late summer, I sat drunk on a rock and waited for a book to dry. Two old friends, their quiet murmurs, reached me across the water.
From Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission of Catapult. All rights reserved.