How to Be at Home

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“A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

J. D. Salinger died a few months ago at the age of 91, and his demise sent ripples of speculation through the publishing world. His famous novel Catcher in the Rye was a sensation when it was published in 1951. It achieved a gradual and building success that by the 1960s drove Salinger to retreat to a farm house in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he remained – raising his family and writing, but not publishing – for the duration of his life.

By the time I was born in 1969, J. D. Salinger was already a legend. I grew up knowing two things about him – that he wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and that he had essentially dropped off the face of the earth. He was that astonishing and unbelievable anomaly in the publishing world – the “sure thing” writer who refused to cash in his chips. I read all of his books about twenty years ago, and I remember liking them at the time, but they were not literary-life-altering for me. I’ve been an aspiring novelist all of my life and Salinger was never one of the writers who inspired me … with one small exception. Writer’s magazines and web sites and agent’s blogs all tell us that in the present state of publishing it is now a writer’s responsibility to bring an audience “to the table” along with their manuscript, and it is within this context that I have always been fascinated by the idea of Salinger’s reserve; by his ability to not participate in the fray. What inspires me about J. D. Salinger is his apparent conviction that a writer’s only obligation is to write – a conviction in him that seems to have been attached to a real affinity for home.

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Home must be something that Salinger understood very well. He refused to put art before life, I assume because he recognized and respected the complex relationship between them; because he knew that they were not – that they could not be – mutually exclusive. Eulogistic pieces in The New Yorker suggest that he was not technically a recluse, as we’ve been led to believe. He simply refused to be what he said most writers are nowadays, “book-selling louts and big mouths.”

Lillian Ross, Salinger’s friend for over fifty years, quotes him talking about taking his children to ride on the flying swings at the Cornish Fair, where he said he would “stand around and talk about schools with the other crummy parents, the summer parents.” She says he found “fun and relief” traveling down to New York to have dinner with her and another mutual friend. In the same issue John Seabrook, a friend of Matthew Salinger (J. D. Salinger’s son), describes an evening when Matthew invited him and his girlfriend to the Salinger home to watch movies. Salinger made them popcorn and sat behind them with “his face illuminated by the flickering projector.” Salinger and Seabrook later played golf together. On another day they spent “a wonderful afternoon … going around San Francisco’s Chinatown, looking at exotic mushrooms, roots, and herbs.”

I suspect that Salinger wasn’t misanthropic or reclusive so much as he refused to participate in the false syllogism that is inevitably thrust upon the famous; that is, that we mistake a person’s creativity or creations for who that person is. An artist or writer or musician can create something with which he or she has a profound connection; and we can connect with a created work that has a profound impact on us. But this is not a syllogism. It does not necessarily follow that we will experience a profound personal connection with that artist or writer or musician, or that we might even like them. We are not our creative work. The work often goes out into the world and represents us – and in the modern world, especially in the publishing industry, we are increasingly called upon to engender and encourage this. But it cannot contain the sum total of us. It is no conduit to whether we are optimistic or argumentative; to whether we are strict vegans or fast food junkies. It has no bearing on the volume at which we spit out our toothpaste.

This, I think, is something that J. D. Salinger got. He refused to entertain spurious claims of relationship. He refused to yield to the teleological pressure of the publishing world or the public. He wanted to write, and he wanted to be at home – though it may be, as Wendell Berry says, “filled with a thousand irritations, worries, regrets for what has happened and fears for what may, trivial duties, meaningless torments.” Home is always now. It’s never the house we’re going to have, or the place we’re going to end up. Home is both where we are now and who we are now, in all of its – and our – imperfections. To be at home is to “let it be enough.”

It’s to file your manuscripts away in a safe if you have to.

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I’ve recently discovered the essays of Wendell Berry, and Berry has quite a lot to say about the concept of home. Berry also actually has some interesting things in common with Salinger. Both men are very concerned with the quality of food. According to the John Seabrook essay I already mentioned, Salinger had an encyclopedic knowledge of mushrooms. It is rumored that Salinger’s late, unpublished work was largely about health and nutrition. Berry, of course, is known to people who care about such things as a voice of both passion and reason on subjects to do with American agriculture, and he is often quoted by Michael Pollan, a well-known writer on the subjects of safe, sustainable and healthy food. Like Salinger, Berry rejected the idea that a literary life was intrinsically urban; he rejected “the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals,” those people that Salinger dubbed “the community of seriously hip observers,” which he described as “a scary and depressing thing.”

Both men chose as their highest value – both in their lives and in their work – to be at home.

The thing that they remind me is that writing is a practice – like Berry’s agrarianism; like dog obedience-training, or gardening; like meditation or yoga. It’s not end-oriented. There are milestones; triumphs; revelations; but there is no end – specifically there is no sustainable and ongoing end-state. I think that this is also the case with being at home – which is to be comfortable in our present shelters and incarnations. To truly be at home – in our material and in our creative lives – we have to let go of end-oriented thinking.

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Here’s another false pressure that we put on our creative work. We tend to lean on it too much. We tend to burden it with transforming everything in our lives; particularly when the realization of our dreams is a long time coming. We think in terms of being “discovered.” In the geometry of our imaginations there is a distant point at which “things will be different.”

It escapes us, as we’re growing up, idolizing this person or that person, feeling a connection to them that overwhelms us, that our lives to do not come at us from outside of ourselves; that the world does not bring us our feelings, our attachments, our philosophies. How is it that we cannot fathom that we, too, might become famous and idolized and rich, and that these feelings, attachments and philosophies would not change?

At best the world might sustain them. At worst it could take them away.

The teleological mindset is a particularly human characteristic. It’s not just that we assume an end-point to things; it’s more that we assume an end which will not in fact be an end at all but more of an enduring end-state. It’s all too easy to think of the milestones in our lives this way – graduations, marriages, divorces, buying a home – as we look forward to these things we imagine that they will be enduring states of perfection; points after which we can have no problems, no vices, no worries.

I am guilty of this faulty teleological thinking in practically all areas. For example, I frequently find myself thinking things along the lines of this: when the house is finished, we will no longer have domestic problems. We’ll have more space therefore my daughter will clean up her toys, my husband and I will not snap at each other, the dogs will not bark, the floors will not get dirty. It’s ridiculous not to have these things now, which are all completely within our power to have; ridiculous to think that how and who and what we are is in any way dependent on things extrinsic to us. It’s true that domestic improvements – more space, more organization – can make life less stressful. But when we’re in the new space we’re still going to be us. We’ll be moving our problems into the space with us. So why not start working on being the better “us” now?

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After a brief publishing career, Salinger’s writing became “art for art’s sake” – sort of. He apparently has a safe full of manuscripts, each one carefully labeled: publish/edit/don’t publish. To an extent he must have gone about this work as if no one would ever read another thing that he wrote; knowing that he would experience no appreciation – or criticism – of his work within his lifetime. But after all, he was J.D. Salinger. He had to know that he could keep whatever he wanted to himself when he was alive and still be guaranteed an audience after his death. So writing in obscurity could hardly have been the same experience as it is for someone actually obscure – like, for instance, myself.

But art for art’s sake is a misnomer. Art is never “for art’s sake”; it’s for the sake of the artist. As much as Salinger must have known that there would inevitably be an audience for his later work, he also must have written it essentially for himself. Or else, why do it? He would see no possible earthly recompense for his efforts. And if he could work that way – doing his work with no thought that it might free him from carrots or turnips or blacksmiths or markets – why can’t I? Why can’t everyone? Perhaps because in order to do our work this way we must be quiet; and our frenzied modern marketplace is a cacophony of competing noises; a never-ending contest to see who can shriek the loudest, who can shock the most, who can be the most outrageous and attract the most attention. It gives us the idea that to be successful in it we, too, have to yelp and yowl; we too must be flashy, colorful and shiny.

And yet, both Mr. Salinger and Mr. Berry – two men who have always utterly refused to shout – have also always had audiences.

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In my opinion the possibility to actually touch a few people far outweighs any thrill that might be had by skimming along the surface of a few hundred thousand. A writer does not take root in the world by becoming popular and famous and rich. A writer doesn’t take root in the world at all. Ideas, characters, stories, places and all that any of these things might stand for take root in the world only by taking root in another human being, and another, and another. That is how great work in any field outlasts us. It is not because we are the loudest, or the fastest, or the wildest, but perhaps because we are the most quiet and unassuming; because we are content to explicate and murmur such truths as we have been able to discover and no more, without expecting that our lives be materially changed in return. Because our lives have already been materially changed; we wrote the book, after all. We worried at and discovered the truths that we murmur. We took them into ourselves not to escape the vicissitudes of life but to grow a better carrot or a better turnip; so that we might have a more profound conversation with our aunt or our cousin, so that we might trade at the market or the blacksmith with the currency not of forced labor but of our souls.

These are the comforts and encouragements that I find when I read Wendell Berry. And it’s the reason that though I was not moved as a young writer by Salinger’s fiction in the same way that I was moved by Dostoyevsky, by E.M. Forester, by Sinclair Lewis; still I am endlessly moved and encouraged – more so, perhaps – by Jerry Salinger the man. Because all of life is a practice; an endless challenging attempt to balance goals with acceptance; progress with stasis; hope with contentment.

And being at home is a practice too. It’s an ongoing challenge to balance making it better with letting it be.