Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Today's essay by Donald Hall

I read Out The Window in the New Yorker back in January.


I cut it out and put it in my computer desk drawer to have close at hand when I wrote about it. Well, here we are in May. I have thought about this essay a lot in the intervening months.

I first encountered the writing of Donald Hall in what I think is a masterpiece of nostalgic, sometimes elegiac writing, String Too Short To Be Saved published in 1961.


My copy is a second printing twenty years later and autographed by the author when he, his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and Maxine Kumin visited my little town in 1989. I think back on that magical evening and wonder if I dreamed it. I've read the book twice, and am feeling a pull to go back to those pages again, and soon.

Right from the start of Out The Window, he doesn't flinch from seeing his life as it is.
Today is January, midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window.
And he tells us in poetic detail about what he sees from that window - the snow, the birds and squirrels, the cow barn,


built in 1865, which he gazes at 'every day of the year.' There is a chickadee perch
a rusty horseshoe, permanently nailed to the doorjamb by my grandparents
He lives in his grandparents' house.


The past is all around him, supporting him rather than crushing him. As he looks out the window, his thoughts turn to his family, of his mother in a nursing home, still reading before she died at almost ninety-one.
A week before she died, she read "My Antonia" for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain.
As he describes the narrowing of his life, he says that
New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. [his wife; and his father] When I lament and darken over my dimishments, I accomplish nothing. It's better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.
And his pleasure is also mine. If there are to be no more poems, that's alright. I think, in fact I know, that I love his prose even better. I like the details, the descriptions, the longer form of telling.

There is also humor in this lovely piece.
My grandmother Kate lived to be ninety-seven. Kate's daughter, my mother, owed her early death to two packs a day - unfiltered Chesterfields first, then Kents. My mother was grateful to cigarettes; they allowed her to avoid dementia.
And then, Donald Hall offers a most telling sentence, one that I think defines him, as it does me.
When I was a child, I loved old people.
… After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself.
He writes of that 'antiquity,' that 'unknown, unanticipated galaxy.' We all know this feeling. Remember the first time the young check-out person at the supermarket called you ma'am? That is the beginning - when we are thirty-five, and those who are 20 see us as a whole other generation. What? Me, old? No, I'm the same. You just see me differently. It was Gertrude Stein who most brilliantly said, 'we are always the same age inside.' I wore a tee shirt with her face and that quote when I was younger. I believed it then and I believe it now. When a young friend of Matt and Margaret's said he saw saw me dancing at Rusted Root and knew it was me because of my white hair, I was taken aback, surprised, before I remembered that oh, yeah, I do have white hair now. It's a mysterious realm that we, who are lucky, get to visit. There are indeed 'limitations' and 'narrowing circles' but there are also depths of understanding, appreciation, and remembrance that come with those years. If only more of the young loved old people. Then the condescension, the dismissal by others wouldn't be a part of old age.

This essay is a brilliant piece of writing. It creates in me the strength of feeling that I usually only have when I read poetry.

I am happy to say that there is an online phone interview with Donald Hall done at the time the essay was published. I know twelve minutes can be hard to set aside in a busy day, but I so hope you can listen. There's another interview here.

I've written about Donald Hall quite a few times in my letters. If interested, you may type his name into the search box to find the postings.

I find this photo very touching. It's like his arm is around the chair which should hold his late wife or grandmother or grandfather on that porch where they all sat in their lifetimes.


This is my second essay for the Essay Reading Challenge - 2012

47 comments:

  1. I ovehow beautifully you write, Nan! I have always found myself drawn to the "older" people. I loved spending time with my grandparents, and when I was a teen I worked in a nursing home, which is a time I remember fondly. I must investigate this author some more.

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  2. Wow! What a nice thing to say. I have always been comfortable and happy in the company of older people. Being an only child, I spent a lot of time listening and watching as a little girl.
    If you click on the 'poems' tab under the blog header picture, there are some by him here. And more are coming. Tom's mother just gave me his latest (last?) book of poetry.

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  3. A lovely post, Nan, and thankyou for the link to the podcast. I listened with great pleasure.

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  4. I love the fact that his mother was still reading a favorite book at 90! Please may that be me - please. I so enjoyed helping the people who came from my mother's assisted living home when they brought the their bus to the library. My mom came too, but didn't check out books. She had a friend who was such a reader - at probably 85+. I loved that.

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  5. Dear Nan,
    You may have white hair but you are still dancing!
    (And you can always try Loreal Excellence, Medium Brown, but I might have cornered the market on it!)

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    1. I'm laughing! Thanks. Nope. No color for me. :<)

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  6. Nan, I love this
    can relate to many of the words
    You are special to me....
    Thank you for bringing me so much
    pleasure and introducing me to
    many new writers...

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  7. I really loved this post. I find myself growing more attuned to older people myself. Have you read Madeline Lengle's "A Severed Wasp?". I need to read it again.

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    1. I haven't. I keep meaning to read more of her. She wrote so much. thanks for the encouragement. I just looked online and my library has it. Will pick it up soon.

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  8. Lovely piece, Nan. I'm going to read "Out the Window." I listened to the online interview that you linked to your essay. Thank very much for all this.

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    1. So very good to see you! How's the book coming?

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    2. Slowly, Nan, thanks for asking! The problem with blogging, twittering etc it seems harder and harder to find time to write books. One also gets absorbed in other people's books. I have spent many hours in the last few weeks with an off-beat police novel by David Swinson for my blog. But it was worth it!

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    3. I just found your blog, and added the link to my book report of A Place To Die. I'll be over and read all about this fellow and his book.
      I understand exactly what you are saying. I see it with people who aren't even writers. There are too many things to do! I wonder if writers get together and talk about how to balance. Certainly blogs and Facebook and twitter bring one's name into the forefront. I think you know that I first heard of your book at Goodreads.

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  9. You just keep introducing me to new authors and types of books! Great post.

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  10. I haven't come across Donald Hall before, he sounds like someone it would be nice to know. I've always enjoyed the company of old people and still do although of course I qualify for their ranks myself these days:) To me old people are at least 75 though! I've never thought of you as having white hair, in my mental picture of you you're about 35.

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    1. I am. I just pretend to be in my sixties so people think I'm wise. :<)
      There are a few of his poems here in my letters if you want to get to know him a bit more.

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  11. Being officially middle-aged at 44 myself, and seeing my parents one after the other crossing the threshold of 70, I do think about age rather often. For myself, I don't mind getting older at all - quite the contrary, I see it as a kind of adventure, and I guess I am lucky that my health is better now than it was at 30, and I feel a lot better about myself than at 20.
    One day I hope to be a dignified, elegant and charming old lady!

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    1. I have always loved the closeness between you and your folks. You really seem to enjoy being together.

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    2. And we really do, Nan! It is so precious, having a loving family, I wish everybody could have one.

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  12. Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets/writers. I met him at a book signing just after his release of "Without". Thanks Nan for this post about Donald.

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    1. We went to see him when he was at Plymouth State Univ. on stage with the poet who has since killed himself - Liam Rector.

      The very best time though was at the Frost Place. I wrote a bit about it here:

      http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2007/08/further-afieldpoetry-reading.html

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  13. Thank you for this wonderful post which I so much enjoyed. I am ashamed that I knew only "The Ox-Cart Man", one of my all-time favorite children's books. I now look forward to exploring more of his writing.

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    1. Don't be ashamed! That is one of his most wonderful books. I so love it.

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  14. Nan - I also read this essay and thought it was beautiful. I am at an age myself when I consider what I may lose, and what I hope I can keep as the years go by. When we had work done on our house foundation a few years ago, my husband said we would put off some further project, and the workman (a neighbor), knowing how easy it is to procrastinate - for years - looked at him and asked 'How long you plan on livin'?' That has become a familiar catchphrase now as we make decisions, whether to plant a tree or take a trip.

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    1. I do understand. Isn't it just the weirdest thing. On an optimistic note, my mother-in-law and her husband planted a tree at 82 and 87! I so love that.

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  15. Such a lovely post, thank you. I too am an only child and, for a while, we lived with my Grandfather, precious memories of him I'm sure have contributed to my liking old people all my life. Now I am 'old' (father william!), when does elderly become old?!! I haven't gone grey yet, but that is genetic, not thanks to a bottle, I love white hair.
    Carole
    p.s What a gorgeous house he had, I want one just like that.

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    1. I think that we only children didn't have siblings to go off and play with when company came or we went on visits, so we were included in the conversations of older people.
      Yeah, Tom isn't very grey either. Ha! I got my first one in my twenties.
      He still lives in that house. We've driven by it many times over the years. Our kids would say, 'there's Donald Hall's house.'
      It looks pretty much like ours from the outside. Old farmhouse. The barns at our place were gone before we moved in so we had to have a new one built.

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  16. Lovely post- thank you so much. I listened to the interview- such feeling,wisdom. If you haven't already heard it, you might enjoy the Maurice Sendek Fresh Air with Terry Gross interview on NPR. I am referring to the last interview he had with her- certainly touches on this theme of growing older that so many of us are entering,ready or not.
    Mary

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I love your last words. 'ready or not'

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  17. I have the book... not because I went looking for it, or knew who he was, but because of a story of a relative that saved string ~ because it might come in handy someday, and there was nothing wrong with it. Generations of people who recycled and reused before it was "fashionable", imagine that. I have always been drawn to the past, to "Old" people, to the stories and to the folks who built our little New England from scratch long before we were thought of.
    Thanks for sharing! :)))))

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    1. If you listen to the audio interview, he talks about keeping things 'just in case' they might be needed. I remember hearing about older relatives that saved string, and I'm sure lots of other stuff.

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  18. I read this earlier, Nan, then went on an online wander to see what the library system has on Donald Hall. I'm in luck and will look to check out Sting to Short . . . and several others soon. I'll have to come back to hear the interview.

    My grandmother saved string, and pins, and waxed paper. A product of the Great Depression.

    Wonderful post, Nan, and I can just about smell those lilacs.

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    1. Oh, thank you so much. You'll like the interview, I think.
      They smell just wonderful.

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  19. I read the New Yorker piece too and enjoyed it very much. Donald Hall is a favorite of mine and my husband and I had the pleasure of meeting him and Jane Kenyon and Maxine Kumin him many times, at book readings, when we lived in Boston MA. Ocasionally, we'd drive up to NH and drive past his home hoping we'd "run" into him. Thanks.

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    1. All the times we've driven past the house, we have never seen him outdoors!

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  20. Lovely post, Nan. I especially enjoyed the quotes you included. I love reading memoirs written in old age by people who observe so closely and write so skillfully. Will look for this one.

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    1. It is just an essay, not a book/memoir. There is a newish book of poetry called The Back Chamber, in which some of the same ideas are expressed.

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  21. I am on vacation visiting Vlieland, if you want to know where that is...Google Maps. Now i have the time to read Your blog and all Posts. Donald Hall is New to me and i Will dig down in my box of old New Yorkers and find THE essay. Your selection of quotes is wonderful, made me laugh out loud!

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    1. I found it! About two inches from Amsterdam on the map. :<)
      So pleased you enjoyed the post.

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  22. I've enjoyed reading "String--" several times, as well as 'Seasons at Eagle Pond.' [I'm partial to essays which are collected into a seasonal format.] I once spent an agreeable cold winter evening locating the various folks mentioned in Mr. Hall's New Hampshire locale.
    I appreciate your thoughts on growing older--I'm trying to encourage a wry good humor about the limitations I sense looming ahead of me.

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    1. What do you mean 'locating?'
      The way I see it, there were limitations when we were younger too. :<)
      And I wanted to tell you the Lee Huntington book just arrived. There's a blurb on the back from the late Noel Perrin, a man we whose work we much admire. Tom also knew him, having taught his daughter in high school.

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  23. RE "Locating" I have a subscription to ancestry.com which makes the census since 1790 available online in a searchable format. By paging through the appropriate county and township I found Mr. Hall's grandparents and went on to 'find' a number of the relatives and neighbors mentioned in the book .A bit of a time-waster perhaps, but as I mentioned, it was a long winter evening when I was living in WY.
    I will be surprised if Hillsong isn't added to your list of favorites!

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    1. Not a bit of a 'time-waster' - but a wonderful thing to do! I love it.

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Now that I am a grandmother, it seems that I am often late in replying to your most-appreciated comments. But I read them as soon as they come in, and I will write as soon as I can. Please do come back and check. I love these blogging conversations. A little addendum - I've just spent quite a long time catching up with dear notes you left me months ago!! I do hope you can get back to read them. And I'm trying to be much more prompt now!

Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.