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writer as reader

Seams, Hinges, and


Other Disclosures
joe bonomo

I write in order to find out what I know.


Patricia Hampl

I
’ve been thinking a lot about the Lyon sisters, Katherine and Sheila, who
disappeared on their way home from Wheaton Plaza, in Kensington,
Maryland, on March 25, 1975. They were on break from grade school and
wanted to go to the shopping center to look at Easter decorations and to
have lunch at the Orange Bowl, a pizza restaurant. The girls’ brother and
friends would last see them at the plaza talking to an older man with a tape
recorder. They missed their four pm curfew, didn’t return home by dark. A
manhunt began, ultimately spanning several states and many years. More
than three decades later, the case remains unsolved, the longest cold case in
Montgomery County history. Decades worth of leads have proved fruitless,
and heartbreaking. The Lyon sisters vanished somewhere on a sunny, leafy
street between a suburban mall and a suburban home.
I grew up a mile and a half from the Lyons’ home, and less than a mile
from Wheaton Plaza. Though I was a couple of years younger than they were, I
remember the girls’ disappearance well. I was haunted by the black-and-white
photos of Katherine and Sheila that seemed to be everywhere that year: at
the A&P; at the park; at the library; at the post office. That the girls looked
like the girls sitting next to me in the classroom at Saint Andrew the Apostle,
and resembled the Brady sisters on television only intensified a nameless
sadness I’d feel when I saw the images on errands with my mom, or alone on

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This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.
146 3 fourth genre

my long summer walks through the neighborhood, my allowance jingling


incongruously in my pocket.
Inside of me now are those two pure faces, posed in schoolgirl portraits.
Each time I’d look at the photos at the post office, the seams of childhood
pulled apart a bit wider, and I’d catch a glimpse of an adult world burdened by
sadness and complications. The sisters broke through the single dimension of
first-person childhood, expanding the definition (both lexical and existential)
of the word “mystery” in ways that I hope, someday, to try and articulate. It
is not going too far to say that if one understands that the material of life has
seams and edges, salvage and selvage, one call to the essayist is to attempt
to trace that fabric, its folds and hems and tears and seams, without fraying
or unraveling all that cannot be understood. In essence, to trace life is to
acknowledge mystery.
Patricia Hampl recognizes the ways childhood is marked by half-
understood epiphanies beyond the reach of words—those early moments
when such seams, and the world’s dimensions, are revealed. In “Parish
Streets,” from Virgin Time (1992), Hampl writes about her particular Catholic
upbringing—it’s her great subject—but the essay reads less as a tribe member
recollecting than as someone who has retreated enough to better recognize
that tribe’s patterns and shapes. The piece benefits from cinematic essaying:
Hampl moves from close-up (specific narrative scene/moment) to wide shot
(there’s the neighborhood below, a map of politics and personal drama) back
to close-up—a shifting perspective earned by years of thoughtful detachment
burdened by the desire to go back and to make sense.
Like Hampl, I was raised Catholic and feel the lasting imprint. The
marshaling of her great narrative details lures me back to the scents of the
sacramental, leavened as they were by pubescent hormones. The boy “livid
with acne,” the blessed throats, the polite dismissal of non-Catholics, meat-
less Fridays: this is subject comfort. In detailed character sketches and set
pieces, Hampl’s essay is a tour of her churchy past, and her lens, selective and
sweeping, captures the stiff postures of the priests and nuns, the boundaries
of denominations (“borders more decisive than the street signs”), the rigors
and pleasures of the Catechism and of high-perfumed Holy Days. I dare anyone
raised Catholic to read Hampl’s essay, or much of her writing for that matter,
and not feel the quickening and the warmth of shared inheritance. Steeples
cast long shadows.

This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.
writer as reader 3 147

But, just as I discourage a student from feeling that an essay is success-


ful because he or she “can really relate to it,” I resist the pleasant slide of
nostalgia, of relatability in an essay. My attachment to “Parish Streets” isn’t
wholly predicated upon my background, a personal history with what Hampl
calls that “grabby heritage.” Beyond any religious upbringing of its reader,
what makes the essay great is its humane exploration and celebration of the
intuitive and the enigmatic, those dramatic moments in our youth when we
turn from comfort and blinders toward the enormity of the world before we
have acquired its language.

Ray and Charles Eames’s nine-minute documentary Powers of Ten explores the
enormity of the world in a stunning way, beginning with an aerial shot of a
couple lounging at a picnic alongside the Chicago lakefront. The perspective
zooms out by powers of ten in precise ten-second intervals. Within minutes,
this gradual movement away from the comfortable world has the spectator
reeling in the impossibly dark and infinite cosmos; in the second half of the
film, the movement reverses in like pacing, and as soon as we are within sight
of the familiar image of our dozing couple, we proceed into their bodies until
we are bumping up against protons and neutrons, human life reduced to its
carbon elements.
Powers of Ten suggests to me the infinite possibilities and responsibilities
of the essay form. The scale of the universe is essayed in under ten minutes,
the film underscoring how both the gravest and the most petty of our human
dramas recede and pale, or loom up and overwhelm, depending on which
direction we go, how evasive or how direct we are in writing personally, what
order of magnitude we choose to essay. The Eames’s Powers of Ten presents a
universe unimaginably large. The essayist’s job is to attempt to scale it.
How to use language and form to fully inhabit a world that has invisible
and elastic borders, many of which we can only intuit? Hampl writes about
“the surprise of knowing what I hadn’t realized I knew.” I love the essay’s
curiosity, not only about the empirical world, but about the world we carry
inside of us to which we gain access only rarely; often, as a consequence, we
stand bewildered by its enormous and surprising presence. “Parish Streets”
benefits from Hampl’s confidence that the ways in which we are “scribbled
all over with intuitions, premonitions, vague resonances clamoring to give
signals” offer both contents and content, however dim their origins.

This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.
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“Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects,” writes Charles


Eames. “Parish Streets” wraps eloquently around three memorable figures from
Hampl’s 1950s Minneapolis adolescence bound by suburban propinquity. Mr.
Bertram is a neighbor, “a man whose occupation it was to rest.” When he did
venture outdoors, he’d putter in his lawn, sometimes permitting Hampl to help
him uproot dandelions. Already fingering the hem of complexity, the young
Hampl asks her neighbor whether he believes in God, the sturdy foundation
on which she and her family rest. In a theatrical moment, Bertram looks up at
the sky and replies that “God isn’t the problem.” Hampl writes that something
opened in her that day—“So there was a problem. Just as I’d always felt”—a
worrying feeling of identification with her neighbor’s unease, experienced as
a kind of blankness, weighted with abstract empathy, yet absent of specific
meaning. She remembers:

I’d sensed it all along, some kind of fishy vestigial quiver in the spine. It was
bred in the bone, way past thought. Life, deep down, lacked the substantiality
that it seemed to display. The physical world, full of detail and interest, was
a parched topsoil that could be blown away.

I learned recently that a priest whom I had long feared when I was an altar
boy was an alcoholic. He’d slam doors in the sacristy, swear under his breath
around the corner from me as I’d timidly slip on my cassock and surplice, his
strange muttering growing steely and dark. Like the “chronic disappointment”
that Hampl often intuited in her childhood, I sensed displeasure in the priest
that, like so many children, I internalized as the damned effect of my cause.
I was always grateful when mass was over so that I could flee to home and to
the clear, comforting words that were spoken there. The chasm between the
priest and me in those cramped quarters at the back of church was impossible
to cross in my innocence and naiveté. I sensed the sadness in the room, but
the figurative dimensions were too large for me to inhabit. The content was
there, but unarticulated.

A few years after her encounter with Mr. Bertram, Hampl has a run-in with
school bully Jimmy Giuliani. After suffering his menace in the hallways for
weeks, Hampl one day turns and knees Jimmy in the groin. He falls in agony,

This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.
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whimpering, and stares up at an astonished Hampl: “Do you know how that
feels?” She’d struck gold, of course, locating by accident not only one of a
boy’s greatest physical vulnerabilities, but more: a point of light in puberty’s
darkness. “I’d made contact,” Hampl writes, still delighted decades later.
Directed at Hampl beyond playground politics and boy bravado, Jimmy’s
wounded question gave her a shiver of recognition, not only that there was
something valuable there, but that she’d sensed it all along. “And sex began,”
she writes, “with a blow.”
The surprise of bra straps beneath schoolgirl blouses, Sister Nena’s exposed
white thigh after she fell in the classroom, the forbidden weekend crushes I
developed on the solemn girls marching to and from the Young Israel Shomrai
Emunah synagogue down the street: this was contact with a world far more
complicated than I’d assumed. Crosswise from Saint Andrew’s, on Kemp
Mill Road, stood the Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church, built when
I was seven or so. First there were woods, then there was a clearing, then,
one afternoon, a new church, dark and wooden, with a high, angled roof,
and a cross out front that was somehow both familiar and alien. The dense,
surrounding trees, dark and wintry from October through April, opened only
to a more figurative darkness: who went through those doors, and why didn’t
my family? An ethical requirement of an essayist is to discover—beyond initial
fear and dismay toward excitement and humility—that the world does not
end, say, at the conclusion of the missalette, at the end of one’s arm, or even
the end of the block. It felt as if traversing certain streets of my neighborhood
would be an expedition across foreign borders.

The “parish lady” is Hampl’s enigmatic figure, a shadowy archetype, a person


“who never emerged beyond the bounds of being parishioners to become
persons.” Hampl sees her every morning on the streets, praying her rosary
unceasingly, the more notable because she is not a nun but an ordinary
person, imploring her lord with dedication and modesty. When she makes
eye contact with Hampl, she smiles: “It startled me every time, as if I’d heard
my name called out on the street of a foreign city.” The smile, the direct gaze
linger—tattooing Hampl in a way that would be impossible to rub away if
she wished to. “It was not an invasive look,” she writes, “but one brimming
with a secret which, if only she had words, it was clear she would like to tell.”

This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.
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Hampl writes of apprehending a dim world with “this other knowledge,” and
the phrase could well be an alternate title for her essay. The rational, knowable,
solid world, and the irrational, secretive, immaterial world—offering, in its
strange ether, moments of recognition, empathy, a veiled knowledge that you
didn’t know you knew. These are the parameters of Hampl’s emotional terrain,
the same that I worked within so many summers ago under the unbearable
photos of the Lyon sisters, who in their innocent gazes still portend mysteries
of an unjust and confounding world.
Aldous Huxley: “Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying
almost everything about almost anything.” Our own stories might feel dwarfed
by the larger cosmos, but in this world they’re humming vitally and perpetually
beneath our skin. The essayist follows the impulse toward truth-telling, and
truth sometimes speaks clearly, sometimes in tongues. My subject matter
might unfold obviously before my eyes, drama I recognize with the naked eye,
perspective widening as my wisdom deepens. But sometimes human truth
exists only in the vital, partially hidden seams of things, waiting for a curious
eye, or for a surprise, to bring it to its own kind of light. In “Parish Streets,”
Patricia Hampl dramatizes the surface and also excavates what’s beneath: an
essayistic search party into the known and the unknown.

This work originally appeared in Fourth Genre 12:1, Spring 2010, published by Michigan State University Press.