Sometimes I feel stuck and I have no idea how to unstick myself. My lack of traction at the moment is that for over a week I’ve been wanting to write a post about Margaret Atwood, a literary idol of mine, who spoke at Town Hall Friday before last. None of my words seemed worthy of hers. When I read her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in college, it changed my life irrevocably. I don’t say that easily about many books, and maybe at 20 I was ripe for change and new ideas anyhow, and her writing just happened to be what I latched onto. Shortly after I discovered her, I heard her speak, and then spent part of my twenties wishing I were more like her: cleverer, more driven, more prolific, more talented, and considered part of the literary canon.
Maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve spent ten days typing a line and deleting it, only to start again with a slightly less good line. I’m hoping I can sneak up on it sideways to see if I can get the job done.
Town Hall has nothing to do with city governance in Seattle and everything to do with culture, and though I often curse on nights when we have a rental car and can’t find parking because there is a concert or speaker there, I have to admit that one perk of being in Seattle and living on First Hill is that Town Hall is a single short block from where I live.
The building itself is gorgeous. It’s a Romanesque revival-style (former) church built nearly a century ago in what was then Seattle’s first suburb but now feels more like downtown. In the late 90s it was turned into a cultural center for music, readings, cultural discourse, etc. Outside it is an expanse of white with huge columns. Inside it’s all arched auditorium, groovy old light fixtures, and open space. (My only beef with it is that it has old wooden church pews and while that was not a problem at an hour-long author event, the nearly three hour medieval music concert awhile ago felt like it lasted six. But the pews do look good!) Town Hall is one of those places I admire when I walk past but completely forget. I’m often discovering two days after the fact that some author or speaker was in the house. When I do managed to go inside, I’m inevitably annoyed with myself for having been away so long.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that I like being inside of this space. When I travel, I love to find an old church or cathedral and sit on a pew for a while and look up at the arches and think my thoughts while other tourists mill about and the more penitent pray. And though there’s no preaching in this structure, it still has that churchy feel.
I grew up with a firm belief in a Christian God, though because my father was Catholic and my mother was a Protestant who was prone to sometimes follow the suggestions of friends and neighbors about what Protestant church was best, my church attendance was a smorgasbord of liturgies. I had no idea which one was “right”, (though a few were convinced that all the others were wrong), but I found the ritual in each fascinating, I loved, particularly, sitting in the oldest churches in my hometown imagining the generations of people who had sat there before me. One of my favorite periods was when we went to the century-old Presbyterian church with the gothic arches and Tiffany windows. I often left these various church services with a simultaneous sense of wonder and envy that the congregants in each church seemed to feel that they belonged there. On a rare occasion, I’d feel a little fresher.
If I’m honest, I was bored a lot when the ritual stopped and the preaching started. I’m not the best listener if the topic doesn’t interest me, and I’m a particularly bad listener if someone is trying to boss me up, which seemed to be a recurring theme in many of the churches I went to during my formative years. The ones I loved most were heavy on ceremony and the ones I liked least were those obsessed with the End Times.
The only time I ever felt the sort of belonging that I imagined others felt, was when in my thirties I was on a quest in Chicago to find the church where Madeleine L’Engle–my first contemporary literary idol–had gotten married. I was in a stalled relationship and was being pushed from all sides to make a decision about whether it needed to be totaled or have the engine rebuilt, and I suspected that if I was in the church where L’Engle had married the man that she would write about so lovingly in her Crosswicks trilogy, I could figure out my future. This really had nothing to do with God in that if L’Engle had gotten married in Lincoln Park, I probably would have headed there and sat on a park bench for an hour with a squirrel while I tried to come to some conclusions about where my life was headed.
Though I went into that church, St. Chrysostoms, hoping to walk around anonymously in the quiet, there happened to be an all-day service in progress for Good Friday, which entailed readings from the clergy and long periods of silence for reflection. I sat down to be polite and tuned the readings out, but at some point realized that while there were the expected passages from the Bible being covered, there were also gorgeous passages being read from both classic and contemporary literature. And while the passages addressed the obvious issues of sin and redemption, it was a fresh way to tell an old story and it hooked me. My synapses started firing. Suddenly I was not just looking at the architecture and wondering exactly where Madeleine L’Engle and her husband had stood or who was present for their wedding or if they used traditional vows. In fact, I quit trying to channel her at all and instead just sat in the silence that followed each reading as the words from the novels and poems reverberated inside my head. A denomination that recognized and held up secular writing as examples of beauty and testament to the human struggle seemed infinitely more holy than some of the repetitive and occasionally mean-spirited words of a man in a robe or cheap suit or blue jeans and blazer, preaching whatever his particular brand of gospel was. Who knew this was possible?
So Friday before last, Hudge and I made our way into Town Hall to hear Margaret Atwood talk about her latest book from a series I never read. Somewhere between my twenties and my forties, I’d kind of lost my fascination with her books. I’d veered away from fiction and into nonfiction waters, and her regular recent fiction about possible outcomes for our overcrowded, environmentally stressed planet didn’t sound very inviting. Particularly because while I was living in a cornfield in Indiana it seemed a very far off future, but here in Seattle it seems like maybe we’ll have to start the moon colonies sometime next Tuesday. (There are seriously too many people here.)
Now? I can’t believe I considered not going (to the reading, not the moon colony). The woman who introduced Atwood mentioned how important The Handmaid’s Tale was to her, how it changed her life, and I looked around at this former sanctuary full of women and men of all ages and races nodding their heads, and I was transported back to the late 1980s when I first held the book in my hands and realized feminist wasn’t a dirty word, when I realized that a few of those churches I’d found myself in as a child had been selling fear instead of comfort and could have been rough drafts of the theocracy that wreaked havoc in the lives of the women in Atwood’s novel. Or when I realized that words could be powerful.
Margaret Atwood herself came out, clutching her purse to her side, as if, perhaps, one of us might leap up on stage and steal it. She never did set it down, though she seemed to instantly warm to us. She had this look of amusement on her face, like it was fascinating that anyone would have bothered to come hear her. When I counted up how long it had been since I last saw her and realized it was twenty years, I was shocked to see how unchanged she seemed to be.
Everything out of her mouth was either hilarious or wise, or both. She reminded me of my favorite sorts of college professors—that is, I wanted to write down everything she said in my little notebook but I couldn’t write quickly enough. I can’t remember specific nuggets of brilliance or inspiration to report here, but I do know she managed to make her responses to tired questions sound fresh and thoughtful.
At one point, a young woman asked if a story she’d heard about Atwood’s time at Harvard when “girls” weren’t allowed to use one of the libraries was true. Atwood repeated the question in an overloud, comedic way, making her voice reverberate throughout the auditorium. She talked briefly about how, yes, it was true, and that the work she wanted to read there was modern poetry, but because she was unable to scan those shelves, she went instead to a different library not afraid of admitting women. There she found a bounty of Canadian literature, the implication being that it shaped her writing in significant ways. She had done what women had been doing for centuries: she found inspiration where she was able and discovered something she might have otherwise missed. The young woman commented on how calm Atwood seemed about this. “How are you not angry?” she asked.
Atwood spoke in the same, comedic, loud voice, “Because I am ooooold.”
There was something striking about seeing this young woman, full of righteous indignation, at roughly the age I was when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood, full of the wisdom and experience of her seventy-three years, and me, pig in the middle. When I saw her at 25, I wanted to BE her, but all of these years later, I am content to be myself, even if I’m not famous, haven’t won any literary awards, and don’t have a Wikipedia entry for myself. Though I admit she’s the kind of older woman I’d like to grow to be.
I’m still not satisfied with this post. My threads aren’t pulling together as tightly as I want them to. Other than the architecture, I’m not sure why hearing Atwood at Town Hall in Seattle reminded me of the churches of my youth or my first realization that I was more comfortable in spiritual practices that ask questions instead of those that give rigid answers. All I know for sure is that when Hudge and I got caught up in the crowd as it exited the building, it was like the end of a good church service. I felt electrified and blessed.