Tennessee, To The Wonder
Michael Reneau is thrilled be to moving back home to Tennessee, but he can’t say exactly why:
Why is it that some of us are so drawn to the concept of place, a particular place? Is it the sense of belonging? Is it a sense of homely comfort? Is it safety? Is it knowing that as well as you know a place — like people — there’s always more of it to learn? Always more to experience?
I think somewhere deep in my marrow I know the answers to some of these questions, but I have no words for them. I think one could spend a lifetime groping in the dark for the right words for such a thing and still not come close. It’s a wonder-ful thing, really.
Funny, but I’ve been thinking about the same thing this week, about another place.
Since watching To The Wonder, I have become slightly obsessed with Mont-Saint-Michel, off the Normandy coast. Every morning when I do my prayers, there it is, in my mind. I’m not quite like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, about the mountain in Wyoming, but I’m in the ballpark. I’ve been puzzling all week over why that is.
I think I figured it out yesterday. In medieval times, the concept of the hortus conclusus— enclosed garden — was a popular theme. The concept comes from the Song of Solomon, spoken by the author to his bride (“A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”). In medieval art and literature, it referred to the Virgin Mary; it is, more broadly, a place where God meets Creation. A monastery is a kind of enclosed garden, and that’s the role that Mont-Saint-Michel plays in To The Wonder: it’s where we first see Neil and Marina fall in love. The next montage is them gadding around the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, also a kind of hortus conclusus, and one of my favorite places in all the earth.
I was thinking yesterday about Mont-Saint-Michel as a hortus conclusus, and speculating as to whether that has anything to do with my preoccupation with the abbey since seeing the Malick film. Could deliverance from the storm and stress that has kept me sick since pretty much the time my late sister was diagnosed with cancer, and especially since I returned to my hometown, be found there, somehow?
And then it hit me: Mont-Saint-Michel is, symbolically, a sacred grove. It is a stand-in for the lost Eden that was my Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda’s cabin and garden. I wrote about this a few years ago after a visit to the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia touched something deep and unnameable within me — well, unnameable until my readers Franklin Evans and Margaret E. named it. Read that short reflection to see what I’m talking about.
As I detail in that piece from several years ago, Lois and Hilda’s world was my sacred grove as a small boy. It was literally a garden, and a little house at the heart of it, but symbolically so much more. It was a place of wonder. It was the place where I first wondered about the world. As I write this, tears are coming to my eyes; that’s how much it meant to me. It was a place of books and learning and refinement and curiosity, and there was no place like it in my young world. Those two old ladies, they nurtured little me there, by their hearth. They told me about France. We ate pecan cookies Loisie had made, and talked about the birds, and the flowers, and the iguanas that would sun themselves on Loisie’s lawn in Honduras, back in the 1920s.
Here is what their cabin looked like back then:
It looks like nothing, and it was nothing, but it was also everything to a small boy. This is the enchanted wardrobe. Walk onto that porch, and through that door, and if you were little me, you were in a magical world. That sweet olive tree on the left side of the house? That was the tree under which I stood with my exasperated father when I was four years old, trying to explain to him that the boy he and my mom brought home from the hospital, Rod, was at the top of the tree, and I was someone else. The old aunts stood on the porch tittering at my frustrated dad as I tried to climb the tree to shake the son my dad demanded out of the upper limbs.
Events closed the sacred grove, and exiled me when I was 10 years old, and Loisie died. As I wrote about in Little Way, the roughly simultaneous discovery that Aunt Hilda had a malicious side, and had orchestrated bloodshed in the grove also brought things crashing down. Relatives of mine moved Hilda to a nursing home, and the grove and the house passed into other hands. In 1993, I made my way through the woods — their garden had been overcome by overgrowth, because that side of the family did not tend it, to have a look at what remained of the house. Around that same time, my cousin Kevin photographed it. Here is the ruin of my Eden:
Thinking about Mont-Saint-Michel as an enclosed garden, a sacred grove, I thought that all my life has been about trying to find my way back to the old aunts’ cabin, and their garden. It was where I was first touched by wonder, and where the world far beyond was enchanted by those two dear crones, and made for me a place of pilgrimage. In those days, I wrote this in the margins of the Rand McNally atlas that Lois and Hilda would put on my lap, and use as a guidebook to tell me about their adventures:
That was the world that they made accessible to me, and lovable to me, who even at that young age felt so out of place in it. Their cabin and their garden, I now see, was a place of harmony and peace and joy. It is gone, and has been for many years.
I don’t believe there are any Eden this side of Heaven. That cabin wasn’t even Eden, not really, but I saw with the eyes of a child, and it seemed so to me. The heart of my imaginative world. If a place was once that to me, might it be that a place could be so again? That could explain the longing in the marrow that Michael Reneau is talking about, the instinct to experience life as a pilgrimage toward place, toward Home, toward Eden — ultimately, toward Heaven.
I wonder: why is Mont-Saint-Michel calling me right now? Why can I not stop thinking about it, and praying with it in mind? I know it is not Eden, and that there is no such thing as Eden in this world. But why is everything inside of me shouting, “Go!”?
I will. I have to know. I am going à La Merveille, to the Wonder, and soon.