Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (5/19) — Chapter Five, Mum (3/3)

IN NEW ORLEANS, our favorite big city, white mums symbolize mourning year round. All Saints’ Day here, there and everywhere is Nov. 1.


BOONE, N.C. (Oct. 18, 2019) – We’re still a couple of weeks from All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when the warm orange glow of Halloween jack-o’-lanterns gives way to the white mourning of chrysanthemums. For some adults, the observances have become our autumn version of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday—a loud night of tricks, treats, costumes and sinful revelry, followed by a quiet day of saintly reverie. Sinners and saints. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, a worrisome state for short-timers like me.

Well? I am 60, right? So unless I live to be 122, I’m officially over the hill for however much longer this ride lasts. As everyone but Sisyphus says upon reaching middle age, it’s all downhill from here. (For readers unfamiliar with Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a wicked king who “was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, repeating this action for eternity,” according to Wikipedia.)

But I figure I’ve gotten my money’s worth many times over. I’ve already said once or twice that life is all about making connections, haven’t I? And we make these links between all of the nouns in our lives—all of the people, places, things and ideas we encounter on our journeys—as well as between all of the verbs, whether active, passive or state of being, that affect us and effect the big and small decisions we make all along the way. That was how I wrote my novel Night Lights—by connecting everything.

E.T. PHONED HOME for help, but he and his extra-terrestrial friend found our Rutherwood bean patch dead on arrival.

Not many people have read that book, partly because it’s now out of print, but mainly because I wrote it, not Stephen King, and because it was published by Parkway Publishers, not Simon & Schuster. In case you do want to read it and can find a cheap, second-hand copy online—or, rather, an affordable, gently-read edition—I won’t give away the “weak” ending, according to one reviewer, anyway, who apparently didn’t figure out what I was doing in the novel. That was probably my fault, but maybe not.

The novel’s subtitle is Golf, the Blues and the Brown Mountain Light, and the whole story is basically the protagonist’s first-person effort to show what those three divergent elements have in common. It’s a research paper, a capstone project, a coming-of-age quest that hero Val Galloway completes with help from two friends in particular but actually from every person, place and thing mentioned in the book. The novel’s over-riding theme deals with overcoming the fear and guilt that many of us survivors feel.

That’s right. Survivors. If you’re reading this, you’re a survivor, if not of something in particular, then of everything in general. Whether you’re headed uphill or downhill, whether your sore shoulder is pressed against that boulder or your legs are starting to cramp from too many hikes to the bottom of the hill and back, you are a survivor this minute, this instant, whether you think your life has been a horror story, a romance, a fantasy or any other genre under the sun at one time or another. Or maybe a cautionary tale?

I mentioned novelist Stephen King a minute ago. I do admire him as a writer, and I have enjoyed many of his short stories, novels and adapted movies. A few years ago Timberley and I even paid good money to hear him speak in Hartford, Conn., when we could have attended a Justin Bieber concert instead. But we did get to sit in the hotel bar next to the concert venue and watch the teenyboppers go berserk after the show. What fun! Still, we did snub the Bieb, and Stephen King isn’t even my favorite living writer.

Whatever “favorite writer” means, that distinction goes to John Irving, author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, two novels that I couldn’t put down on first reading but then couldn’t bring myself to read again until years later when I had overcome the sense of foreboding that both stories had instilled. As a result, I still approach all of John Irving’s writing with trepidation over what connections I might make between the words in the fiction he writes and the nouns and verbs in the life I live. I own several Irving novels that I bought years ago but won’t read for that very reason.

Fear and guilt—unfounded or not—can do that to a person.

And that doesn’t just happen in stories for adults, like Garp and Owen Meany, which, by the way, was adapted as the more kid-friendly movie Simon Birch. I’ve also felt that way about a couple of children’s stories, specifically Katherine Paterson’s children’s novel Bridge to Terabithia and Stephen Spielberg’s movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. One reading from cover to cover and two movie viewings years ago were all I could bear—that is, until I started linking life and chrysanthemums a couple of weeks ago.

After reading last week’s installment of Rutherwood, my librarian friend Audrey Hartley inadvertently reminded me of Bridge to Terabithia by asking if I had ever read Katherine Paterson’s The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, a historical novel set in China. I hadn’t, but Audrey’s mere mention of that particular author took me back to the children’s literature class years ago that had introduced me to a narrative so affecting that I bought the adapted movie when it came out, then couldn’t watch it until just this week.

Why the long wait? Because the story is about fear and guilt, and it hit me where I lived. It was that simple.

Last week I dug out our 30-year-old videocassette of E.T., and we ran it through our ancient VCR for only the second time, praying that the God of 8-Tracks, Cassettes and VHS Tapes wouldn’t decide to unspool the movie inside the old machine. We had chosen to see E.T. only once during its original run in the theater, because certain scenes had disturbed me. Five years earlier I had seen basically the same thing in real life—not the wasting away and death of a fictional being, but of my very real little brother.

By the time E.T. was available on videocassette, six years after its theatrical release, I figured I’d grown up (or away) enough to manage the sad memories that I had associated with the movie. So we bought a copy and even paid full price, not bothering to look for it first at Blockbuster. One evening we popped the tape into the VCR and prepared to have our hearts warmed by little E.T. and his friend Elliott. But the hurt came flooding back, whether due to Spielberg’s gifts as a storyteller or to something within me.

Something like fear and guilt. Something close to home, still.

So why did we watch it again last week? Because in my extensive research on Wikipedia, I had seen a reference to the chrysanthemum scenes in E.T., and I couldn’t remember what color of mum or exactly how they were used—that E.T. and the yellow chrysanthemums he revitalizes are joined from then on, just as he and Elliott become supernaturally connected after the friendly alien heals the boy’s cut finger. When E.T. is strong, so too are the flowers and Elliott. When E.T. falls ill, so do the mums and the boy.

If this were a literature class, even a children’s literature class, I’d point out that so much is going on in E.T. mythologically-speaking that you’d either need to speed-read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, binge-watch all nine episodes of Star Wars, actually read and analyze every line of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land as your senior English teacher had assigned, or screen as a double feature Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, just to see what Spielberg is doing to us.

By the way, don’t be tempted to watch Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, if you ever see that dusty old DVD sitting on the shelf. It’s too perilous. Trust me. You might read the Bible, though, despite the fear and guilt connected with it. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany. But don’t bother watching Simon Birch. If you need another audio-visual fix, hook yourself up with Terry Gilliam’s dramedy The Fisher King, starring the late Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. Saints and sinners. Sinners and saints. All the same.

In his introduction to a different novel, Last Night in Twisted River, one whose actual story I’ve chosen not to read yet, John Irving states, “I always begin with a last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.” And that’s pretty much what I did with Night Lights, my own novel, long before I ever read Irving’s comments about how he writes his books. I decided that my story would end with my hero driving a golf ball off the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I worked backwards from there to connect golf, the blues and the mythical Brown Mountain Light.

But what does all this have to do with Halloween and All Saints’ Day coming up soon? Could it be that I watched E.T. one night and then the next morning saw Stephen Spielberg himself promoting his new Discovery Channel series Why We Hate? Even though that title isn’t a question in itself, could it be that I watched the series premiere and learned two of the answers why? Or could it be that I went ahead and watched the movie of Bridge to Terabithia and saw those same two answers revealed all over again?

Could it be fear? Could it be guilt? Or could it be not only what connects those two elements, but also what the lone certainty is that links every living thing?

It isn’t a mean trick, not really. It most certainly isn’t a treat. But it does concern some sinners. And it absolutely respects all saints.