Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Living into the Answers at the Talbot County Free Library
In October, in order to be out of the contractors' way while some work was being done on our house, we rented a condo in Chincoteague. Our rental was the end unit in a brick and mortar block of condominiums that looked out over the marsh adjoining Little Oyster Bay. On our first morning there, we were awakened by a series of strange noises coming from the wall behind our bath, a thumping and pattering that made me think there might be mice in the walls. But I quickly revised that estimate upward. These sounds were far too big to have been made by mere mice.
As it turned out, on most mornings but not all, the sounds recurred. They usually began shortly after sunrise and ceased around mid-morning. Sometimes it sounded as if a group of small rambunctious children was playing in the condo's other bedroom, and sometimes it sounded as if someone in the unit next to ours was laboriously turning a large, heavy box over and over again across the floor. I checked, and the condo next to ours was untenanted. And whenever I walked from one room to another in our unit, the noises revealed an uncanny ability to switch places with me, remaining always, frustratingly, on the other side of whatever wall I was studying.
I invented any number of explanations for the sounds—air in the pipes, rats, an industrious vagabond who had slipped into the next-door unit and was now rearranging the furniture to suit his own taste. I also wondered about birds. Once, years before, while working upstairs in my study, I had been startled by a series of loud scuffling noises on the shed roof below my window. It turned out to be a turkey vulture working his way down the incline, kicking leaves aside with big, ungainly feet. Could vultures be using our roof as a roost, waiting for the day to warm up enough for them to catch a thermal? The sounds often as not seemed to emanate from the wall of our bath, and I wondered if that wall might be acting like a violin's sound post, channeling the noises of birds on the roof down into the body of the house itself. Unfortunately our rental, being the end unit, was placed so it was impossible for me to get far enough away from it (without wading out into the marsh) to check the roof for birds.
Whatever their cause, we tried to laugh off the sounds, joking that the condominium was haunted, trying to recover the holiday mood we normally experience on Chincoteague. But there was something disquieting about these apparently source-less sounds, something that tugged at our animal brains, made us watchful.
As always, I had brought a bag full of library books with me to Chincoteague, including Barry Lopez's Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, Bridget Stutchbury's The Private Lives of Birds, a new translation of Æschylus's The Oresteia, and one of John Sandford's murder mysteries. I read the Lopez, Stutchbury, and Æschylus in the morning, when my mind is at its best, saving the Sandford for bedtime, when I find there's nothing like a good shoot-'em-up to lull me to sleep.
Perhaps it wasn't surprising then that the mild sense of alarm engendered by the mysterious noises began to attach itself to my morning readings, though in truth I was already having trouble with each of them. Stutchbury's work, for instance, was a little hard-nosed for me, reducing everything birds do to the cold prerequisites of natural selection. I missed what I had discovered when I read The Evolution of Beauty by Yale ornithologist Richard Prum: the seemingly impractical, romantic need birds and all living things have to appeal to another.
I hadn't read The Oresteia since high school, and this time around I was struck by the way its characters so consistently denigrated women, while the female characters themselves (especially Clytemnestra) just as consistently showed themselves more powerful and interesting than the men. Was I really seeing this, or was I unconsciously ascribing a more modern perspective to a work first performed in 458 B.C.?
But it was Lopez's book I found most troubling. The man is brilliant, but his syntax is sometimes peculiar and his pronouns can lack clear antecedents. Not infrequently I found myself re-reading a sentence to make sure I was understanding the point he was making. It was evident these sentences were important, and the niggling uncertainty I felt about their meaning was echoed by the uncertainty I felt about the noises rising from our walls as I read them. However unconsciously, those enigmatic sounds began to provide a sort of score for the frustrations I was experiencing with each of the books I was spending my Chincoteague mornings with.
Then, around eleven o'clock on one of our last days in the condominium, I happened to glance out our bedroom window in time to see three or four black vultures sail down off our roof like a series of thoughts, drift slowly out over the marsh, drift slowly apart, and then, just as slowly, flapping their white-tipped wings from time to time, rise into the sky.
I would love to claim the resolution of one source of my uneasiness was mirrored by the resolution of another, that my problems with the books I was reading lifted from my mind as easily as those birds lifted into the air. But of course they didn't. That is both the joy and the pain of reading, and of life. As another book I once checked out from the Talbot County Free Library (Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet) advised, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves …. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
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