One more time. Summer 1982. The weather in Pittsburgh is unbearably hot. Two weeks of high temperatures and high humidity. Nights not much better than the days. Nights too hot for sleeping, days sapping what’s left of the strength the sleepless nights don’t replenish. You get sopping wet climbing in or out of a car. Especially if your car’s little and not air-conditioned, like my mother’s Chevette. Nobody remembers the last time they felt a cool breeze, nobody remembers pulling on clothes and not sweating through them in five minutes. “Unbearable” is my mother’s word. She uses it often but never lightly. In her language it means the heat is something you can’t escape. The sticky heat’s a burden you wake up to every morning and carry till you’re too exhausted to toss and turn anymore in your wet sheets. Unbearable doesn’t mean a weight that gets things over with, that crushes you one and for all, but a burden that exerts relentless pressure. Whether you’re lifting a bag of groceries from a shopping cart into the furnace your car becomes after sitting closed for twenty minutes in the Giant Eagle parking lot, or celebrating the birth of a new baby in the family, the heat is there. A burden touching, flawing everything. Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne, but what must be endured forever.
Of course the July dog days can’t last forever. Sooner or later they’ll end. Abruptly. Swept away by one of those violent lightning-and-thunder storms peculiar to Pittsburgh summers. The kind signaled by a sudden disappearance of air, air sucked away so quickly you feel you’re falling. Then nothing. A vast emptiness rubbing your skin. The air’s gone. You’re in a vacuum, a calm, still, vacated space waiting for the storm to rush in. You know the weather must turn, but part of the discomfort of being in the grip of a heat wave or any grave trouble is the fear that maybe it won’t end. Maybe things will stay as miserable as they are.
-from Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot, has been on my reading list for an embarrassingly long time. Maybe even since high school? I have a tendency to pass over the classics on my list in favor of guilty pleasures. I’ve been having a hard time making progress on Middlemarch just because the style bogs me down and I, um…fall asleep. Twice I’ve been on my way to return the book to the library, but I’ve found myself reading it to pass the time on the bus. And then I come across a quote that slays me somehow, and I can’t bring myself to return the book after all. I don’t know if I”ll ever finish it, but here are a few excerpts that I’ve especially liked:
“Suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity; with what hindrances he is carrying out his daily labours; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause” (79).
“He had two selves apparently, and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plains where our persistent self pauses and awaits us”(144).
“Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all of ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity”(185).
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Random House, 1994.