The Trees Were Balding

holidailies2016December 4, 2016

The trees were balding and the leaves that still clung were pockmarked and thin. Most of the foliage stretched over the earth in a golden carpet. . . . Soon the snow would come and bury them under the blackening land. In the spring they’d be reborn — black, silver, worn through. The torn strips of a resurrected body.
— Caille Millner, b. 1979
American journalist and fiction writer
from ” The Politics of the Quotidian,” in Best American Short Stories 2016

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent. In all three lectionary years, the figure of John the Baptist is given prominence. In this Year A, we see him as he is portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew, clad in a rough tunic and belt, his hair perhaps disheveled, his energy maintained on a diet of only locusts and wild honey. Most special music selections for this Sunday are loud and full of urgency. Repent! Prepare ye the way! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!

I began my morning with my usual C&C (Coffee and Contemplation) and my usual Advent companion, Make Ready the Way, a guided journal by Sr. Jean Evans that I have been using for thirty years. Ask John the Baptist, it directs, what needs to be re-formed in my life. What needs to be straightened, re-shaped? I looked through the two flames on my Advent wreath and thought, what doesn’t?

The Second Cup in my C&C routine is given to reading. I opened Best American Short Stories 2016 and was drawn to the word “quotidian” in the title of Caille Millner’s story. “Don’t put in so much quotidian detail,” said one of my classmates at Bread Loaf last year. Elizabeth Berg’s work has been described as dealing in quotidian details, an observation that has been meant as a compliment and as a criticism by different reviewers. I hated Safe at Home, the last Berg title I read. But I think my eye for quotidian detail is one of my strengths as a fiction writer.

The theme of Millner’s story is one that turns up frequently on editors’ lists of “things we don’t want to see any more of” — aging academics having a midlife crisis. The unnamed (by design) main character isn’t so old — she’s a 32-year-old postdoc fellow in philosophy — but she is having a career crisis. She’s been challenged by a student in her undergraduate seminar on the politics of the quotidian, who tells her that she doesn’t know what she is talking about regarding Kant’s aesthetics and Barthes’s semiotics. She understands that he is probably right, that even though she is not where she thought she’d be at her age, that place might not be worth going to anyway. She decides to leave her position despite the bleak prospects of her being able to support herself in or out of academe, given her skills.

When I finished the story, which I found great fun for its subtle comic overtones, I looked out my window again. I was looking at the same kind of landscape the story’s hapless philosopher finds herself in. Both of us are stepping into periods where we both need and want to turn within, re-form, re-shape, re-new.

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