Tom Molanphy earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. His most recent book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, was published by OutPost19. He freelances for 10Best/Travel Media Group at USA Today. His short story “Of Subareas and Public Bathrooms” was included in the California Prose Directory, 2013. Tom teaches creative writing, composition, and journalism at the Academy of Art University. He also taught composition at the University of San Francisco, and he occasionally tutors at 826 Valencia in San Francisco.
I have a flashlight, a copper pipe and a pair of wax earplugs near my bed for blackouts, security and unwanted noise. I keep Flannery O’Connor, John McPhee and Greta Ehrlich within reach for the same reasons.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for Blackouts:
“I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
I heard the Cistercian monk Brother Robert read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” in 1989. I was one of fourteen high school seniors at Cistercian Prep in Irving, TX. Most of us had spent eight years at the all-boys Catholic high school. All of us were one month from liberation, one month until years of uniforms, standing at attention, and rigid Hungarian-monk-Middle-Ages-discipline would be replaced by college freedoms. We were starving for new experiences and certain the small school in the middle of Texas had nothing left to offer.
Brother Robert knew this. But even his sharp sarcasm and caustic threats couldn’t revive any desire to learn in us. Overweight and sweating underneath his thick monk’s robes, Brother Robert flipped open O’Connor’s paperbacked and peacocked short story collection.
“Today I’ll read ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ by Flannery O’Connor.”
I pillowed my forearms on my desk and snuggled in. When Brother Robert read in class, I sensed it was more for him than for us. He appreciated the sound and fury of language in a way that he couldn’t explain but was compelled to share. My mind wandered outside onto the burnt lawn and bright sunshine and dusty scrub oaks.
The idea of a grandmother on a road trip with her family did not grip me. I tried to shake loose completely, but something about her foolhardy certainty kept reining me in. What nabbed my interest was the voice. These were the Dallas housewives I had heard prattling on in the aisles of Safeway. They were coming off a page and through the mouth of a fat monk.
How did O’Connor do this? By the time the Misfit showed up, my reality had been replaced by O’Connor’s fiction. I do my best to never let that moment get blacked out.
John McPhee’s Assembling California for Security:
“In San Francisco (in 1989), the tremors will last fifteen seconds. As the ground violently shakes and the sand boils of the Marina discharge material from the liquefying depths, the things they spit up include tarpaper and bits of redwood—the charred remains of houses from the earthquake of 1906.”
I moved to San Francisco in 2000 and into a Victorian four blocks up from Haight-Ashbury. The #33 MUNI rumbled past my bedroom each night, close enough to shake my bed. After four months of these tremors, I thought I had adjusted to the buses rumbling by.
One night I woke up to a terrific shaking. I was groggy and believed it was two buses, one after another. I clutched my comforter for stability. At morning coffee, my roommates informed me I had half-experienced my first San Francisco earthquake.
McPhee keeps me connected to the faults I still sleep on. I read McPhee’s dense texts slowly, sometimes falling asleep, but always with a smile. My glacial reading pace leaves its mark. His grip on the California terrain is as smooth and certain as a copper pipe. When my bed shakes, now I know why.
Greta Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces for Unwanted Noise:
“We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency towards denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at our houses we build to see we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”
I live in Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco. It’s as similar to San Francisco as Walker Percy’s Covington was to New Orleans. Daly City is much quieter than San Francisco, but the earplugs on my night stand are necessary insurance.
Quiet has become rare and valuable. With constant chatter all around us, Armageddon could come and go while we have our heads bowed to our Blackberries.
Ehrlich’s essay reminds me to covet and hoard quiet moments. She only puts down the words that matter, respecting both the Spartan style of E. B. White (“Omit needless words”) and a timeless Zen philosophy (“Only break the silence if you can improve upon it”). Her writing reminds me that only in quiet does the imagination have space to act.
What volumes of insurance are by your bed?