Yesterday, because I knew that I was having visitors to my house, I decided to do some house cleaning–actually I am fairly regular about this activity–but I had not visited Nancy’s bedside stand since her death. There I found two books and each had a page marker where she had stopped reading. The books were Loren Eiseley’s essays, “The Immense Journey”, and Italo Calvino’s novel, “The Baron in the Trees”. I said to myself–this is an opportunity to connect with Nancy’s imagination and thinking processes as she neared the end of her journey in this life!
I beg you to accept that I am a storyteller who sees all of life as a narrative waiting to be expressed. And, I can imagine Nancy rolling her eyes as she reads this particular narrative. I understand if you chose to stop right here……but, if you enjoy exploring rabbit holes–as Nancy did– please continue down this one with me.
Calvino’s novel is the story of a young Italian nobleman who finds himself in conflict with his family and chooses to express his independence from his family by living in a tree! I pick up where Nancy was reading–obviously I cannot say where on the two pages–but I will choose a small quote from the two pages to give a feel for what she was imagining:
“Cosimo (the hero of the story) despite that escapade of his, which had upset us all so much, lived almost as closely with us as he had before. He was a solitary, who did not avoid people. In a way, indeed he seemed to like them more than anything else. He would squat above places where peasants were digging, turning manure, and call out polite greetings…at first they were confused by his position in the tree….but then they got into the habit of chatting with him about their work or the weather, and seemed to find the game he was playing up there no better or worse than so many other games they had seen the gentry play.”
I can see the appeal of this story for Nancy. She was the young woman who at the age of nineteen left her home in Minnesota and came to Westminster Choir College to pursue her music career. Her ambition for what she wanted out of life set her apart from her world of birth. She had a strong sense of independence, yet she did not break her relationship with her family. In fact, her family felt such a strong tie to her that they drove all the way from Minnesota for the service that honored her life a couple of weeks ago!
Eiseley’s set of essays, “The Immense Journey”, is harder for me to find some connection. First, I have never enjoyed his style of writing and his scientific approach to the mysteries of our world has never appealed to me…nevertheless I will quote a concept from the page where Nancy was reading. This is a description of life coming from the ocean to live on the land–part of the process of evolution and the beginning of our great myth:
“Salt and sun and moisture were accessible without great mechanical elaboration. It was the reaching out that changed this pattern, the reaching out that forced the cells to bring the sea ashore with them, to elaborate in their own bodies the very miniature of that all-embracing sea from which they came.”
Loren Eiseley at one point in the essay suggests that he is creating the story of life in the mythic language of science as opposed to the mythic language of religion. I do not feel the need for this kind of myth, but I can understand that Nancy did find Eiseley’s way of telling the story attractive. I know when she got her diagnosis of stage-four esophageal cancer she approached this reality with a very practical plan to live as long as she could possibly live. She was capable of great emotion and spiritual expression in life, but rational evaluations were never far from the surface in her decision making process.
It was Nancy’s mix of strong rational intellect with emotional depth that I found very supportive for my own life. As I continue to think about a documentary film about her life I will try to bring to the surface the stories I want to tell about her.