I am savoring the rereading of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” It’s a luscious experience. The book was never intended to be considered great literature; but in Steinbeck’s masterful hands, even describing the crooked teeth of his canine traveling companion turns into a brilliant character study that has stuck with me since I first read the book three decades ago.
On my bus commute home a few days ago, a phrase caught me and something in me said, “Yes! Exactly!” Initially you are not sure why a particular turn of phrase has moved you to laughter, tears, or awe but if you pause for a moment, take a breath and close your eyes, it will come to you like a shy guest standing in your doorway.
What I’ve discovered about the process of rereading a favorite piece of writing is being able to tarry over a phrase or paragraph, backtrack and read it again…and again, and allow it to take me to those whistle stop personal memories or those delicious deja vu moments of amnesiac resonance.
Steinbeck was commenting on the awe-inspiring sight of New England fall foilage, the color and splendor of which you can’t accurately remember, only newly experience it anew each time you see it.
“I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them. I wondered whether constant association could cause inattention, and asked a native New Hampshire woman about it. She said the autumn never failed to amaze her; to elate. “It is a glory,” she said, “and can’t be remembered, so that it always comes as a surprise.”
The paragraph transported me to my annual autumnal trip to the mountains. Criminals return to the scene of the crime: lovers return to where they once loved. Each year autumn found me heading back to the mountains and gemstone mines of western North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains where both crimes and love were committed. I haunted the roads looking for the ghosts of the lovers Frankie and Johnnie, the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights, and instead found Juanita, a Carmelite cloistered nun on her Silver Jubilee Retreat, let out from her vow of silence convent to speak freely at will to anyone she chose and to spend a week in a mountain cabin. She chose me.
For someone who had not spoken freely and socially for twenty-five years, she did not hang back awkwardly nor did she spew words without thought. We fell into an easy week together of exploring mountain roads, gravel switchbacks that led to frigid mountain streams from which we drank our fill and dangled our pale white feet into water that gurgled and giggled more loudly than we did.
The autumn color arrived midweek and caught us by surprise as we rounded a bend to an overlook that displayed Mount Mitchell, Table Rock, and Hawk’s Bill Mountain rising above colors that were impossible to describe without sounding hysterical.
Juanita inhaled sharply and exclaimed, “OH FATHER!”
Over the next few days, I would hear “OH Father!” each time we saw the orange, indigo, ruby red, and vermilion leaves set against the sparkling lapis lazuli sky. While she may have been freed to speak for a week about anything she wished with anyone and everyone she encountered, she never was far from her lifelong ongoing interior conversation with her Father.
On our last day together, I took her to a flume gemstone mine where we spent the day sorting through buckets of muddy rocks looking for rubies, garnets, emeralds, and amethysts. Juanita’s brown Carmelite habit was soaking wet and muddy all the way up to her armpits and grinning face.
A cloistered nun cannot have personal possessions or covet any souvenirs or presents but Juanita broke that rule and returned to the convent in South Carolina with a small handful of mica and garnet encrusted rocks that she would put on her windowsill to catch the morning light.
It is true that you can’t remember the precise spectacular color of autmn leaves; you can only experience them anew each time you see them. It’s been enough years that I can no longer remember the exact shape of Juanita’s beaming smile; but I can still hear the “Oh Father!” that now echoes in my own voice when I come across a moment, a glimpse of eternity, an expression of love from another person, a phrase in a book or from an overhead conversation; and as I read and find more gems to mine, I realize how true it is that “in the beginning was the word” and from there our lives unfold.