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September 6, 2016

On Reading Grace Paley Wrong

IMG_20160906_082800The thing about years, of course, is the way they’re layer upon layer. Today I dropped Harriet off at Grade Two, which is not such a departure from Grade One—same great teacher, same beautiful classroom. And then Iris and I headed down the street, back to playschool, and it occurred to me that it was four years ago today that I first entered the playschool as a member of its community. As I did today, I showed up for my requisite two hours of cleaning to help get our (cooperative) playschool all set for the new school year. It was also the day that Zadie Smith’s NW came out, which I’d had on special order from Book City, but that is neither here nor there. I’d been about five minutes pregnant with Iris at the time, but I didn’t know it for sure—it would be another week or so before my pregnancy would be confirmed.

It was a strange and vivid year, the year that Harriet was three and I was pregnant with Iris. I’ve written before about all the women I met, those hours we spent in the playground not bothering to take our children home for lunch because the conversation was just too fascinating. I remember taking my shoes off on days when it should have been too cold to be doing such things, but the sunshine had rendered the sand hot and glorious, and I liked to bury my feet in it. I remember that warmth, and those hours, and how conversations seemed to unspool, landing in messy piles all around us.

And then tonight I saw that Sarah was reading “Faith in a Tree,” by Grace Paley, and it occurred to me to get my own Collected Paley off the shelf and read Faith again. And reading it, I realized that probably I’ve been reading the story all wrong all these years. That so besotted was I by the idea of co-workers in the mother trade and those mothers in the park, and all their talk, that I hadn’t really paid much attention to the end of the story: “…Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.” 

I really thought that they’d been it, those mothers in the park. I really had thought she meant that this, the mothers stopping to talk, was the most important conversation. But it wasn’t, her revelation. Faith needs more than that, chatting women lounging in trees. The world needs more than that, at least if we ever expect to do anything about it. Whatever the women in the playground are doing, they’re not thinking more and more and every day about the world.

It doesn’t shock me as much as it might have, to discover that a beloved passage of a story doesn’t mean what I thought it did at all. It is possible that kernel of the truth of the matter had lodged its way into my mind. When I wrote my own post about my co-workers in the mother trade, I remarked on the fleetingness of it all, that those conversations had happened in a moment. A time when I searching for my own moorings as a parent, as a mother, and when the possibilities were still terrifyingly wide-open. I don’t really hang out in playgrounds anymore, not the way I once did, whiling away hours as the sun crossed the sky. There’s always someplace else I’ve got to be, one more thing I’ve got to get to. I suppose you could say I’m thinking more about the world, though it’s not quite so noble as that.

One thought on “On Reading Grace Paley Wrong”

  1. Sarah says:

    I love everything about this. That I can read a story here in my house & delay dinner in yours. That we can talk books & motherhood & everything over ridiculous distances. That rereading is both remembering and discovering anew. I think that last paragraph of the story is everything I’m thinking about at the moment — poised in a final year of having a pre-schooler, wondering what my next move should be, contemplating personal change, but also thinking about what it means to be an active advocate for change in the world (something I admire so much about you). This is getting too long for a comment (Insta post begets blog post begets further blog post–though you’re so much quicker than me!), but it’s everything to me that it’s Faith’s son’s disgust at the adults around him not standing up to a cop trying to disperse their Vietnam war protest that proves the decisive moment for change in her life: “And I think that is exactly when things turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling.” How much I love that line — “[my] style of living and telling” — and how much, now I have older children, I find myself *trying* to grow into living and telling in an honest, hopeful and compassionate way, but a way that works more actively for the social & environmental change I want to see.

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