Don’t we long to be fully engaged? I’ve checked in with Carson McCullers a couple of times this week on the occasion of her 100th birthday. She’s often thought of as a prophet of loneliness, but I wonder if what she expressed in her writing was more a longing to be released from the silo of her own experience.
In The Member of the Wedding, her 1946 book that later became a hit play and movie, (starring a young Julie Harris and a sterling Ethel Waters), McCullers goes back to adolescence to imagine her Columbus, Georgia childhood through the lens of Frankie. It begins like this:
“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”
What she longs for is to be inside of a love large enough to include her. She thinks she finds it in her brother’s engagement and somehow she will be asked to be a part of his marriage. Her brother and his bride, she imagines, are the ‘we of me.’
The ‘we’ she shares this with are her wise African-American caretaker, Berenice, and John Henry West, a younger neighbor. They humor her tempers and temper her passions, but Frankie still manages to be wildly imaginative and deeply heart-broken.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt the same sort of longing:
“Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.”
It is a strange thing to be sharing this experience of life with such a multitude and yet not find the way inside.
McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, shares an image of the young Carson that has haunted me. At the age of 17 she travelled alone to New York City to try to make it as a writer. She was overwhelmed and enticed by the crush of people in the city. Not knowing how to connect, she took books down to the Macy’s department store and sat in an enclosed wooden phone booth. There she sat reading for hours on end–tantalizing close to the people she longed to meet and yet sealed off in a compartment designed for communication.
Alright–I’ll give you that that sounds like an exquisite image of loneliness. But it also feels like an apt image for the age. In a time of fantastic means of communication, we find connecting hard. And as much as we distract ourselves with our myriad screens, there is a longing to be fully engaged. We have our own tankards, but we also want to know the ‘we of me.’
When Psalm 42:1 describes the deer panting for living water, I think that’s a thirst McCullers knew. And as the psalm also describes, it is a holy thirst.