Tag Archives: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

A reader’s guide to convalescence

I am convalescing. That’s a word we don’t use too much any more; from the Latin, con +  valescere, to grow strong, from valere, to be strong. Maybe because convalescence takes time, and we have so little of it. We might speak of being “laid up” a couple of days or “on the couch,” but most of the time we fight our illnesses and push to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But convalescence is a wonderful concept; it’s about giving your body time to repair, heal, “grow stronger.” Doctors don’t prescribe it, because it doesn’t come in a pill bottle, profit anyone, or require a medical degree to understand. Maybe you could see the results of it through some sort of electronic imaging, but then again maybe you couldn’t. My doctor came the closest to prescribing it when he said the cure for my malady was colon rest, which is about as disagreeable prognosis as I can think of. Note he didn’t say that the patient needed rest, only one of her organs, a prescription that involves a liquid, then soft, diet.

But I am prescribing convalescence for myself. Although I can’t really stop working, this time of year I teach one morning class, that’s all, so I can spend the afternoons on the couch if I want.

We have stopped going out for breakfast and instead I sit outside here on our apartment deck, sipping tea and watching the cardinals flit from branch to branch. I’ve stopped drinking, so no more glasses of wine when we go out to eat – which we do seldom now. I’m not in the car as much, so going somewhere as become a treat, a time to take in the shades of the night sky, spot wild tiger lilies on the roadside, appreciate the fine combings of raked hay.

Mostly, I read. Since my childhood, books and convalescence have been intertwined. One winter week in 1972, my mother, sister and I – recovering from the flu – read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek. Home from school with a cold, I would thumb through the ancient volumes in my mother’s bookcase – Dr. Chase’s medical book, which convinced me on more than one occasion that I was dying; Mrs. Beecher’s guide to housework, which mostly involved managing her servants; and the Book of Knowledge, with its condensed versions of classics like The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre.

Convalescence and reading are both slow activities. Reading helps our bodies rest while our minds stay active; I could skip across the fields with Jo March even though I was too sick to cross the street. There’s something soporific about words on the page that allows us to drift easily into a slumber we might otherwise resist. I’ve been doing a lot of napping, too. Whether curled up on a rattan chair on the deck or under a blanket on the sofa, I move easily between the page and my dreams.

I’ve read contemporary novels (Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the marvelous The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar), travelogues (Adirondack Passage by Christine Jerome), and American history (George R. Stewart’s guide to how everything here got its name, Names on the Land). There’s no limitation of genre; the point is to be transported.

Jerome’s account of her canoe trip through the Adirondacks, which traces the route that George Washington Sears took in 1883, is just the sort of tale for the laid-up. I might not feel like straying off the couch, but in my mind I’ve paddled Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and the Saint Regis lakes, thrilling to the queer laugh of the loon, dodging stomach-twisting rollers, and marveling at the sky-splitting pines of the wilderness.

In a similar way, Cross Creek took us out of our tissue-sodden misery that long-ago February. We took turns lolling in my mother’s bed, literally passing the book to one another, enjoying this rare indulgence of leisure. The orange groves of Florida in the 1930s could not have been farther from my provincial existence in rocky New England. The smudge pots that Rawlings lit to ward off frost, the stray breeze that cooled her porch, the lap of a paddle as she canoed from house to house – it seemed a magical, upside-down world, where creeks became highways, where winter could be spring, where oranges actually grew on trees.

Ultimately, no matter what organ our doctors seem intent on fixing, it is our minds that control our bodies, and our minds that need these oases of quiet. So I rifle through my bookcase, looking for the next journey of my convalescence. Will it be Steinbeck’s California, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Nin’s Paris? Maybe it will be all three. After all, a proper convalescence should last a good long while.

 

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A writer’s journey to Cross Creek

I didn’t plan to go to Florida, and once there, I didn’t expect to visit Ocala or a woman who owns horses and once lived in Rhode Island. And I certainly had no idea that, on this ninety-degree, insect-buzzing afternoon, I would step onto the porch in Cross Creek where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once banged away on her portable typewriter.
Yet here I was, and there was the old black manual, so much like the one my mother used to write poems and type my term papers. Next to it was an ashtray and a squashed-up pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Irene, our guide, dressed in a cotton housedress and period-appropriate ankle socks and shoes, said the leather-covered chairs around the table – now cracked from weather and disuse – had been custom-made for the author and were an unheard-of luxury in the 1930s Cracker country of rural Florida.
I had still not gotten past the typewriter. I could hear it clacking, intermittently, a sound not unlike the insects outside the porch screens.
Irene said that Kinnan Rawlings tried to write other places, including a home on the Florida coast, but this was the only place “where the words flowed.”
My friend Cheryl brought me here. She comes south every May, to stay in a villa owned by some retired friends in a manufactured senior community known as the Villages. This trip is her gift to me; that is another story. Our tour guide is Laurie, Cheryl’s first cousin, once removed, and I feel a kinship with her unexplained by our shared Swamp Yankee heritage. How can you not like a woman who comes to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park at least once a year, just to see the place?
Before bringing us here, Laurie has taken us on a winding tour of limestone-covered backroads, pointing out thoroughbred farms and old orange packing plants and a radio station so small we are, within one mile of the house where it originates, out of its radius.
Somehow, both of them, or just the Spirit that conspires to give us what we need, brought me here, to this old porch, in the cottage where Kinnan Rawlings wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling and the memoir Cross Creek.
The writer hoping for clues in Cross Creek to her process or inspiration must read between the lines. If the book is to be believed, the author spent as much time hunting, cooking, and boozing as she did writing. Cross Creek is a love letter to the land that inspired her greatest work, and as such it is a paean to the power of place in writing.
Prior to coming to Florida, and for her first years there, Kinnan Rawlings struggled to get published. She wrote gothic fiction with exotic settings and wooden characters far from her own experience. It was Maxwell Perkins, editor of such legends as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who recognized that her letters about Cross Creek were far more evocative than her English romances. He urged her to write about what she knew, and when she followed his advice, her career took off.
The intersection of writer and place was not preordained. Kinnan Rawlings grew up in Washington, D.C., where she took weekend trips to her father’s Maryland farm. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, and it was her first husband, whose relatives owned property near Cross Creek, who brought her to Florida.
The movie version of Cross Creek, starring Mary Steenburgen, portrays the purchase as her idea and the cause of Kinnan Rawlings’s first divorce. In fact, the couple invested in the property together, along with her brother-in-law, and they did not split until 1933, six years later. But clearly the orange groves at Cross Creek became her declaration of independence, a place where she would have to learn to fend for herself. This land of orange groves and Spanish moss evolved into her most creative place, her geographical muse, her writing retreat.
Humans, she wrote, have a preconscious memory of place, “and along with our deep knowledge of the earth is a preference for each of us for certain different kinds of it, for the earth is various as we are various. One man longs for the mountains, and does not even need to have been a child of the mountains to have this longing; and another man yearns for the valleys or the plains.”
As for me, I am child of the sea, and yet standing in an old cottage near a Florida orange grove I feel the  power of place, the magnet of a fellow writer’s soul, and the drive to put pen to paper once again.Cross Creek No. 1 Cross Creek No. 2

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