Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Back in 1851 Henry Thoreau arrived at the Concord Lyceum to deliver a lecture, one he would repeat ten or more times. He thought of the piece as seminal to everything he might write afterwards. He revised it throughout the next nine or so years, publishing the piece eventually as an essay in Atlantic Monthly.
The essay/lecture has sometimes been called “The Wild” but later Thoreau referred to it as “Walking,” a transcendental essay at that.
Self-reflection, of course; which meant that for Thoreau walking was a self-reflective act, physical, mental, and spiritual. Walking means not to be in a hurry, to relax, and derive subsistence from that which feeds the spirit and inspires.
A similar case could be made for Kathy A. Bradley’s Wondering Toward Center, which is a book of essays or journalistic vignettes or diary entries, dated as they are. No, on second thought: It’s better to call the entries spiritual book-keepings, time-keeping instances in the soul.
Of course there is no Louisiana Purchase into which Bradley might wander; her spiritual expansion is into the little postage stamp of a family farm near the coastal region of South Georgia. The book is a chronological memoir-like review of “impressions,” which as she says began life as newspaper columns in January of 2011 and concluded in December 2014. One can sense, however, that in gathering the “impressions” together, something more cohesive was needed, a controlling metaphor of one kind or another.
She settles at one moment on building a labyrinth at her farm, Sandhills. It’s wise, though, to think of her labyrinth less as a complex branching maze hiding Minotaurs around the corners. Rather, better to imagine a unicursal, spiraling pattern of stones in a garden created for private meditation. There are, for example, labyrinthine mazes on cathedral floors where “pilgrims” followed the pattern on their knees while praying.
Kathy Bradley, then, a pilgrim, intended to create her own labyrinth for her own use, made of stones collected, and spirally placed. That was her intent; but as she writes in her “epilogue,” the labyrinth became, rather, a “labyrinth of hours and days, the labyrinth of people whose faces [she] memorized and whose voices echo with every beat of [her] own heart.”
At issue, however, is the traditional notion that when entering a labyrinth, even one of stories, one can quite possibly become lost, actually as well as figuratively. Bradley’s labyrinth is a garden maze created with story-like stones found on her many walking jaunts. She carried the story-stones home and, with a Sharpie permanent marker, wrote the digits for month and year, gardening in the interstices, as she does with the “collection” of stories.
If one wished an image of something akin to Bradley’s labyrinth, well, research might lead to pictures of turf mazes, which are also sometimes called “bowers.” Entering such a maze is to “wander” but also to “wonder” forward toward a center and then, without necessarily retracing one’s steps, making one’s way out of the maze, and doing so without turning into pillar of salt.
To venture out, following old maze-like timber roads, finding gopher tortoise burrows, rusted turpentine cups protruding from old pine trees, learning the running currents of creeks, the rise of hills, and then feel the “numbness [begin] to thaw.” To ramble, then, “looking in order to see, listening so that I might . . . hear.”
It’s a cliché, likely, to call such moments “epiphanies,” but, as Bradley writes, part of the plan was to retreat from a subjective maze to the point at which she had made the choice which “turned out to be the wrong one.” Over four years, then, footnoted story-stones were carried home, placed in time and space.
“For most of my life, “she writes, “she envisioned time as linear . . . . The arrows pointed in only one direction and straight ahead.” It’s an idea she came to recognize as flawed and in writing words that she came to know as “true,” she also came to believe that time is not a single straight line but a “spiral.” There’s the spiral of planting and weeding, planting and weeding, birth and then growth; there’s the rise of a full moon over a cotton field, there are advents and lents, advents and lents, again and again the same points in space, the same points on a labyrinth marked with story-stones.
Given the notion of time, then, chronology is not an exact enough word to describe the book’s “trajectory.” It’s dated as in diary entries, January 16, 2011, and then January 30th, and so on, and the third vignette which begins simply enough: “Making soup is therapeutic.” In the usual sense of reading, the previous two vignettes should have advanced the narrative in chronological time, the second vignette advancing the narrative of the first, and the third advancing the narrative of the second.
But what “if” time can be so configured that “it” doesn’t illustrate some kind of progressive motion forward as if looking on a calendar confirms that it’s, oh, winter? What “if” it’s remembering, a deliberate and contemplative act, with each impression spontaneously received, recorded as if in a book of hours, shared, then, with prescient intimacy:
Like last Sunday afternoon. I could stand the incarceration no longer and went to get the dogs. They were as eager to get outside as I was, and the three of us set out like kids at recess, eager and breathless.
The breeze was a tad cool, but gentle, licking at my face and their fur. The few bird calls we heard came darting through the crisp air in irregular rhythms, and the winter light, that angled laser that can transform frost directly into mist without becoming water, was so sharp that it made everything in the landscape look as though it were drawn by a pin-prick sharp No. 2 pencil.
The usual routine is to take this bit of walking, this wandering, and note critically how the purpose is to recount a commonplace event as if it were merely an examination of the natural world; the world of nature thus becomes emblematic of the human spirit and in no time at all we find ourselves standing in the midst of a gigantic eyeball and arguing to one and all how no evil can befall us.
Kathy Bradley does not through process take us through a series of vignettes arriving at such a mystical moment. That may have been Emerson’s 19th century dilemma, but our 21st century dilemma likely has changed.
Use time wisely, our daily planners argue; develop management skills to make better use of both time and energy. Organize, prioritize, and succeed. Get something done. Time is an assignment calendar. Use a monthly chart. Time management is successful living.
On August 11, 2014, Bradley writes, “What is this? A mimosa tree? Its slender branches are curved in an arc out over the ditch. It’s fingerling leaves are dangling over my head. Its barkless trunk is all but hidden among the grapevines and pine trees and scrub oaks. I have walked by this very spot hundreds of times, driven by it thousands of times. How could I have never noticed a mimosa tree?”
It’s not esoteric; the dilemma is the micro-portrayal of an atomized modern person, self-obsessed, fast-losing the ability to respond to anything outside the self. The mimosa tree is just that, but the phrase could also be applied to another person, or advent that season of wonder.
How could I have never noticed a star’s light falling?
Kathy Bradley’s Wondering Toward Center is a book confronting the very foundations of living, life’s purposes and values. If modern living and the modern dilemma are atomized—living in time without anchoring—Bradley’s very fine book comprises hours and days and weeks and months and years of anchoring. Her perception of life and existence is thus less as a daily planner and more as a fixation of labyrinthine story-stones, each an enthralling impression preventing the spirit from suffering more and more pathological numbness.
This is a very fine book with random twinklings going on everywhere, making “everything whole.”