Wednesday night was an event I’d been looking forward to since I first heard about it: Elizabeth Berg reading at the Brookline Booksmith. I think I’ve already mentioned in this blog that she is my favorite author. I’ve read and loved almost all her books. She just has this way of nailing truths about life that I’ve felt but could never express. And her characters are usually American women in ordinary suburban settings, which is refreshing to me—I feel like too many authors feel like they have to set their novel somewhere exotic or make their main characters totally out-of-the-ordinary. But it’s always very easy to identify with Elizabeth Berg’s characters.
Her latest book is different— The Handmaid and the Carpenter is about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. At first I was very surprised, because all of her other books take place in relatively ordinary settings, and none of them are explicitly religious. But then I read this passage toward the end of the book: “For miracles are everywhere around us. Sometimes they are small and common: The curl of a child’s ear. The ripening of grapes on the vine. The stretching of a rainbow over the valley in which we live. Sometimes they are larger: That we have inside ourselves the ability to feel the music we hear. That our people survive!”
And suddenly, I got it. This is the attitude that’s present in all of her work. She expresses it explicitly in a short story called “Today’s Special”:
“Nothing big ever replaces the sight of the winter boots all lined up, or the sound of the click of the front doors locked up against the darkness each night. Consider cooling pies. The impossibly small size of your own child’s shoe…Isn’t it those small things that add the necessary shape and meaning to our lives? And don’t we miss seeing them if we look too hard for big things?”
So basically, if we can believe that little, everyday things like those are miracles, it’s not so hard to believe in the biggest miracle of all.
So, anyway, Elizabeth Berg read from The Handmaid and the Carpenter, and then she signed autographs. She also brought some baked goods—her daughter, who lives in Newton, just started a baking business, one that I’ll probably utilize at some point, because the cookies and brownies I tried were awesome.
But when I got her autograph, she was so nice. She signed three of my books, including my favorite, Joy School. (A book where the main character is also named Katie—an added bonus of an already fantastic book.) And because I am a huge dork, I gave her a letter I’ve written.
One of the things I mentioned in the letter was that one particular chapter of Joy School is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s just two pages, but even if you haven’t read what comes before, you can tell so much about this character and her life. Because it’s beautiful and because it has to do with Christmas, I’ll share it with you here:
“It is such an odd thing to have a Christmas with only two people. It might be worse than being alone. My father and I opened our few presents, then sat awhile by the tree, each thinking that’s what the other one wanted to do, I guess. My father gave me twenty dollars to buy him something and I just got him a wallet and a duck call. He never will use that duck call. It was one of those things, I was feeling desperate and the guy selling the duck calls honked it and I thought, Isn’t that cute! Maybe my father will think that’s funny! and I bought it. But he just said all serious, Well, thank you, Katie and then he laid it carefully back in the box. I got knee socks, pajamas, a book of poems by Americans and a stuffed animal, a cat wearing a dress. She’s cute, but really I am too old, she’ll have to live in my closet. The best gift was Intimate perfume and dusting powder. So I guess Ginger helped a bit with shopping. I kept wishing someone else was there so I could have another face to look at, a triangle of possibility instead of a deadly straight line.
“After a bit we went out for Chinese food, and my father left a big Christmas tip and the waiter nodded and nodded and said, ‘Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas,’ about three hundred times. We went for a little walk afterward and my father’s hands were deep in his pockets and his head was hanging low. I didn’t even try. I just walked beside him and kept looking at the stars, trying to think which one was the Star of Bethlehem, which I think is one of the prettiest phrases I’ve ever heard, Star of Bethlehem. I thought, what if I were a Wise Man, what would the message be now? Maybe just God saying, Well, they are wrong about me. I did once make a terrible mistake. If you think I’ll ever send my Son again, forget it.
“Now it is ten o’clock and we are both pretending to sleep. But I can feel his awakeness and probably he can feel mine. I have my radio turned on real low and someone is singing ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’ like their heart is breaking wide open. Outside, snow falls, so perfect.”
If you can see the same magic in that passage that I see, you are my new best friend.