(Lost Places: On Losing and Finding Home. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2018)
Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph revolutionized communication in 1844. Yet we are now living in a world where messages are travelling faster than the click of a button with email, SMS, Facebook and Twitter, etc. At times this is mighty convenient, especially if you are miles away from the action or living on another side of the world, like me, in Cairo. However, the ease of modern communication often elevates and dignifies the unconsidered word and the impulse to simplify. The artfulness of Cathryn Hankla’s accomplished collection of essays, Lost Places: On Losing and Finding Home, is precisely that it bucks the current zeitgeist of communicating in a reductionist, binary style: Yes/No; Tremendous/Terrible; Good/Bad; Like!/Unfriend. The experience of reading Hankla’s essays is very much like the pleasure of taking a rambling stroll in the forest, or a leisurely lunch with a close friend, ruminating on the complex, mysterious nature of human existence. The essays focus on the variety of ways in which humans find shelter and seek kinship through the natural landscape, religion, philosophy, art, literature and memory. Lost Places fits clearly into a literary, meditative tradition which combines nature writing, memoir, and other disciplines; for example, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Writing the Sacred into the Real.
Her essay, “Dream Houses” explores the notion of home and space through a cross- pollination of architecture, history, and personal experience. She and her partner, an artist she calls A, are designing the “perfect house” to ensure solidity. Early on, we learn that the relationship did not survive since she acknowledges that “divorce taught her about fragility.” She writes, “Home as a concept involves transformation. My relationship to it—carrier pigeon’s instinct to return—has never quite felt satisfied and stays enlivened by dreaming of what might be.” Hankla, then, takes us on a historical tour of Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello,–a place that enchanted and mesmerized me at the age of twelve. It is hard not to idealize Jefferson and his majestic house. Children in the public schools of Virginia were not told about his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. Only later did Hankla learn about “the slave graveyard.” She observes:
He still owned slaves when he died, including some of the six children he fathered with Sally Hemings, although he had lobbied successfully to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade. Perhaps perfect houses will always exist only as ideas and sketches, as notes and plans rather than bricks and mortar, and certainly no house built of slave bricks can be a dream house.
We learn engaging details about other dream houses: Jefferson’s hideaway villa, Poplar Forest, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house in Chicago, and even Gaudi, who ironically died before the completion of his “sandcastle-like cathedral, Sagrada Familia.” It may very well be that no house is perfect, since the inhabitants will never be perfect, either. There are also digressions on the importance of a library within a house, which then loops back to Jefferson’s relationship to his books and library. Funnily enough, books may be better, more permanent shelters, than stone houses. In the title essay of the collection “Lost Places” Hankla expands further upon the idea of home through her own memory and through pilgrimages to desert landscapes, further reflecting on the primal need for shelter. She begins the essay with a memory of digging holes in the backyard as a child, and then, moves seamlessly back and forth in personal time, and in historical and geological time, utilizing history, archaeology, geology, and philosophy. This essay is an example of the wonderful flexibility inherent to the essay’s form with its panoramic views of history and landscape. Of her visit to Chaco Canyon she writes:
These ancients erected some of their elaborate Great Houses on landscaped mounds, creating more grandeur through the appearance of relative scale and perhaps better drainage for the irrigation and plumbing ditches that laced the valley, emptying into the Chaco Wash. Learning of this landscape design, my mind immediately turns to Thomas Jefferson’s terraced lawn at University of Virginia, its illusion of one grand expanse.
She visited both Utah and New Mexico because she has an “affinity for lost places.” Perhaps, the “lost places” also offer the solitude and the wide expanses, necessary to heal. The first time she went to Utah to mourn the death of a relationship; twenty years later, she went to Chaco Canyon to mourn another relationship. She circles around beginnings and surprises: meeting kind strangers, feeding a neighbor’s newborn, spotting a mountain lion, marveling at ancient rock paintings. In between, she pivots to endings: the death of parents, romances, civilizations, burial mounds, and freak accidents. Brokenness, doubt, and mystery are all part of the human journey. But she finds her way back through writing, reflection and the creative process. She imagines how she might follow “the captive bat when it finally senses open space…and soars into the night.” Shelter does not have to be a stone house, or an ancient mound. Shelter is elastic—memory, language, art, and the body can all provide shelter. In the opening essay, “The Final Frontier” Hankl remembers watching Star Trek with her father, who was “lost” because of his experiences with war, yet they found shelter in the “metaphor” of space. In “God’s Eyebrow” she discusses how imperfect bodies shelter the spirit and gives a tender description of how her mother no longer felt at home in an aging body in her nineties. “Place as Language” combines literary criticism and memoir and demonstrates how William Goyen, the writer originally from East Texas, found place “through the soul of speech.” In the final essay of the collection, “The Indispensable Condition,” she pays homage to the power of light and faith, especially Stan Brakhage, an American experimental, non-narrative filmmaker who inspired her as a young artist with his film about brokenness called “Mothlight.”
We are all like Odysseus, wandering, often driven off course by storms, hoping to eventually get home in order to find kinship with others and connection in a dangerous world, full of cyclopean snares. The internet, like Circe’s magic, is responsible for “a new placelessness.” Oh, how easy it is to get lost in the new placelessness! Steeped in the lore of Native-American tradition, Hankl tells us “the one who remembers is the shaman or storyteller of the tribe, the keeper and healer of psychic lost places.” For readers who seek sensitivity, depth and complexity, Lost Places: On Losing and Finding Home is welcome shelter, or maybe better yet, like the treasure from Chaco Canyon: “shaped turquoise.”
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Gretchen McCullough is a writer and translator, teaching at the American University in Cairo. Her stories and essays have appeared in:The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, NPR, Storysouth and Guernica. Translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli include: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo (2011) and a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth, (2013) were published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo. You can read more of her work by visiting her website.