Yesterday, on the plane from Charlotte to New York for a family wedding, I found myself with an idle half hour. My children were listening to music and watching videos. My husband was sorting through the contents of his briefcase and looking over a long and tedious document.
In my haste to get out the door at 6:30 in the morning, I hadn’t brought my usual lifeline – a book. But there at the bottom of my bag was a rumpled New Yorker. Relief spread over me as I began to look over the table of contents and found a short story by one of my favorite authors, Alice McDermott. That would surely pass the time.
I love the New Yorker for many reasons, one of which is the way the editors pair visual images with text. But the photograph accompanying McDermott’s haunting story was not easy to make out at first, and the story, about a suicide, a nun, and the small, private rebellions people commit, was equally difficult to understand.
Indeed, the story’s title, “These Short, Dark Days,” was hardly beckoning to a traveler on an airplane cutting across a blue sky. I looked over at my family members to see if anyone had any interest in talking to me, but they were happy just where they were.
So I tried again to get into the magic of the words on the page, and on the third attempt, I was in it completely and began to see its meaning. A young man took his life, leaving his pregnant wife alone and impoverished. An old nun on her way home from a day of begging entered the building that the man had nearly exploded, to give aid that was not asked for.
And then, in a eureka moment that made me exclaim out loud, I saw the tendrils of James Joyce’s Dubliners running like golden threads through McDermott’s tale. I flipped back to the black and white photograph and saw what I hadn’t seen before – the black and white of a devoted Sister’s habit.
Joyce’s stories about everyday citizens in a Catholic community, stories that had challenged and amazed me in college and graduate school, came flooding back to me in a wave of recharged meaning. Through reading and rereading – the same stories and different stories, old and new – I had made a highly satisfying connection.
My husband turned a quizzical eye on me to see me smiling. “It’s an homage to Dubliners,” I said. The glow of that connection carried me all the way to a smooth landing in New York.