In “Pageantry, Intrigue, Contemplation, Mystery,” Jane Smiley starts running the essay’s clock at 4 a.m., when reluctant worriers like myself are rattled awake by things we can’t fix. You feel the smoothness of the top sheet, the curve of her nestled feet, Jack’s hand in hers. You accompany her through a day as she fixes breakfast, drops her son off at school, visits her horses, runs errands. Along the way she’s clearing a path for us to follow her, offering thoughts on God, the World Trade Center, gelding, erections, teenagers. As it is in Montaigne’s philosophy, the quotidian is mixed with the profound. Anecdotes are used to make larger points, and larger points are an excuse for sharing anecdotes.
I read this essay in a Pensacola beach house surrounded by the people I love. At night when we fell sleep, everyone was accounted for. For those six days, I didn’t wake at 4 a.m. Even my teenage son didn’t need a curfew. He was already home.
As I was walking on the sand the next morning, my thoughts turned again to Smiley’s essay. I felt stripped by her truths, and girded to tell my own, because I’m afraid of horses, but not of hers. I’m afraid of my first ex but not of her three exes. And my son? He’s going to college this fall, and I will lose the control of him that I never had, and, yes, that’s the point. As Smiley so wisely says, “What you practice is what you perfect.”
Essays insist that we be quiet and follow the writer, and Smiley’s footing is sure. By the end, we’re retracing our steps, circling back to the predawn, where she gave us permission not to worry, to forgive ourselves in advance, to believe in a decent God. Even if only temporarily, we’ve taken what she says personally.
—Pia Z. Ehrhardt