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SHARED VOICES/ Mary Lee Settle PERHAPS THE MOST private experiences are the most universal. I wonder about this. I know that for talented, dreaming chUdren growing up in the South, there is a common shadow line of isolation that is crossed, and that we cannot know for years how strongly it has affected us. It is that moment when, after seeking, we find someone to share a private language, a private hope, not taste, but true pitch, not an accepted "artistic" experience, but a friend who, in a desert, speaks the language we thought was alien and private. It has happened to every Southern writer whose Ufe I know something about, from Willa Cather, whose first ten years were spent in Virginia, and who wrote over and over, as if she could not shake the experience, about the isolation of growing up and finding that language, that understanding. Flannery O'Connor saw it as an irony, William Faulkner sought it in the past and found it in Phil Stone, beyond the derision of his generation in Oxford, Katherine Anne Porter found it in Ulness, Walker Percy in a fortunate choice of an uncle. I have heard of a beUef among the Sephardim that for everyone there are twelve teachers, and that at some time in a person's life they will all appear, but they will be disguised. My teachers, my private friends, began to appear early, when life was still autobiography, when they were most needed and least recognized, when neither I nor they knew what they were. Maybe Stendhal was right to end his autobiography by his twentieth year, before he became a conscious observer and the events of his Ufe, his crises, his lovers, and even his teachers had become guides to the transmutation and the knowledge to write fiction, sources sometimes in gestures, sometimes happening, sometimes told, fonts of those minutes that ring true, echoes of voices, private and universal. I sometimes wonder if for a novelist, autobiography as such doesn't have to stop very early, before lives are transformed into work, or as a thing remembered—or better, recalled, which is different. Recalled—caUed back, as if I were there. It is 1928, and I am ten years old, cUmbing the stairs, something in me cUmbing those stairs, up and up to the fourth floor, past the stained glass windows 42 · The Missouri Review on the landings, sun and prism caught, with the smell of wood in an old house and trails of notes from pianos and once in a while a scratchy violin escaping out into the hall. Like other children of my time I "took" things; taking didn't mean steaUng, or catching a disease, or dope. It meant first dancing and then music lessons and then the small, deceptive last, something called elocution. I was lousy at dancing, so I was always put with my best friend, Betty Coopey, who had breasts before anybody else did, in those tableaus made famous by eurythmies where you had to carry big flower wreaths and swoop around touching the tops of them together, hoping to God you wouldn't stumble and embarrass your mother, who hated that sort of thing. They were all the dancing teacher could think to do with us. Her stars were Betty and Ann, tap dancing like Busby Berkeley girls in shiny sateen costumes, and acrobatic dancing, doing back bends and spUts that I could never do. The ballet dancer was CaroUne who was almost professional, and I envied her with my soul. We were all at that point about eleven years old. I couldn't have done a back bend or a spUt to save my life, and my feet were wrong for staggering up on my toes—toes, not points—nobody said points. My mother said that Betty Coopey had breasts early because she was a Yankee. Betty could play the piano and for all those years we used to buy pink song sheets and sing things like "Willow, Weep for Me," J cover the waterfront, and look at the stars... and I've got a right to sing the blues, I've got a right to feel...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 42-52
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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