The Piano Box, from Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West

pianobox

The Kurzmann itself was wasted on me, but the box it was shipped in wasn’t. It became my house; not a playhouse, a place where I played at keeping house, but a real house where I lived. Who needs to play at keeping house when there are three younger children, and a mother never very well, to keep house with?

… Actually, I didn’t spend much time looking out. The box was for being in, not looking out. I didn’t get in there to escape work; if anyone wanted me they knew where I would be. I didn’t play house there. I was a constant reader, but I never read there any more than I would read in church. I was a considerable eater, but I never ate there. I never entertained visitors there; though, since the biting episode, no one was very eager to share close quarters with me.

I got into the box to experience a feeling I had only when I was in a place of my own, alone, with no one near or threatening to be near. I do not even yet know the exact name for the feeling. It was an intense feeling of awareness and of complete peace. I might call it joy, but I could be joyful when I was with others: while box joy, tub joy, the joy of solitude, was a bliss that came only when I was alone and then only on special occasions.

At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss. Later I knew what I was seeking. Later the feeling included what I saw: the room and its objects — books, fire, flowers, the swinging pendulum of a clock. When the bliss came upon me or was coming upon me, I would move a chair so that the firelight could not be blocked from a brass bowl. I would replace a blue-bound book with one that was red. I would seep the hearth if I saw that it was dusty. The room, the shell of my solitude, and its contents was a still life I had painted and was still painting. Sitting alone in that room, waiting, experiencing, I became part of the still life. The room have me beatitude, and my beatitude filled the room.

The experience was not unlike those reported by drug-takers, though nothing strange or frightening ever happened: flames never crept up the walls; wallpaper designs did not come to life with octopus tendrils; the sofa’s edge never hung above an abyss. There was a high, a euphoria, a radiance that enveloped and presently ebbed. But never anything that alarmed.

In the piano box, the dream-box factory, I did not, when I was a child, usually look out. Seeing outside, when I was a child, shattered box magic. But occasionally the magic was strong enough to envelop and enhance the persons I saw moving about in the yard. They were familiar but strange; related to me but with lives of their own, of which I had heard reports only. When the mystery took hold of them (and me), they walked about like storybook figures, out of a world stranger than mine.

Seen from my piano-box opening, my mother and father, brothers and sister were both more and less than themselves; less in that they were part of my dreaming; more in that, though they were part of my dreaming, the dream enlarged and enhanced them. I saw them not as the flat figures of one summer’s evening and relatives of mine to boot, but as characters, persons with the experience of their known past and even of their imagined future enveloping them.

from Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

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Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West (1973)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hide and Seek'
The next two books I’m featuring here — Jessamyn West’s Hide and Seek and Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery — are set a continent apart but share a strong common bond with that American classic, Thoreau’s Walden. In all three, the writer sets aside time and chooses a location with the conscious intent to do nothing else but be alone and think — but in each, where she starts and where she finishes are markedly different.

In Hide and Seek West, a novelist, poet and short-story writer with a number of best-selling and highly acclaimed books — the best known being The Friendly Persuasion (1945), which was made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper in 1956 — picked a bluff high above the Colorado River and a two-room trailer as her spot, bidding farewell to her husband Max in the opening scene and retiring to the trailer to spend three months alone. “Alone, alone!” she exults. “For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino.”

“Solitude has always excited me,” West writes, and her three months out in the Arizona desert gave her plenty of time to reflect. Ironically, for someone seeking time alone, she managed to fill many of her thoughts with memories of other people. Her family, in particular. Her parents moved with their three children from Indiana to Whittier, California, to join a group of Quakers settled there when Jessamyn was six. (Her mother was a Milhous, so West was related to Richard Nixon. His father, Frank, was one of her Sunday school teachers, but West has little good to say for her cousin’s politics.)
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Though her father held down a steady job with a railroad and made a success of the stake he took in a small farm outside Yorba Linda, West’s parents were fairly non-conformist for their time. Her father would burst into hymns, singing out at full volume while doing chores, and her mother placed little value on things like curtains and cleaning up around the house. They had a laissez-faire attitude towards certain conventions: “As children we were permitted to do pretty much as we liked in the matter of keeping the dirt down.” They loved camping and made a bold cross-country trip back to visit family in Indiana in their Paige automobile in 1920, when such travel usually involved paying a farmer or two to get hauled out of some mudhole.

Yet as much as she loved her family, West always knew that, deep down, she was a solitary. At the age of four, she commanded a great big washtub as her private domain, and when her father bought a piano, she turned the crate it came in into a sanctuary: “At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss.”

In a family, in society, being a solitary has something of a stigma, particular if you’re female: “When a woman asks to be alone, not alone like Garbo, who asked only for a little privacy out of sight of her fans, but alone, alone, truly alone, separated from mother and father, husband and children, a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” So, when she was 18, enjoying her first experience of work and living on her own, she had to feign illness to get out of going along on another family camping trip.

Coming to understand her own identity was the great revelation of West’s girlhood. Walking home from the Yorba Linda library one autumn evening, she said out loud to herself, “You are M. J. West”:

This is how I thought of myself in those days, for my name is Mary Jessamyn, and I was in love with what was spare and cut to the bone. It was as if I had told myself a great piece of news. When I said those words, then I noticed the heavy clotting of the Milky Way, and the brow of the hill, a dark curve against the starlit sky. M. J. West noticed them. Who had been noticing them before, because I hadn’t lived starless until the age of thirteen or fourteen, I don’t know; but on that night I knew who was doing the seeing: M. J. West.

She recognizes that this identity came at a cost, the cost of some of the connections that bound her to other people in her life. In a moving passage of reflection, she writes,

I have sometimes thought that I would like not to be young but to see myself, my parents, brothers, and sister when we were all young together. I have thought that I would; but given the chance, I’m not sure I would take it. The sight might drive me crazy with sorrow or self-pity. What would it be like to see that girl (knowing, as I would, how soon some of us would vanish from sight) choosing time after time to be with Mary J. Holmes’ English Orphans or Tarzan or David Copperfield rather than with them? What if I saw myself bullying my little sister? Sowing the seeds that made her say before she died, “I have resented you all my life.” What if I recognized the reason it was impossible for me to say even once in my life to my father, “Papa, I love you.”

I’ve focused on West’s memories of her family, but there is much, much more to Hide and Seek: celebrations of the Western landscape; appreciations and clear-eyed criticisms of her model, Thoreau; memories of the teachers who influenced her, a lovely and funny recollection of a trip to the Indiana settings of The Friendly Persuasion in 1944; and descriptions of the lost and stray characters she meets while seeking solitude out in the desert. West achieves a fine balance of poetry and plain speaking that makes her a most enjoyable narrator: “The grass never looks greener to me on the other side of the fence. It often is, of course. The name for the person with this kind of eyesight is ‘stick-in-the-mud.'”

I have to thank Tillie Olsen, who recommended in one of her reading lists reprinted in later editions of her classic meditation on the woman writer, Silences.


Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

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