Renee Pettit is an editor for the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship (CIOS) and a freelance writer. A lifelong dreamer, she has been writing stories for nearly as long as she’s been reading them.
She is nearing completion of the novel she thought she had finished two years ago, but after much obsessing –– another favorite pastime –– she held her breath and jumped back into the revising process. This is her first –– and hopefully not last ––submission to Trolley.
“From a too-long list of my favorite authors, a few I’d love to meet for a long, talk-filled walk on an overcast day in a seaside village: Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, E.M. Forster and Julian Barnes. "
And So, We Connect:
By Renee Pettit
I’ve been pondering a book I read almost 25 years ago which has remained with me in some elemental way. It wasn’t recognizably extraordinary to me at the time, it just lingered comfortingly though with increasing significance through the years.
The book was assigned for a college class on the literature of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster — both of whom, with their Englishness and intellect and belongingness in a circle of like-minded friends, I admired and longed to learn from, as I was on my way to carving out my (please name me!) hopeful identity.
I hadn’t been a remarkable high school student, but relative to my younger self, I shined along with fellow eager fledglings in college, and I was ready for grad school; I was ready for life.
Published in 1910, I first read Howards End in 1994. I was a new student in the Master's program at what was then called SUNY Albany, and I was grateful to be there. I was discovering a life I thought could easily have passed me by, a life of education; and there I was, sitting in Professor Richard Goldman’s class, learning about British ‘Bloomsbury’ intellectuals who nurtured ideas like irises and sculpted language with utmost precision.
He alone, and by he, I mean Professor Goldman, was an inspiration. With his not-too but just-right passionate reenactments of a scene, he encouraged us to be readers and he encouraged us to be writers, and it was in large part his dynamic, guiding presence to which I attribute a kind of literary life birthing. Reading Howards End at home and then coming to class to connect the dots and color the scenes was life anew for me.
On the bones of my 20-something's newly hatched writer-reader skeleton, Forster’s woolen words clothed me, and I took for granted their warmth, without a real exploration as to why. What I mean is, I’ve recognized now and again the book's unarticulated relevance in my life. I named my quiet, often ignored (by me, too) blog after the book’s two-word epigraph, actually believing that I was original for doing so, but I hadn’t, until recently, dug deeply enough to understand why the novel mattered so much to me. I don’t think it encouraged me in any particular way at the time; I just liked it and felt drawn to it, and I have clung mostly unselfconsciously to those two words as my life’s rudder ever since. “Only connect…”
I realize that I may attribute more meaning to my college years than some because I nearly missed out on them, having started my freshman career several years later than is typical, but all I know is that a world that had been previously merely glimpsed was now fully in front of me. It was an inhalation of pure oxygen, a fire in my new self, and it was fanned by Forster’s vision and masterful storytelling.
The book, amidst so much more, is a study of the complexity of relationships and how complicated the mélange of want and choice, blindness and exposure, ideals and privilege can become. Howards End was written more than 100 years ago and I first read it a quarter-century ago, though, for me, it remains a timeless interpretation of what comes from being human in an ever-changing world.
We long for quiet and company, individuality and belonging, invisibility and recognition, tradition and technology; and yet, from those dichotomies, we must choose along the way in order to forge who we are, who we will become. In the dawn of their 20th-century world, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes and Basts mingled security and curiosity for life with fortuitous and disastrous results, just as we do today.
Consider the ever-pressing human need for genuine friendship as it is played out in our ‘friend-me’ social media-driven universe. People are requested or accepted, rejected or liked and oftentimes, promptly forgotten. It can be hurtful or it can be numbing. I herald Howards End as a literary tableau of how century-old conceptions are germane to our current world and will go on being so, regardless of technological ‘progress.’
It is not surprising to me that I struggle with this notion of being ‘plugged in.’ Years ago, someone whom I both loved and respected told me that in the middle of a family party, I was more like one of the film crew than the performers, hovering at the edges, both wanting and not wanting to be included. She was right, and I still do it.
There are myriad social media outlets for connecting, and yet I find myself shrinking back, searching for digital platforms that enable a kind of exposed anonymity, if you will.
Photographs that may not show my face but that clearly identify me by name underneath, tweets centered only on writing and writers I may or may not know, a blog that reveals my innermost longings read by a mere handful of followers. It is a kind of dance, participating and pulling back, connecting and yanking the plug.
Howards End first edition published in 1910 with flyleaf autograph by the author E.M. Forster.
We may have been raised by tired or loving people, into wanting or privileged circumstances, and regardless of our beginnings, there is no guarantee that we’ll fit snugly into our present dynamic puzzles. Some need to search outside their past and present boundaries for spiritual accord, while others were born into secure congruity. Though, maybe that’s merely an illusion, one easier to uphold than the frustration of not fitting in with our own impulsive or lazy choices. Connection comes not from settling for a stagnant set of conditions, but rather from how we navigate our moments and adjust our perception of life’s continual flux in order to find that kernel of our own evolving truth.
Whether amongst strangers or acquaintances, in a room full of books or paintings, we strive to find connection and feel alive. That is what Forster’s words echo for me, anyway, and I am thankful to him for expressing them so eloquently and enduringly.
It is up to us to recognize what we need to discard and what we need to seek, the bridges within and outside ourselves that we must build to save our sanity and nourish our intellect. Amidst joyful or pained solitude, energizing or wearying chaos, we have the choice to notice our aliveness, to carve our presence and to believe in some way, large or small, that we matter, that we are a part of an unfathomable whole.