Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Spring...? Spring...? Anyone, anyone...? No takers, apparently. Because we are in the thick of another blizzard today and tomorrow looks like more of the same. Also possible flurries the day after that. The forecast states between one and two feet of new snow, all told. However, the woodstove is aglow, Hodge is sleeping nearby, Ryan's workplace closed early so he is nearby too, and warm gingerbread just came out of the oven, so we are contented around here, more or less. I'm also feeling good because I finished volume one of the David Hockney biography by Christopher Simon Sykes, found a decent copy volume two, and am already halfway through reading that - David Hockney: A Pilgrim's Progress 1975-2012 (Doubleday 2014). In volume one I came across this great statement from Hockney, written by him in 1962 for a group show he took part in (p.116):
"'I paint what I like when I like, and where I like, with occasional nostalgic journeys. When asked to write on 'the strange possibilities of inspiration' it did occur to me that my own sources of inspiration were wide - but acceptable. In fact, I am sure my own sources are classic, or even epic themes. Landscapes of foreign lands, beautiful people, love, propaganda, and major incidents (of my own life). These seem to me to be reasonably traditional.'"
Pretty great statement of purpose, broad yet specific, BIG but with local feeling too. It still holds up, after all these years. Another statement from volume one - Hockney on making money from your art (p.273):
"'If you're an artist,' he wrote, 'the one thing you can do when you get money is to use it to do what you want in art. That's the only good thing you can ever do for yourself.'"
I would rewrite that last bit to say it's one of the good things you can do for yourself. There are others! We just took our tax paperwork to our accountant after spending a previous blizzard-day getting it all sorted out, and I am happy to say that my income from sales of both paintings and books was off the charts last year. Paintings are in the lead, by a lot. Books trail far behind but are steady. I am truly blessed to be able to do what I want to do, and I am taking Hockney's advice and stocking up on everything I need to paint with for the next year and more. But I am also taking great pleasure in spending some of that money on books, and spending some with other artists, too. Such as the aforementioned wood engraver Andy English, who is sending this my way:
This is the final state of my first bookplate, printed by Andy from his meticulously engraved block. He has trimmed all the bookplates by hand. Each measures three by two inches. I couldn't be happier, I love it so much! His engravings of animals, birds, books, and landscapes have charmed me for years and when I suggested that a hedgehog with a palette and brushes was what I most wanted for my art books, this is what he created for me. Besides being an engraver he is also a painter, and had this small painter's palette on hand to sketch the design from. I have one too, just like this, hanging on the wall in our living room here at home.
Second bookplate design to follow, soon. I have the final state and am savoring it. I feel so greedy, ordering two, but that feeling is akin to book-greed, and therefore not something I feel bad about in the least! Rather, deep happiness. I look forward, and hope that a hundred years from now, someone will come across one inside the cover of a book, in a used book shop, and experience that feeling too.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
rural living, winter reading
I can't let another month go by without writing a bit about reading and such, so here I am, squeaking it in on the last day of February. Goodbye, winter! The yard is full of robins, the sun is higher in the sky, and all the news of indictments and plea deals over the past few weeks has my heart lifting as it hasn't seemed able to in ages and ages. What a time. I don't know what else to say or even where to start, so I'll leave it at that. Thankfully, it's been a good few months for books, in this house, which always raises my spirits, no matter what else is happening in the wider world. All the books that I ordered because of Ronald Blythe's recommendations (see last post) have been full of just the kinds of things that most interest me, and a few visits to local used book shops augmented my to-be-read windrow to the point where it has become difficult to choose what to read next. Hence I find myself in the middle of five books. Unusual for me. I am almost always a start-to-finish kind of person, reading just one at a time. But many of these books lend themselves to visiting and revisiting at leisure - putting down and picking up again - they are books of essays or conversations, or subjects that do not suffer from slow perusal. Many of them share the general topic of life in the country. Specifically, the country of England. I've never been there, but my bookplates are being printed there AS WE SPEAK. I am so, SO excited. I kept thinking of them, as we browsed last weekend at Carlson & Turner in Portland, Maine, one of the great remaining open shops in the state, with shelves to the ceiling and lots of literature, history, and art books on hand:
That is the first book I found to bring home - Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella (Pantheon 2007). It wasn't the last. Prices are reasonable at this great shop and I always come away with a good stack of books and more of a spring in my step than when I arrived. I take a good long look at everything, especially in the art section:
I go book by book, examining everything, especially those whose spines are not easily readable, or have no lettering at all - because you just never know! Must! Check! Everything!
As you can see, I was smiling after finding volume one of David Hockney: A Rake's Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes (Doubleday 2011, a first edition in near fine condition - do we still care about things like that? yes, yes we do!), and I made it up to page 71 last night, despite all the other books I am in the middle of already.
A closer look at some of my recent acquisitions - mostly not from Carlson & Turner, but rather that big bookseller in the sky, the internet - these will soon be graced with bookplates, I think. What a wonderful project it will be, to decide, when the time comes.
First, more Blythe - Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010 edited by Peter Tolhurst (Black Dog Books 2010), am 400+ pages in, happily steeped in his literary life. Then the Joan Acocella essays, which I have yet to start, but will soon, to read about Frank O'Hara, Louise Bourgeois, Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Parker, M.F.K. Fisher, Mikhail Baryshnikov, et al. Then, two Blythe recommendations. He mentions John Clare so often in his writings that I had to order this lovely hardcover reprint of The Shepherd's Calendar (Oxford 2014) illustrated with wood engravings by David Gentleman. Long poems month by month, and a glossary which is a pleasure to read all on its own. Then, last but certainly not least in the above group, 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox (Unbound 2017). This is his most recent book of many, and I can't believe it's the first one of his that I have ever owned or read. Thank goodness that situation is now no longer a situation. I looked him him up after reading Ronald Blythe's account of the day Tom Cox came to visit. Cox published 21st-century Yokel by subscription, so as not to be beholden to anyone else regarding what he felt the book needed and wanted to be (his thoughts on that are here). How to describe him, hmmm, only from what I have seen in books, and online. Earnest-funny tree-hugging witchy-hippie-hipster? Sort of, but much better. His book title says it all - it fits so well - it is also the name of the column he wrote for the Guardian, about divers and interesting matters rural. The book is a collection of essays about his life as a writer and ruralist in Devon with his cats (more about them in a minute, those cats), his family, friends, wildlife, and long walks. Owls, bees, otters, beavers, dogs and cats (cats cats cats), back-to-the-landers, and being in nature - the light and the dark of it - he is all over the place in a wonderful meandering way. I loved his writing and wanted MORE. So much so, that right after finishing 21st-Century Yokel I ordered all four of his books about his life with cats (CATS). And read them all, over the last few weeks. I ordered used copies of the first two, in softcover, because they are unavailable otherwise in this country, and ordered the other two in hardcover, new, so the author gets paid (this is so important! please do it whenever possible!). They get better and better. I think my favorite is The Good, the Bad, and the Furry (Thomas Dunne 2015) simply because when Ryan and I were reading before bed I kept reading bits of it aloud to him and in a few places I was laughing so hard I could barely say the words. That hasn't happened to me in ages and ages. Thank you, Tom Cox! For the laughs, yes, but really for the underlying seriousness too, and the respect and love for animal companions and for nature. In 21st-century Yokel he says at one point (p.181):
"Too often, nature is perceived as an outsider's hobby. In reality, though, it's not some quirky extra to the main business. It is the main business."
Did I mention he loves books? And vinyl records, but let's talk about the books, since we don't have all day (ibid p.220):
"I made a couple of attempts to stop buying books in the distant past but I've since realised it's an absurd denial of who I am as a person. The fact is, books have always been very kind to me, and I can't stand to see them sitting alone in shops, unloved."
As the photos above clearly show, I live in that same camp. (Brief break to feed Hodge his lunch. CATS!)
A bit more, just in case anyone hasn't yet reached the tipping point between not buying 21st-century Yokel and buying it. One sample sentence - if you are fond of this sentence, then this is a book for you, as it is for me (ibid p.244):
"A Scottish man called Norman who I met at an owl club in Torbay told me that in his 1950s boyhood on the edge of the Cairngorms he and his friends would often foster various types of orphan crows."
So much to love in that one sentence! A long novel or several memoirs could easily branch out from it, I feel. Okay, because it's the last day of February and this is too perfect, one more sample - buy the book, buy the book! - (p.304):
"I am someone who sometimes struggles with the lack of light in winter, and the more rural you get, the more that lack of light can overwhelm the senses. For many people the tough time is January and Feburary. I can see why: January can feel like fumbling around for comfort in a big unlit hall and feeling only bones, and Febuary tends to come across as an unnecessary extra encore that winter does to please its hardcore fans."
Yes. My problem - in January, every year, I become convinced that I too can write books, and I attempt to do so, for all I'm worth. I did it again this year, and February dawned with yet another terrible first draft sitting next to me on the table and a cold dose of reality on the side, for good measure. I will continue next January. That's how long it may take for me to become fond of this first draft once again. I have hope, however! That is the first ingredient in any successful project, in my view. Hope, belief, and trust. I'll hold that thought in all arenas of life, not merely my writing projects.
Let's look at a few more books, because it's not time for my own lunch just yet. Soon, but first:
More rural England. Two more recommendations from Ronald Blythe. The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham, foreword by Ronald Blythe (Golden Duck 2011) and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin (Penguin 2009) - Allingham writing about life in her Essex village during World War II and Deakin writing about life in his Suffolk home in the early 2000s. I have not read the Allingham book yet (but look forward to it, loving as I do nonfiction written by novelists) but devoured the Deakin book - it is made up of short diary entries from the last six years of his life, arranged and compiled by the editors Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker into a rough sequence within one country year. Sometimes an entry is one or two sentences, sometimes a few paragraphs. They have a cumulative effect - he writes about conservation, trees, insects, birds, friends, home, aging, weather, and many of the small events that make up a day. Small, yet noteworthy. Everything, really. Any diary-keeper could feel at home with this book and its style. I certainly do. I bought another of his books, Waterlog (Vintage 2000) for Ryan to read (it's about swimming, and again, everything) because Ryan is a swimmer too, and I will get around to reading it myself soon. I also hunted for the copy of his book Wildwood (Free Press 2010) which I owned but didn't read, and put it out for sale in my stock, and actually sold it, and now want it back! Arg! It happens!
Let's keep talking for a few minutes more - the middle book in the photo above is Cuckoo Hill: The Book of Gorley by Heywood Sumner (Dent 1987), and is a facsimile reprint of artist/designer Sumner's book about his house in the Hampshire countryside. Open the book and it looks like this:
Charm factor ten, at least, with handwritten text and watercolor illustrations of his home, the surrounding landscape, flora and fauna, archaeological sites, and the neighbors' houses, farm buildings, and selves. The author began making the book in 1904. There is a chapter about apples and the apple harvest. There is a chapter entitled Mutability. I can't wait to read it, but I must, because I am, as I mentioned earlier, in the middle of five other books. Hockney first. One last photo of more recent acquisitions (been going a little crazy lately, buying books - it may be one potent version of spring fever with me), with Hockney wearing his bright dust jacket:
I will continue on with Hockney this evening (he is in art school at the moment). I have already read and loved How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in conversation with Miles Champion (Pressed Wafer 2014) and I have yet to open The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (Penguin 2017), other than to find out in yet another bookshop that I would like to read about the history of the colors on my palette. The book is also a visual pleasure, akin to flipping through a Pantone color chart with all its variations and possibilities.
Well, this feels like it has been three posts in one, at least, so I will sign off for now and go make my lunch. I hope to write again soon, after the bookplates arrive and I begin the process of pasting them in, or at least laying them in, if I can't bring myself to paste them. It will depend on each book in question, I suppose. Bookplates, I will say it again. Andy English has engraved the blocks and is printing them, now. (!!!) I have admired his extraordinary work from afar for years and years and am delighted with the designs he created. This is a dream come true and has been a wonderful thing to contemplate over these long cold months. Images to follow, perhaps next time.
Friday, January 05, 2018
a new leaf
A brand new year. How shall we make it count, make it matter? For my part, I am turning over a new leaf. In general, with a particular bad habit I am currently breaking and reforming, and specifically with some new books. I've always loved the word leaf as it pertains to books - a leaf meaning a book page. It carries an echo of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and hints at living things. At trees turning into book pages which are still alive, in more ways than one.
The mail is bringing me some lovely books, right now. The first is a veritable bouquet:
Such pretty books! I went a little crazy ordering reading material for myself last month - I received all these Ronald Blythe books from England around Christmastime and have already read them all! And I have a few more on the way as we speak. (Obviously buying books is not the bad habit to which I refer.) Each volume collects his back-page column Word from Wormingford from the Church Times. All are written in a stream of consciousness style that moves effortlessly from natural phenomena closely observed to his inner religious landscape to his literary doings, throughout each year. They are diaristic essays with so much to recommend them, even if you are not a member of the Anglican Church and do not use a lectionary through the year, as Blythe is and does. No matter. His inner and outer life are one, seamless. His prose carries us gladly along with him, whatever terrain he navigates, wherever he chooses to go. He could be describing himself, here, in Under a Broad Sky (Canterbury Press 2013):
"...I hear that the essay is making a comeback. Being a chronic essayist, I make more toast as a sign of approval.... All the best essayists give us a piece of their minds in brief, brilliant helpings." (pp.72-73)
I do love reading books that follow the course of the year - diaries, almanacs, books about rural life and the seasons. Blythe gives all that and more. He helps bring even frozen January to life, vividly. Again from Under a Broad Sky:
"Those of us who keep diaries will be keeping them with a vengeance at this moment. January is the most diarized month." (pp.14-15; he goes on to mention the diaries of Woolf, Boswell, Kilvert, and Pepys)
And from Stour Seasons (Canterbury Press 2016):
"Another year, and cause for meditation. What better to sit in the new armchair and to watch the seagulls circling. And to think. Although this is a grand term for what is going on in my head at 6 a.m. It is still dark, and it takes another hour before the bare fields and trees take shape. Not a resolution in sight. Instead, a kind of freedom. Another year in which to do what I like - which is to work hard and idle hard. You need to be gifted to do nothing." (p.1)
Not convinced yet? Back-cover review of an earlier volume, from the Daily Telegraph:
"...a wonderful meditation on our place in the landscape, the marks we leave on it and the different ways we relate to it, whether cultivating it, painting it, or merely walking across it."
And another from the Guardian:
"Blythe's observations of nature are as unforced as breathing, and his descriptions are precise, celebratory and unexpected."
Stour Seasons is my favorite of the bunch. I wanted to (and often did) take notes from nearly every page. In the Artist's Garden (Canterbury Press 2015) is a close second, not least for its lovely dust jacket. And fair warning, the last volume, Forever Wormingford (Canterbury Press 2017) is an anthology assembled from the previous collections. There might be one new essay in it, but all the rest are contained in earlier books. I didn't know this when I ordered it and while at first I was disappointed, I quickly came to realize that I didn't want to take leave of Ronald Blythe and his world. I didn't want to have to read any goodbyes from him or say them myself, in return. I want to have him continue on, indefinitely, and in this last book, he does. I am reminded of reading the final fragment of Patrick O'Brian's last book, 21 (Norton 2004). The characters sail on forever. There is no denouement. Fine with me.
One more thing about reading any these books - if you choose to do so, it may end up costing you more than their mere purchase price. It did me. Because as I read through them I found I had to keep a running list of books he's reading, and order some of those for myself, too. And now I have something like six of his recommendations on the way! Books both old and new! I am a total book glutton and do not plan on reforming any time soon!
And, another new leaf I must mention. Let us celebrate, because our long-time book-friend Antony is in print, and when the mail arrived yesterday, just before the blizzard did too, I was reminded of this:
"Letters from foreign countries arrive in the afternoon."
One of my favorite opening lines in all of literature. From The Station by Robert Byron, about his travels around Mount Athos (my copy Knopf 1949). And it leapt to mind when I received a package wrapped in brown paper, all the way from Greece, containing a lovely note in Antony's new book:
Alas, I read no Greek, as he well knows. However, I used to know some Russian, and can sound things out sometimes, in languages with a similarity to Cyrillic. This doesn't help me much here, but, scanning the text, I find it doesn't need to. Because there are still some familiar companions inside this book:
Our dear friend Christopher Morley. And another - see him there, in the text:
Henry David Thoreau! And, look, Anne Ridler! With a note of encouragement:
And also making an appearance, the beloved Hodge, a very fine cat indeed:
Oh, I want to read more! Looking into this book feels like standing on the edge of a glorious wide meadow, unable to identify all the flowers and insects and birds that call it home. Frustrated by my own lack of knowledge, but still able to gaze and appreciate what it took for each leaf of grass to grow and blossom, for each winged creature to fly. Congratulations, Antony!
All best wishes for this Happy New Year, besides. 2018, here we go, my goodness. I feel old but not too old. I am hard at work on various projects and the outgoing tide of the bad habit I am in the midst of leaving behind (No, I'm not telling) is lending me even more hope and energy than I can usually muster on my own, at this time of year. And, if all these books represent any kind of portent whatsoever, for the new year, brighter days are ahead for us all.
Friday, December 22, 2017
comfort and joy
Today is one of those winter days during which a gray sky is warmed by the golden smudge of the sun radiating from behind the low cloud cover. The solstice has just come and gone and here we are, turning to that light once again. We walked down the street last night to the big old church and heard a concert of carols in the round, sung to us and our neighbors by candlelight. Haunting and memorable. New snow from this week and the promise (threat...?) of more on the way, and soon, has me gazing at the transformed landscape, and trying to paint it. From safely inside the warm house. I've also been reading because Santa stopped by early with a new Ronald Blythe book, Under a Broad Sky (Canterbury Press 2013). I opened it right away, to this (p.1):
"It is a relief to find that one does not gain a mature vision of everything - that the first sight of snow, for example, will be as serviceable, wonder-wise, as that of all the snowfalls in one's life. A six-inch snowfall establishes a presidency that takes our breath away, partly by its nerve, partly by its loveliness, bringing our ant movements to a halt, transforming everything from twig to a cathedral."
His observations of country life and literature are timeless and I recently ordered all of his remaining books of essays (those not already on my shelf, I should say), originally published as his back-page column for the Church Times. I say his remaining books of essays because this year he ceased to write them. He is 94. He says, in a recent brief interview, “I live very much in the present. I wake up in the morning feeling ever so well, and feeling today is the big day.” Lovely. May we all be able to say the same.
Most days, I resolve to do just that. When I can't work outside - too cold, too cold! paint freezes and so do I! - I gaze out the windows of my studio into the woods and find delight in the marks that nature makes. In turn I try to describe them on canvas and in the pages of my diary, with marks of my own. With varying levels of success and failure, as usual. This week, on the easel, on a small canvas:
A little painting of almost nothing - just some marks like snowflakes. A quiet reverie during this season of peace. I am off to wrap presents for my nieces and nephews and extended family, but before I go, happy holidays, and tidings of comfort and joy, and a few more words about snow, for good measure. From New and Selected Poems Volume One by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press 1992; pp.150-151):
this morning and all day
continued, its white
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain - not a single
answer has been found -
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
This month finds me preparing for many things. Real winter, the solstice, another birthday (the big 5-0, which my biological father once said was the only birthday that really counts - What does that even mean??), Christmas, and then the turn of the year. It's a dark time and the news leaves me feeling, daily, as if I've been slimed. Repulsive development after repulsive development. Whatever small victories that do come feel over shadowed by the general climate of doom. Happy holidays to you too, right? This liberal snowflake is determined not to melt away to nothing, however. As usual I've been seeking the uplift, wherever I can find it. My attention span remains at a low ebb, though, so my reading has been sporadic and gadflyish, since I can't seem to settle down often enough to read for hours and hours, the way I always have throughout my life. One answer to this dilemma is the anthology. I have a soft spot for anthologies and many, on many themes, can be found throughout my books. I love how a compiler chooses and arranges snippets of literature and poetry around a theme. I love contemporary and ancient choices, and I love the ways in which the selections in an anthology reflect and amplify the light of human understanding across time. And when I don't have the wherewithal to settle in with a long book, for hours and days, an anthology helps me access what I love. It reminds me of what I love, immediately, often when I need it most.
Two anthologies sit on my table this week, close to hand. One old - A Winter Miscellany edited and compiled by Humbert Wolfe (Viking 1930) and one new - How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times compiled by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda, with an introduction by Elizabeth Alexander (Spiegel & Grau 2017):
The former is perfect for this time of year. The jacket flap tells us it is "...a garland for the bleak season." It also tells us that "This volume will be accused of being an anthology - but the imputation is hotly denied by the compilers. It is, in fact, what three comparatively active minds have found to like and dislike in winter." This statement notwithstanding, as far as I can make out, the book is certainly an anthology. It contains commentary and original poetry (fair to middling, it must be said) by Humbert Wolfe, alongside selections from other authors, arranged into sections such as Countryman's Winter, Traveller's Winter, Reveller's and Fireside Winter, The Poet's Winter, God and Mary's Winter, etc. Who is here? Robert Louis Stevenson, Horace Walpole, Robert Burns, John Clare, Gilbert White, Emily Brontë, and many others, that's who, alongside known and anonymous writers of ancient and medieval times. There is poetry, prose, and song. Overall a charming book with some of its pages still uncut, even after all these years (I have a sharp letter-opener at the ready, in lieu of a paper knife). And the theme - the winter months, snow, storms, night winds, revelry, sacredness - perfect to linger with, while also savoring The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater, which I am still in the thick of.
The latter is perfect for this political, historical moment. I wouldn't ordinarily buy a book like this, new, at full price, but I was visiting a local bookshop with a friend last week and the cover really got me. I held the book and hesitated, thinking, I don't need this. (Haven't we all been there? Standing in a bookshop, book in hand, questioning ourselves...?) Then I opened it at random in a few places and what I read left me no doubt that This is exactly what I need. The editors are upfront about the fact that they gleaned much of what appears in this book from poems and quotes that have been making the rounds on social media. The jacket flap also says the book's selections celebrate "...our capacity for compassion, our patriotism, our right to protest, and our ability to persevere..." Sections include Against Tyranny, The New Patriots, Gathering Strength, etc. Included within are Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, Ralph Ellison, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jamaal May (the wonderful title of the book is from his poem There Are Birds Here), and many others. At just under 200 pages, though, I found myself wishing for a lot more. However, I don't mean to complain, since what there is, is pretty great. Take this bit, a few lines from the poem Daily Bread by Ocean Vuong (p.111; read the whole poem here):
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining."
Whew. Gets me right where I live. And there is a lot more shivery wonderfulness in this book, from Marcus Aurelius to Howard Zinn. Both of these anthologies highlight for me the necessity of reading things we might not ordinarily read - because, as well as many old favorites, and some chestnuts even, the selections the authors choose help us readers encounter authors unfamiliar to us, and send us off in new directions with hope and intent. They make room in our minds for new thought and consideration. They open windows and doors and expand our world view. I am keeping both books on the trunk that serves as our coffee table, in the living room, to pick up and read a few pages from, all winter long.
Speaking of the living room. Another thing I seem to be up to lately is making room for new things, and new old things, in actuality, not just in mind. A good harbinger for my next decade, I hope. For one, we have recently adopted my mother's grand piano. I had to empty out half of the living room for it, and rearrange the furniture, and now the piano and the Christmas tree we welcomed into our home last weekend are dancing cheek to cheek:
I took piano lessons for a while, when I was young. They never really stuck, sad to say, perhaps because I didn't love the music I was attempting to make, back then. But something I read recently helped me in that regard, and when the issue of this piano came up (taking up a lot of space where it lived before, other family members didn't have room for it) I thought that perhaps I might try learning a few songs I've always loved. I didn't expect to be making music with my own hands at this point in my life, but I guess I've been a late bloomer in most things, and so while this is a surprising development it is a welcome one. Playing the notes of a few old songs feels like remembering a language I thought I had forgotten for good. Opening up yet another anthology, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press 1939), and playing - tentatively, yes, but still playing - The Holly and the Ivy, next to the tree, as snow falls and the evening light wanes - well, it is a quiet delight. It is helping me make room for beauty, make room for joy, in large and small ways, every day. In the coming months and years, if I am so lucky, I will work to carry that forward, no matter what.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
this quiet moment
Such a beautiful day today. I am currently occupying that blessed space between cleaning the house and the commencement of holiday everything. Yesterday I finished all the boring work (vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathrooms) and now have a bit of time before the fun work (linens! tableware! food! relatives!). With so much to be thankful for. I could kneel down and kiss the ground, or wrap my arms around a tree or a giant glacial erratic, as I have been known to do. How I love this earth, and a quiet day like this, full of peaceful little nothings gently coming and going. How I value solitude, as a necessary bookend to shore up other times full of people and talk and busyness, as wonderful as all that often is. It is during solitude that I catch glimpses of the clarity and calm which help me weather the times of not-so-much. My past two Thanksgivings were spent in and around hospitals, for days that felt like years, with relatives dying and not-dying, so this year, this ordinary/extraordinary quiet time is more appreciated than usual. The moment when nothing much is happening, and it feels full and perfect just as it is. Thanks be.
My stack of books has changed and grown a bit since last we spoke. I am setting Nigel Slater aside for the moment, half-finished, so as not to leapfrog over Thanksgiving and on to the next holiday too quickly, before it's even happened. It does sound like he agrees with me, though, about the necessity of solitude:
"Our lives cannot always be about other people, love them as we do. We need some time for ourselves. " (The Christmas Chronicles p.10)
That's all I've got for now. I'm going to go sit in my studio and watch the afternoon light move slowly across the wall, and count my blessings. Long live the quiet moment. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Ryan and I went to a local library book sale on the spur of the moment last weekend. I ended up with three big bags of books, I think 45 books in total, for $56. That haul, plus a few visits to a favorite local bookshop and some unread books still hanging about from summer, has helped me build a lovely new to-be-read pile for the bedside table. Here it is:
We have Edna O'Brien's memoir Country Girl (Little, Brown 2012), Sybille Bedford's memoir Quicksands (Counterpoint 2005), I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris (Little, Brown 2017), Sherman Alexie's memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown 2017; and omg I must mention this incredible poem by him - if you haven't read it please do so now), Devotion by Patti Smith (from the Why I Write series, Yale University Press 2017), Old Sussex and Her Diarists by Arthur J. Rees (John Lane, The Bodley Head 1929), The Diary of a Country Parson by the Reverend James Woodforde, selected by David Hughes (The Folio Society 1992, from the 1769-81 diary transcripts), and The Christmas Chronicles: Notes, stories & 100 essential recipes for midwinter by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2017). With this great stash, I can't help but feel that Christmas has arrived early. And I'm not even going to mention the books I bought yesterday, which are sitting just off stage right as we speak (will save those for another day).
This stack highlights my long-term, continuing infatuation with 1) nonfiction written by novelists, and 2) other people's diaries. Several of each appear here, and I am already making inroads, as you can see from the bookmarks. I meant to start them all immediately, but dropped everything else in favor of Nigel Slater, who arrived in my mailbox last week. I'm trying to go slowly and savor his writing, but am already 250 pages in - over halfway through, arg! It's such a beautiful, gentle book and a few of my notes from it might help explain why I want it to go on and on:
"Winter feels like a renewal, at least it does to me. I long for that ice-bright light.... I am never happier than when there is frost on the roof and a fire in the hearth.... the innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the first fresh pages of a new diary." (p.1)
He loves winter; he is a homebody even when he travels; he makes lists and keeps diaries. He is a champion noticer of small beauties. He has weathered many storms to come to the place he is now. And through cooking and writing he generously invites us to share his world. Like this:
"'Come in.' Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You'll be safe here, toasty and well fed. 'Come in.' They are two of the loveliest words to say and to hear.... There is almost nothing I enjoy more than welcoming visitors into my home. (Full disclosure, I quite like it when they go too.) But in between 'in' and 'out' I want them to feel wanted, comfortable (cosy even) and happy. Yes, warm, even in my rather chilly house, but also fed, watered and generally made to feel that all is well with the world. And yes, I know that the world is a shitstorm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour." (p.9)
Amen (while trying to overlook the distressing lack of Oxford commas in that passage). I've been feeling the same way and will treasure a safe harbor wherever I find it these days. Not least in books. Although, to extend the watery metaphor, the tide feels like it's turning, finally, here in our beleaguered country. Wow, it felt so good to vote this week. I want to do it again! Soon! But it's going to be another year...! The wheels of justice are turning, but lord, so slooooowly. We must keep working and moving forward, and finding comfort - and giving it too - wherever we can. And remember those safe harbors.
A progress report about one such: one of my bookplates (please see previous post if you missed my bookplate news) is going to feature a hedgehog. I mentioned this to a dear friend of mine who has collected bookplates for decades, and he told me that one of the earliest known printed bookplates (Germany, circa 1450) also features a hedgehog, in both image and word, because the book owner's name and motto are a pun on the German word for hedgehog. How happy this makes me! I am looking forward (with great glee) to spending winter days tipping diminutive hedgehogs into many of my books. I hope they will feel at home. I've never seen a hedgehog in real life, even though people here in Maine can keep them as indoor pets, apparently. The fabled Maine winter may be too harsh for them, I don't know. And winter is certainly on its way. Yesterday morning I had to make a long drive inland, to the westward, and all along the edges of the fields and farmland long blue shadows were full of thick frost, everywhere the sun hadn't yet touched the earth. A gorgeous scene of blue and gold, unfolding for mile after mile. And today, the first snowflakes of the year were flying, early this morning, just after sunrise. I feel ready, and even content.