Saturday, March 24, 2007


Swan song

The sun's shining this morning and Ryan and I went out to the local greasy spoon, Nicky's Diner, for breakfast. After, we took a drive around town to see the ice coming out of the river, courtesy of all the snowmelt the warm weather's brought over the last few days. I'm in the shop today, then will be taking a few days off to get out and see the other beginnings of spring, go hiking perhaps, if the ice is also out of the woods, maybe do some watercolor sketching. I'm not planning on buying any books, because I'm thinking with anticipation of the huge used book sale next weekend, the first great local sale of the season. The past few years there have been tremendous - great books, and lots of 'em, plain and simple.

I've been wondering how to wrap this up, and I think I'll do so by mentioning (again?) that whenever I travel anywhere, I always pack the same two books in my luggage. They are both very thin and light, and I've read both many times but can still pick either one up and open it anywhere and find something, if not new, at least meaningful. I never tire of them. If I have to wait for a long time somewhere, I keep myself busy by memorizing bits of them. The books are House of Light by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press 1992), and Hawthorne on Painting, collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne (Dover reprint, bless them). A close third, if I have the space to pack another book, is The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (Westview Press reprint).

House of Light is too good to pick a quote from, and besides I left it at home today and I don't have a copy in the shop. For anyone who's interested, the first poem in the book is hard to beat - it always knocks me flat. And there are many others. This week I read Oliver's book of essays Long Life (DaCapo 2004), so here are two bits from that, instead. I find them pertinent today:

"That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. 'Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?' This book is my comment." (p.xiv)

"The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible." (p.45, from a wonderful essay about Emerson)

Mary Oliver lives on Cape Cod, in Provincetown, and oddly enough Charles Hawthorne had his famous painting school there, too, though decades earlier. I've never thought about that until today - I wonder if something of the light and spaciousness I find in their writing and art comes from that particular landscape and how it speaks/spoke to them. I find I feel the same way about the best of Maine, my home state. My home. At its best, in the wild places, the land has a lot to say, and means everything to me. Both Oliver and Hawthorne observe closely and then, lucky us, talk about what they've seen. After Hawthorne died, his widow collected what he'd said to his students over the 31 years he ran his art school. I find that the more I read this book, the more it informs my own painting - over the years it continues to address specific issues I'm working on, again and again. What a gift this little book is. Here is a bit of it:

"Art is a necessity, beauty we must have in the world. Painting and sculpture and music and literature are all of the same piece as civilization, which is the art of making it possible for human beings to live together. When I speak of art I mean painting, architecture, music, the art of literature, sculpture, the theatre, in fact everything that's creative - anything that makes a thought, an idea, or a thing grow where nothing grew before; or a fundamental truth expand and show some new angle of beauty which calls attention to its being a fundamental truth. All these things and many more come under the category of beauty which is a better name for art than the word itself. (p.89)

(If I ever go back to school again, I think I'll study aesthetics. Sometimes I think it's all I'm really interested in - what is beauty and why are things beautiful and what does it all mean.) Despite this sweeping statement about art, Hawthorne usually just offers a lot of very specific advice to his students about whatever canvas he or she is working on at the given moment - for example, here's what he says to someone painting a picture of a house - I think of this every time I'm painting outside and worrying about capturing "reality," and it always makes me relax:

"I want you to see things from the realization that your drawing does not need to be a house. The view that you must take is that this is a piece of God's outdoors, that is is shadow and this is light. You ought to tremble before it, and not sit down like a magician and try to make windows." (p.57)

Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit is also a collection of his advice to his students. Longer than Hawthorne's, but I can' t say richer. Just as rich, perhaps, just as heartening, when one needs help taking heart. Incidentally, or not, the painter Margery Ryerson was responsible for compiling this book and also helped compile the Hawthorne book. She was a student of both Henri and Hawthorne. Well, thank god for her. I've been reading the Henri book off and on for twenty years, and certain passages have come to mean the world to me - just that someone thought this way, and actually told people of it to encourage them:

"We are troubled by having two selves, the inner and the outer. The outer one is rather dull and lets great things go by." (p.154)

"I can think of no greater happiness than to be clear-sighted and know the miracle when it happens. And I can think of no more real life than the adventurous one of living and liking and exclaiming the things of one's own time." (p.172)

"Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway." (p.214)

"The techniques which are beautiful are the inventions of those who have the will to make intimate human records." (p.232)

Intimate human records - the beauty that is books - they can show us ways of being in the world, is that why we love them so? Well, one reason, surely. Back to Mary Oliver for a moment, again from Long Life:

"What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what should I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?" (p.9)

I'm off to try to figure it all out, and if I find out, I will of course report back. That's enough for today. After all those grand statements I find my brain is aching and I have run out of things to say, except this: THANK YOU for reading - I hope to meet you in the quiet aisles of a used bookshop someday. Perhaps your own...?

I hate goodbyes.
Thank you for writing.
I found this blog just 3 days ago, and have been reading everything over the last 2 days.
I've only known you for 2 days and already I think I am going to miss your posts. Historia in Canada.
*sniff* I've hung the Sarah pictures up above the till next to the shrine to St Anthony, that way, anything goes round around here,it will be all your fault.

Got that?

Hurry back soon now.
Oh god, I hate goodbyes, too. I'm a wreck. This is terrible. And this may be untenable. Lots of people (some I know, some I don't) are giving me hell for calling it quits. So, a break, for now, because I'm tired and I'm trying to get some other things taken care of. Email me if you want to be notified of my return, should it come to pass. Thanks, everyone...
Take as much time as you want! I'm sure most of us don't appreciate how much time and energy you've put into this project. (The giveaway is the natural and unstudied prose, as though you casually and swifly wrote it; that only comes about through a lot of work.)

I have a short list of sites I check regularly and I'll be looking regularly for signs of life :-)

Best of luck.

Thanks, Dan. It's April 13th now, and as you see I couldn't hold out for long. I miss blogging. Now I feel sheepish, like I waved goodbye with a little white hankie to everyone just as I was leaving on a long ocean voyage, only to come back right home shortly after and say I wasn't leaving after all. Oh well. Frankly, my justification is this: I was getting deeply discouraged about the state of pretty much everything, but I quickly realized that this blog is something positive and uplifting in my life right now, so why kill it off. If that makes any sense.
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